Racers, Rivals and fellow Scots

“It hardly seems possible that I’ve been racing cars for more than 25 years and karts for a few seasons before that. I’ve met some great people and driven some wonderful machinery along the way, but there have been a few conspicuous duds, too. Overall, though, the positives outweigh everything else…”

1. McLaren MP4-5B

The Chassis McNish fine-tuned for Ayrton et al

It was a very easy car to drive, with a stable rear end. It had a huge steering wheel. Nigel Mansell drove with something that looked like a saucer, but this was a full-on dinner plate. It slowed everything down in the cockpit, but the car had a load of grunt and relied on that. It amazes me that we sat so high, with our head and shoulders exposed above the cockpit. There wasn’t much safety in that area at the time.

2. Laurent Aiello

F3000 Team-mate during a cataclysmic 1991 season

I think he’s the best touring car driver of all time, but when he wasn’t interested then he wasn’t interested, so he went off to be a DJ and run some pizza shops in Bordeaux. I wish I had the ability to walk away from something when I lose interest, as he did without a second glance, but anybody who can win so many touring car titles has to be stunning. He had a test with McLaren and Peugeot was pushing him to go into Fl, but he just wasn’t that bothered.

3. Mika likkinen

Formula Vauxhall Lotus team-mate with Marlboro-backed dragon racing, 1988

He didn’t speak very good English when he first turned up in the UK, but he had supreme talent, no question. We tested together at Donington Park and it was the first time I’d encountered a driver who used left-foot braking, which gained him a bit of time through the Old Hairpin. It made me realise there were other things you could do to find speed — the spectrum was wider than I’d appreciated. He was hugely quick, although he didn’t get his act together all of the time. When he did, though… If you think of other drivers’ track records, I’m not sure two world titles do him full justice. He was probably the toughest rival I ever had, because you’d go to a circuit he’d never seen before yet he’d be bang on the pace by about lap two. He’s a nice guy, too.

4. Lola T91/50

The F3000 car that stripped McNish’s single-seater career of momentum

Mika Hakkinen was one of the best things to have around, the T91/50 was one of the worst. The previous T90/50 was blindingly quick on cross-plies in 1990… but also very good on radials in Japan. We tested on Avon radials at the end of the year, because that’s what we’d be using in ’91, and suddenly all the Reynards were faster. It was the first test, though, and we assumed everything would be fine because the T90/50 had done so well in Japan. But then we got the T91/50 and it was a dog. We were uncompetitive almost everywhere. We usually ran 21001b front springs, but at Mugello we switched to 45001b springs — they might as well have come off the truck. The car was the best it had ever been, though. We thought we’d cracked it, but then we went to Enna and it was a dog again. It was the worst car I raced, the worst season of my career and the catalyst for me not getting into F1 earlier than I did. I was on the crest of a wave at the end of 1990, because everything had been going swimmingly, but the T91/50 gave me a big kick in the balls.

5. Ron Dennis

McLaren team principle during McNish’s time as a test driver

Ron was a very difficult man for me to understand at that point in my life. I never really built a relationship with him, even though I was contracted to him for three years. I never worked him out, but think McLaren might be suffering today because he’s no longer at the racing team’s helm.

6. Porsche GT1

The car that opened endurance racing’s door

I owe my career to this. At the end of 1996 I was twiddling my thumbs a bit. I’d done a deal with somebody and it hadn’t come off, then Porsche called and invited me to try the GT1. It was quite soft, but had lots of power and was a car you could really race. It gave me the opportunity to show what I could do, once again, and for that reason I’ll always feel affectionate towards it.

7. 130R, Suzuka.

Scene of a dramatic, barrier-vaulting accident during qualifying for the 2002 Japanese GP

I associate this with sore balls. I was on my fourth run — you had four sets of new tyres available at the time — and was seven tenths up on my previous best as I approached. I’d been so close to flat the previous lap that I decided to keep my foot in — I thought that would gain me another two tenths — but I hit a little bump, got into a huge tank-slapper and was aware I was about to crash at about 185mph, so it was never going to be a light impact… Afterwards I got out of the car and saw a cameraman I knew. He was saying, “Breathe, Allan, breathe…” I was gasping a bit, then got up and realised my balls were probably somewhere near my tonsils. The next day, I bumped into Jacques Villeneuve and he said, “That was a big shunt, a really good one, but when I saw you hold your balls I thought, ‘There’s a real man’ It did hurt, though.

8. Derek Higgins

Fierce rival in karting, then again on the sport’s nursery slopes

Derek had huge feel and ability. On a cold, greasy December day at Rye House or Rissington, he’d be the one you’d have to beat — no question. He was quite volatile, too. He had a few off days, but he had great talent that was never properly fulfilled because he didn’t have the whole structure around him to exploit it.

9. Jackie Stewart

Compatriot and inspiration, for whose FIA F3000 team he raced in 1995

Jackie was a guiding light for the current generation of Scottish drivers. He always had a nice, honest, helpful approach, whether or not we were driving for his family team, Paul Stewart Racing — which was usually a competitor to most of us. I’d also call him a friend. I never saw him race, but I went around Oulton Park with him in a Ford Escort Cosworth and you couldn’t feel the gearchanges, the brake transition or anything. You could have read a book without feeling sick, yet he was flat out. It was stunning. There were quite a few of us there, me, David Coulthard, Gil de Ferran, Dario Franchitti, Ralph Firman, and we were all late on the brakes, powering into the corners and so on, but there was Jackie going around as if it were a Sunday drive and lapping as quickly as all of us — and sometimes faster. It was a real eye-opener.

10. Audi

He’s been on the payroll (most of the time, anyway) since 2000


11. Le Mans 24 Hours

Three wins… and counting

I used to think Le Mans was a race for old men, which shows how naive I was. In the early 1990s, though, there was an element of conserving the car, and being sure you didn’t make any mistakes rather than actually driving fast. I was young at the time and interested only in going quickly. The technology has changed, though, and now it’s all about driving fast — there is no thought at all about conserving the car. It began to change at about the time I became involved. If anyone has yet to attend Le Mans, they simply have to go — as a driver, fan, mechanic, whatever. You have to see the spectacle. It’s impossible not to be affected and somehow it gets into your system. From a driver’s perspective, it can be a very cruel mistress if you’re fighting at the front… yet it can also be the best place in the world. Up and down the grid, I think everybody has their own Everest. For some it’s the podium, for others it’s simply finishing. It’s a very special event and should be kept that way.

12. Toyota TF102

The car in which he served his overdue F1 Baptism

It probably wasn’t too far removed from a Lola T91/50! It was very reliable out of the box, because we’d been testing since November, but ultimately it wasn’t fast enough. And there was no development during the year because the team was already focusing on its 2003 chassis. It had a huge lack of downforce, but at least it worked quite well at Monza.

13. The 1989 F3 season

Champion for a while… But the title slipped away in an appeal court the following February, following assorted protests and appeals

David Brabham and I won pretty much everything that year. I congratulated him straight after the decision was announced, but don’t think either of us deserved to lose. By the time it was decided I was already looking ahead to 1990. What I remember most is my roll during qualifying for a race on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit. I bumped my head and went to see Sid Watkins. His synopsis was that I couldn’t drive, so I thought, “Well, who the hell are you?” and went to get a second opinion. I visited another doctor, hoping for a more favourable verdict, and he asked whether I’d seen anybody else. I told him, “I’ve seen a guy called bloody Sid Watkins, who feels I shouldn’t drive for a month, but that’s no good because I’ll miss two races’? He said, “Well what the hell are you doing seeing me?” and phoned Sid! They took my medical certificate away. I went to Heathrow feeling really hacked off, because it seemed that the championship was slipping away, even though it was quite early in the campaign. I’d bought a ticket to Glasgow, but actually boarded a flight to Edinburgh. All the way, I was sitting next to a guy from Edinburgh, wondering why he was flying to Glasgow. When I disembarked and realised what I’d done, I decided that this Sid bloke possibly knew something. I felt fine for three days, but then for three weeks I was completely out of it. I always believed Sid after that.

14. Jason Plato

The man to beat when McNish began karting

I crashed into him in my first ever race, at Rowrah — the so-and-so was trying to lap me! At the time there were rumours that he took the first corner at Felton flat, which impressed the hell out of most 12-year-olds. Everybody else was braking massively. It’s only a couple of years since I bumped into him in the bar, at an awards ceremony, and said, “Jason, I’ve got to ask, did you take the first corner at Felton flat?” He said, “You must be joking, are you nuts?” That was a relief, because I’d been worrying about that for 30 years… Everything he’s achieved is a result of his own tenacity, because nothing was handed to him on a plate.

15. The 2002 Australian GP

His somewhat belated Grand Prix debut

That was far too late, but you take it when it comes. I should have graduated when my career had proper momentum, but that takes us back to the Lola T91/50…

16. Snetterton 1987

Junior FF1600 driver beats the stars of the day… In a one-year-old Van Diemen

I was doing the senior and junior races and my dad arrived during senior qualifying. He told me later that he’d been watching by the Esses and thought, “Poor wee lad, he’s out of his depth,” because I was driving through so tidily. In fact I qualified third, about half a tenth from pole, which was a bit of a shock. I got into

second in the race and passed Niko Palhares around the outside of Russell on the last lap. I didn’t know whether I’d crossed the line first, but stuck my arm in the air as though I had and gave it the full celebration. That put me on Marlboro’s radar, because they had scouts watching young drivers. It was a big turning point, because it took me away from Formula Ford. I was in line for a works Van Diemen drive in 1988, but I hated Formula Ford with a passion. The cars had no grip and bore little relation to anything I was used to. It was wheel to wheel combat in something completely alien. When I got into an FF2000, or a Vauxhall Lotus, it had grip and other things to which I could relate from karting. That was never the case with Formula Ford. I did OK, but didn’t enjoy it. At the end of 1987 I think I’d have been quite happy to return to karting…

17. Ayrton Senna

McLaren’s Linchpin during McNish’s stint as a test driver

He had so much spare brain capacity, because for him driving was a matter of pure instinct. He’d talk about things that had simply never occurred to me at that stage of my career. He was computer, data analyst and engineer rolled up into a very fast racing driver.

18. David Coulthard

Friend, fellow Scot

He’s rubbish at signing children’s passport forms — I watched him cock it up three times recently. I kept printing them out for him and he kept signing in the wrong place, or else not signing them at all… David was a late bloomer, in my opinion, someone who got better and better as he climbed the ladder. To have a 13-year F1 career and stay with McLaren for so long, then switch to Red Bull and do all the stuff he still does… It tells me he’s a very bright chap.

19. Dario Franchitti

Long-time ally

He found his niche in America. In a way I’m pleased he didn’t pursue the Jaguar F1 option, because it wouldn’t have allowed him to go on and achieve all he has in the States. He was absolutely the right person in the right place and I respect him hugely.

20. Pac West Racing

Champ car team for whom he thought he’d race in ’97..

I took part in a shoot-out and had been told the fastest guy would land the seat. I went on to set the quickest time in every possible way… and Mark Blundell got the drive! I wasn’t happy, because I’d let lots of other opportunities slip in the assumption that the team would be true to its word. That was a frustrating time, and really tough, because I didn’t think I could have done any more yet still the drive didn’t materialise.

21. Jim Clark

Sottish National treasure

He was brought up and lived about 50 miles from my childhood home. He fired the spark that inspired Jackie Stewart and others and that later rubbed off on me. Scottish motor sport’s whole ball of momentum started with Innes Ireland and, particularly, Jimmy. I wish I’d been able to see him drive. One of my biggest personal regrets is that they’ve moved his memorial stone at Hockenheim, so that it’s now close to the short circuit rather than out in the woods, where it’s supposed to be. I always used to pay it a visit when I was racing there.

22. Dick Bennetts

West Surrey racing boss, F3 mentor in 1989

He taught me about engineering — that was his passion. He explained everything about setting up and working with a car. He’s a very driven man, not business-minded but very racing minded. He’s one of the good guys.

23. Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello

Audi collaborators, shared McNish’s 2008 Le Mans win

Two of the best team-mates anybody could want — in the sense that they are friends, as well as drivers. My relationship with Tom just gets stronger and stronger. My mum has never met Rinaldo, but always talks about him as though she knows him and thinks he sounds a really nice bloke, which he is.