Lunch with...Allan McNish

At 18 McNish was hailed as the next Jackie Stewart; by 24 his single-seater career was in the doldrums. But the little Scot never gives up, and now a third Le Mans win beckons.


When Allan McNish was a wee pre-teen kart racer, his father gave him a piece of advice he’s never forgotten. “Dad said, ‘It’s not the good shots that make the good golfers. It’s the good recoveries. If you can get out of the bunker without losing too much, you’re the good guy.’ More than once my motor racing career has been in the bunker, and I’ve had to get it out. It’s about determination, stubbornness, stupidity maybe, and talent too, I suppose. But most of all it’s about hard work. Too many people put too much emphasis on the other things, but hard work is what it’s really about.”

As a teenager, Allan was hailed by many as the next Jackie Stewart. His diminutive figure scythed through karting and the single-seater formulae, and when he was 19 Ron Dennis decided he was the young man that McLaren needed to follow the Senna/Prost generation. So Ron signed him, Lewis-like, on a long contract. Then the career strategy went awry. In the end Allan didn’t start his first Grand Prix until he was 32 years old, and his only Formula 1 season produced nul points. Now, in his 40th year, he is one of the fastest, and best paid, sports car racers in the world. This month he tackles his 11th Le Mans and, even in the lottery that is the world’s cruellest, most unpredictable race, he has to start as favourite.

A mark of Allan’s success is that he now lives, with his wife Kelly and their two small children, in the F1 drivers’ dormitory town of Monte Carlo. No F1 star would offer to play taxi driver, but when I invite myself to lunch he drives his Audi Q5 to Nice Airport to meet me. His apartment in Fontvielle overlooks the harbour, and just round the corner is the Hotel Columbus, owned by fellow Scot David Coulthard. That’s where we lunch, on the terrace overlooking the blue Mediterranean. Mixing his jet-set life with his humble roots, Allan orders crevettes au guacamole, followed by fish and chips in newspaper – but the Columbus style dictates that it’s served on a copy of the FT. He drinks only water, of course, but later as we wander along the harbour he treats himself to an ice cream cornet.

Both sides of Allan’s family were farming people in the Scottish borders, but his father started a garage in Dumfries called Crossflags, now a BMW dealership. Allan owes his life on four wheels to his small stature. “My parents were motorcycle enthusiasts, and as a young kid I started doing junior motocross on a 50cc bike. When I was 11 I wanted to move up to the next class, the 80cc machines, but I couldn’t reach the footrests, let alone the ground. I’m 5ft 4in now, and I was definitely minuscule then. So I had to switch to karts.” Over the next six years he won six Scottish titles and three British titles. “We’d pack up the van on Friday night, drive down to Clay Pigeon in Somerset one weekend, up to Golspie in the north-east of Scotland the next. I’d be in the back doing my homework or sleeping, but it was a big commitment for my parents.

“I loved karting, it was pure and I was good at it, and I never had any desire to race cars. When my 17th birthday came I didn’t even take my driving test straight away. But Hugh McCaig of Ecurie Ecosse had given me some help – he’d revived the EE thing of encouraging young Scottish drivers, and I was proud to have the badge on my kart leathers – and it was Hugh who suggested I should go Formula Ford. My dad bought a Van Diemen and we had help from Hugh and also from Duckhams, and in 1987 I was second in the Dunlop Star of Tomorrow, third in the Townsend Thoresen and fifth in the FF Festival. But I didn’t enjoy Formula Ford at all. I was fast – I put it on pole for my first race – but I was probably a bit too furious. The trouble was, an FF car didn’t seem to me to have any feeling, any grip. It didn’t compare to what I’d been doing for the previous six years. I’d have been quite happy to pack it all in and go back to karting. But Marlboro wanted me for their young driver development scheme, and got me a test in an FF2000 car. Wings and slicks: suddenly that felt more like what I’d been used to. I thought, this is real, not lurching around on road tyres with a last corner do-or-die manoeuvre down the inside.

“So for 1988 I did Formula Vauxhall Lotus with Dragon Motorsport, and my team-mate was Mika Häkkinen. That year I learned how to drive a racing car. Mika and I did 20 races in the UK and Europe: I won the British Championship and Mika won the European. At the end of the season I got the Cellnet Award, precursor of the BRDC/McLaren/Autosport programme. In 1989 I was in Formula 3 with West Surrey Racing. F3 was a big educator for me. Until then I’d been doing everything on seat-of-the-pants intuition, through my hands and my feet and my bum, but [West Surrey boss] Dick Bennetts showed me there’s more to being a fast driver than that. You have to sink yourself into the technicalities of it, you have to knuckle down and understand what’s really going on.”

Allan’s West Surrey Ralt-Mugen Honda fought a season-long battle with David Brabham’s Bowman Racing Ralt-Speiss VW, against a background of protests and counter-protests about engine legality on both cars. In October Allan was crowned British F3 Champion in the final round at Thruxton. Four months later, in an RAC court, he lost his title in favour of Brabham. “The race that was under protest was in July, and it wasn’t resolved until the following February. Brabs deserved to win the title – he had one more win than me – but 20 years later I still can’t forget that, during the hearing, the appeal chairman fell asleep. They had to open the windows to revive him. I was 19 years old, learning how professional motor racing was run, and I didn’t expect that.”

During that F3 season Allan was summoned to the McLaren factory to meet Ron Dennis. “Two weeks later I’d signed a three-year contract. In November I found myself in Estoril sitting in an F1 McLaren, with Ayrton Senna in the same pit garage. We’d gone out to dinner the night before, and I found him approachable: a bit distant perhaps, he didn’t smile much, but if you asked him a question he answered it straight and honest. My first impression of an F1 car was that everything worked so well. Light steering, smooth clutch, gearlever clicked in nicely, everything so precise, not built to a budget like an F3 car. The bizarre thing was that for the first couple of laps, coming out of the hairpins, I was thinking, ‘The power’s rubbish.’ Then I realised I’d got it in fourth gear, because the gate was very narrow and I wasn’t getting it into second. Once I managed that and booted it, it was like Warp Factor 4 compared to my 185bhp F3 car.

“My McLaren contract was for testing, and with Ayrton and Gerhard [Berger] in the team I never expected a race seat, although in 1991 Gerhard had shingles before the Monaco Grand Prix and I was asked to hold myself ready. But Gerhard got better again. I was flying back and forth to Japan doing all the running on the V12 Honda engine, plane to Narita, bus into central Tokyo, bullet train to Suzuka. A little lad from Dumfries, doing that every month. And at the same time I was racing in Formula 3000 with the DAMS Lola team.”

It was in the opening F3000 round at Donington in 1990 that Allan had a dreadful accident. Having started from the pitlane, he was rapidly making up places when he caught Emanuele Naspetti on the straight. Naspetti moved across as he drew alongside, and the DAMS Lola was launched into a series of barrel rolls, disintegrating along and over the concrete retaining wall. The engine and rear suspension ended up among a group of spectators, and one man was killed and three injured. The front of the car, with the unconscious McNish still strapped into it, landed far below the track at the entrance to a vehicle tunnel. Allan was not badly hurt, but was deeply shocked and upset, and a commonly held view is that this accident irrevocably damaged his, until then, soaring single-seater career. However, in the next round at Silverstone he took pole, won the race and set a new F3000 lap record. So did the Donington crash affect him?


Sampling an Auto Union at the 2006 Festival of Speed

Motorsport Images

“Yes. An experience like that has to affect you. I was interviewed by the police because of the fatality, and it was all over the papers and on TV. I thought it only right that I should go to the dead man’s funeral: I spoke to his widow and she was very nice to me, told me I wasn’t to blame and wished me well with my racing. But it was very difficult to come to terms with it all. Actually I had quite a good season in 1990. I won a couple of rounds, but I had some reliability problems and Eddie Irvine beat me to third in the series by one point. It was 1991 when it really went wrong. With the change to radial tyres, the Reynard became the car to have and the Lola was a disaster. Lola didn’t know how to deal with it, they lost their way with the car. It was a relief after a crappy weekend in F3000 to get back into the F1 McLaren and go testing.

“I did three years with McLaren, and then I was signed as test driver by Benetton for 1993. I learned more in one year at Benetton than I did in three at McLaren. McLaren was a big animal. You’d suggest an idea, it would be churned around in the system, and eventually something would emerge that might or might not resemble your idea. Benetton was much smaller. If you suggested something they’d say, ‘Great, let’s try it tomorrow.’ It was a different approach: McLaren had a structure, Benetton had a freshness. One evening I went to see Ross Brawn about a thought I’d had. He sat with me for an hour while we talked it through. It was probably of minimal importance for him, but he gave me the time because there was just a possibility my thought might help the car go quicker. Ross is a great people manager, and Pat Symonds is one of the best instinctive brains I’ve worked with in racing. He’s not like the younger generation of engineers: he can look beyond his computer to see what’s really happening.

“At Benetton, of course, I was testing alongside Michael Schumacher, but we already knew each other. In 1985, at the World Karting Championships at Le Mans, I was 15, he was 16, and we both ended up on the podium, him second, me third. In the 1986 World Championships in Gothenburg it was the same again, him second, me third. To me he’s never changed in all time I’ve known him, always easy to work with, always friendly.


First Le Mans win in 1998, on Porsche’s 50th anniversary

Motorsport Images

“While I was at McLaren I tried to carry on in F3000. Marlboro shut down their Young Driver programme and switched all their money to F1, but Mike Earle put a deal together for 1992 with a Reynard-Mugen. Mike believed in me: he said, ‘A driver doesn’t go to bed fast and wake up the next morning slow.’ But I was laid low for months with a viral infection. It screwed my year and, although I managed one or two reasonable results, the money ran out. In 1993 I did no racing at all, just days and days of Benetton testing. F1 was developing a lot of stuff then: active ride, four-wheel steer, traction control, electronic gearchange. The cockpits were full of knobs and switches. It was a totally different environment to today, because there wasn’t so much data capture: the driver really had to be able to talk to the engineers about what the car was doing. But I wasn’t racing. I realised I was missing out badly, and for 1994 I tried very hard to get another F3000 seat. I did a deal with Dennis Nursey of Middlebridge, but he turned out not to have the cash he said he had. That left me with nothing.”

So, having been hailed as a future World Champion at 18, did he think his career was finished at 24? “I hoped not, but I couldn’t see a way forward. I never opened up to the idea of anything outside single-seaters. Sports car racing never entered my head. I thought Le Mans was a race where they drove around at 80 per cent, and not what an aspiring driver should be doing. I’d never been there, of course: you don’t need to go somewhere to make a stupid judgement about it. Also I didn’t have a manager, which hadn’t mattered when everything was going well, but it meant I had to fight my own battles. These days Julian Jakobi at CSS looks after me. But Jackie Stewart gave me good advice, and in ’95 I got back into F3000 with Paul Stewart.”

That was another tale of disappointment and bad luck. “In terms of pace we were fine, we had a couple of poles and a couple of podiums, but in terms of results it wasn’t what was needed.

I decided to try America, and in October I had a Champ Car test with PacWest, along with J J Lehto and Mark Blundell. It went very well. The deal was meant to be – quickest guy gets the job. I was fastest in every configuration. But Mark had just come out of McLaren, and I think the Mercedes engine connection helped him. In February I learned he had the seat, and I’d run out of options. I’m stubborn, I don’t give up easily, but I needed to find a new direction.”


Struggling to make an impression in the Toyota TF102 at the 2002 Hungarian GP

Motorsport Images

It arrived from an unexpected quarter. With nothing to race, Allan spent 1996 going to Grands Prix in the humble role of race spotter for Bernie Ecclestone’s FOCA TV operation. Then he was offered the guest car for the 15-lap Porsche Supercup round at the British Grand Prix. “That ended with four thick black lines into the gravel at Abbey on the last lap, but it was fun. Porsche were looking for new drivers for 1997, and Reinhold Joest told [Porsche head of racing] Herbert Ampferer that they should give me a try. When I turned up at Porsche, it was the first time for ages I felt I was actually being appreciated for me, for who I was.

“My first taste of Le Mans came at the Test Weekend in May. It was effectively pre-qualifying, so no time to learn the circuit, you just had to slap on the quallies and go for it. Stéphane Ortelli was my team-mate, but his friend Sebastian Enjolras was killed that morning in his WR-Peugeot, so I had to do the time. I thought the place was nothing special, except that it was so bloody fast. First time out you were truckin’ on down into the first chicane on the Mulsanne at well over 220mph, faster than any F1 car I’d driven. That first-generation GT1 had lots of power but felt quite heavy and cumbersome.

“Back there for the race in June, first practice on Wednesday evening with the grandstands already filling up and all that history oozing out of the place, that was when I found myself thinking, ‘This isn’t just another race, this is an Event.’ The race itself was an anti-climax – after 24 minutes damper failure put me off the road in the Porsche Curves – and it didn’t really make me want to continue with sports car racing. But Porsche ran me in Austria and Japan, and then sent me to the USA to partner Andy Pilgrim, who was fighting for the US GT championship with Andy Wallace in the Panoz. We won at Las Vegas, Pikes Peak and Sebring to give Pilgrim the title, job done, and then they put me in the works GT1 for the final FIA round at Laguna Seca.”


Audi has been at the forefront of diesel technology, with McNish on board

Audi sport

The Mercedes CLKs had dominated the FIA series that year, but from fourth on the grid McNish led the race from lap one until the first stops. “We had a pitstop mess-up, they couldn’t get a wheel off, and in the end Ralf Kelleners and I finished third. But it was Porsche’s best result against the Mercs all year. That day at Laguna Seca was a turning point, it changed my opinion of sports car racing.”

In 1998, after second overall in the Daytona 24 Hours and first in GT1, came Allan’s second Le Mans. Consistently quick in the rain, he and co-drivers Ortelli and Laurent Aïello took the lead from the Toyotas during the night, then had a problem at dawn and lost 20 minutes. But in a brilliant recovery they put pressure on the leading Toyota until, with little more than an hour to go, it broke, and they scored a resounding victory.

“My overwhelming feeling after winning Le Mans was one of relief. That weekend it was 50 years since Porsche was founded, and all the Porsche top brass and their guests flew into Le Mans on the Sunday morning, from Dr Wiedeking downwards. So there was serious pressure. I stood on the podium in front of all those cheering people and I felt, it’s over, it’s done. But after a few days I began to realise what it meant. That win gave me back my confidence after years of making calls and being told, ‘Sorry, he’s in a meeting.’ Some people had been in a meeting for six or seven years. Suddenly they were phoning me. Engineers would come over when I got out of the car to hear my comments as I took my helmet off, instead of noticing me 20 minutes later and saying, ‘By the way, how’s the car?’ It reaffirmed that inner self-belief that, despite everything, I’d never quite lost.

“At the end of 1998 Wiedeking announced he was cancelling the GT1 programme. But a week later I was summoned back to Weissach and told there was a secret new car on the drawing board, and Bob Wollek and I were going to develop it to race in 2000. They gave me a three-year contract to the end of 2001, with leave to race in 1999 for any team I wanted. So I did Daytona in a Ferrari, finished second again, and for Le Mans I went to Toyota. We were fighting for the lead during the night when [co-driver Thierry] Boutsen was taken out by a back-marker. But then, at the end of ’99, Porsche canned the new car too. I’d only driven it once, and I know it could have won Le Mans. It’s still at the factory, under a dust sheet. So for 2000 I joined Audi.”

At Le Mans, with Ortelli and Aïello in the Audi R8, Allan took pole and was the early leader, but after a gearbox change during the night they finished second in an Audi 1-2-3. He did the American Le Mans Series too, taking the title with six wins. But now everything changed again. “Toyota decided to go F1, testing in 2001 and racing from ’02, and they wanted Mika Salo and me. I still felt single-seaters were unfinished business, so I jumped at it. I knew Mika from FF and F3, and he was a good team-mate. He’d already done six seasons in F1, and he showed me how to survive in that environment.


“Learning how to drive a racing car” in Formula Vauxhall Lotus 1988

Motorsport Images

“Toyota’s budget was big, but they severely underestimated just how difficult it would be to design, build and develop an F1 car from a standing start. From 300 people as a sports car operation it mushroomed to over 1000, with a lot of growing pains. Ove Andersson had been running the show as he wanted, but now Japan wanted more involvement, and he was dealing more with politics than with race cars. The design team wanted one thing, the race team wanted another, and it got to its worst point when they appointed an acting technical director who spoke very little apart from Japanese.

“But there was a lot of potential, and at first there were promising signs. In Malaysia, effectively my first race because of the Melbourne first-corner shunt, I was 19th on the grid after a driveshaft broke in qualifying. I’d climbed up to sixth when I came in for my second stop – but Mika had a problem and dived into the pits just ahead of me. They thought he was me, fuelled him and put my tyres on him. Then they turned round and you could see the astonishment in their eyes when they realised I was there. They took off my old tyres, had no fresh tyres ready, so put my old ones back on and sent me out again. I finished seventh – and, of course, points only went down to sixth in those days. Thereafter we went backwards. Everybody else kept on developing, as they do in F1, and we couldn’t keep up. At the end of the season they fired Mika and me, and brought in Cristiano da Matta and Olivier Panis.”

Allan didn’t even get to do the last race of the season at Suzuka, because he had a huge accident in qualifying. “That long fast left, 130R, was so nearly flat, just a dab of left-foot braking, so I thought, ‘Sod it, it’s flat.’ It’s 185mph there, and it’s got a wee bump in the middle. It was all going well until the bump. Then it jumped onto the kerb and I went in backwards. It was a biggie. Sid Watkins had a look at me and told me I wouldn’t be racing tomorrow, and that was the end of my F1 career. Except that in 2003 Friday morning testing came in, and Renault signed me to do that at each Grand Prix.

“At the end of 2002, at Toyota’s instigation, I’d had an IRL test at Fontana with Penske. I didn’t like it much. Everybody is hung up on those average speeds of 220mph, and it is bloody fast, no question, but actually it’s rather boring. The cars have a lot of grip in relation to their power, and a lot of drag, so you just hang on at the bottom of the oval. It’s like driving an indoor kart, but at 220mph. Plus Penske had Gil [de Ferran] and Hélio [Castroneves] on long-term contracts, so what was on offer was a ride in one of the lesser Toyota-powered teams. Those places can be a bit dangerous if you’re not with one of the front-running outfits. So it was back to sports car racing, and Audi.”


Audi trio McNish, Capello and Kristensen won a thrilling fight with Peugeot at Le Mans last year

Motorsport Images

This is Allan’s sixth consecutive season with Audi. His record has been extraordinary: a shoal of victories in long-distance races from the Nürburgring to Lime Rock, from Silverstone to St Petersburg. He’s won the Sebring 12 Hours four times in six years, and a particular favourite is the 1000-mile Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, with three wins on the trot. He has won two more ALMS titles, chalking up 17 wins in two seasons. But, inevitably, Le Mans was to prove more elusive.

“In 2004, in the second hour, I was coming through the Porsche Curves – fifth gear, very little braking – and there was a puff of smoke from a GT3 Porsche in front of me. It was oil, and I just skated straight off into the barriers. J J Lehto in another of the Audis followed me in. When I hit the tyre wall I banged my head from side to side on the cockpit and I was knocked out, but they dragged the car out and somehow I drove it back to the pits. Then I woke up in the medical centre. In an hour they’d got it race-worthy – a perfect example of teamwork under pressure – and Pierre [Kaffer] and Frank [Biela] got it home in fifth place.

“In 2005 the R10 diesel was waiting in the wings, and Audi’s only full programme was DTM. I did that for a year, the only time I’ve raced a touring car – except it isn’t really a touring car, it’s a serious bit of 500bhp kit. They’re pretty good to drive, too. But to get past someone in DTM the done thing is to drive into him, which isn’t my way at all. If you’ve got the speed or the skill to get by, fine, but driving into another car deliberately, I’ve never done that, not even in karting, and I’ve won plenty of races without it. So DTM wasn’t really for me. Le Mans 2005 was in a Champion Audi with Emanuele Pirro and Biela, and we were third. Then for 2006 we had the R10.

“Its first race was Sebring, and I was with Tom [Kristensen] and Dindo [Capello]. We had some problems, because the car was very new, but we had pole, we set fastest lap, and we won by four laps. I didn’t really appreciate until later that this first diesel race victory was a historic moment. All that year people would come up and say, ‘What d’you run this on? It can’t actually be diesel, what is it, really?’ They wouldn’t believe it because it was fast, it was quiet, it wasn’t smoky. We run second-gen bio-diesel now, with no loss of performance. Some of it is made up of waste product, including woodchip apparently. You could say we run on recycled Ikea wardrobes.”

At Le Mans in 2006, after a tangle with another car and a long stop to change a turbo, the McNish R10 was third. And 2007 brought cruel disappointment: in the 17th hour, with the race comfortably under control, Capello crashed heavily when a wheel came off.

But finally, last year, it went Allan’s way. Audi’s race-long battle with the Peugeots was a thriller, the French cars showing a clear edge in the dry, but when the rain came the old firm of McNish, Kristensen and Capello fought back. The result was in doubt right until the end but, 10 years after his first Le Mans victory, Allan had at last scored his second.

So to Le Mans 2009. It’s an indication of how seriously Audi takes the 24 Hours that Allan has done only one race so far this year, Sebring, which for both Audi and Peugeot was effectively a test session for the French race. Audi ran its all-new V10 R15, lighter and more nimble, the culmination of two years’ work, but the redeveloped Peugeot 908 was faster too. It was close: McNish had to turn in a devastating final stint to accommodate a late-race fuel stop. After 12 hours’ on-the-limit racing, R15 beat 908 by just 22 seconds.

How does Allan prepare for the physical demands of Le Mans? “At Audi we do quadruple stints – that’s up to three and a half hours in the car at one sitting. We’ve found that’s the fastest way to do our race. Today’s cars pull g-forces that are very similar to those in a Formula 1 car, but we’re doing it for double the length of a Grand Prix. And you’re hustling a heavier car, you’re throwing 900kgs around, with big front tyres. They have power steering, of course, just as F1 cars do, but modern Le Mans cars are still very physical. Your body has to be very fit – so gym, weights, running, cycling, I do that all year – but the level of concentration over long periods demands real mental fitness too. That’s the hard part, having the mental energy to cope with being in the car, in the heat, bright sun, low sun, rain, darkness, early morning fog. And also the business of just being there in that unreal place, that noisy bubble, from 7am on Saturday to 5pm on Sunday. It drains it out of you. It’s almost like doing an entire F1 season in one weekend.

“The conditions and the track surface change constantly, and with 48 cars on the track at once you can get wildly differing grip levels during one stint, quite apart from changes in the weather and temperature. Traffic, and speed differentials, that’s a major factor. Some drivers are better at traffic than others. I happen to like it, because getting through traffic well can give you an advantage, and I find I can build up the fractions there. You have to be able to do the same lap times in the dark as you do in the day, because almost a third of the race is run in the dark. In fact, you should be faster in the dark, because it’s cooler, so you can use a softer compound tyre, and the air is slightly denser so the engines give a bit more power. My 2007 lap record was set at 1.30 in the morning.

“This year I’m with Tom and Dindo again. We’re pretty much an item now. Obviously our focus is on Peugeot, who are clearly out to win. But the diesels are carrying more penalties now – they’ve given us a 30kgs weight increase, plus a restrictor in fuel hose size – so the petrol cars are definitely in play this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Aston Martin qualify on the front row. And Pescarolo, Oreca, you have to watch them all.

The competitive level of the race means we have to push everything to the last degree. The cars can take it now. They’re designed and tested to do more than 24 hours on the limit, bashing over every kerb, using the brakes and transmissions and revs to the maximum. We have simulation programmes at the factory, we run the engine and gearbox on a transient dyno so it goes up and down the rev range with all the transmission loads and gearbox changes, all the torsional loads it will go through. The car is put on a shaker rig to simulate all the bumps over 24 hours and work out the best damper ratios. But simulations behind closed doors don’t do the whole job. Some things you can only learn in real life – if a mechanic can’t locate a wheel nut correctly when it’s very hot, or a driver gets cramp in his left calf after three hours because the heel rest is not in the right place, even though in the factory it was perfect. So we do endurance tests at full race speeds at several circuits – Ricard, Jerez, Magny-Cours, and we stayed out at Sebring after the 12 Hours.


Fighting back to an F3000 win at Silverstone in 1990 after devastating Donington crash

Motorsport Images

“Audi take about 120 people to Le Mans. We have a big soundproofed cabin behind the pits with beds, showers and all that. When I get out of the car after a stint I get a drink from the doctor– some sort of isotonic brew – and talk to the engineers. Then there’s usually some TV and media stuff to do, if we’re going well, anyway. I have a shower, give my overalls to the person who looks after the laundry, and go and see the physio. If it’s during the day I’ll try to follow what’s happening in the race, if it’s night I try to sleep. I never used to be able to, but I’ve got so much faith in Tom and Dindo now, which makes it easier. I’ll be back in the pit one hour before my next stint is due, and have a session with the engineers to be clear on our objectives for the next stage of the race. I eat to keep my energy levels up: some drivers like pasta, but I prefer soup, which is light and easy to digest, or a banana. And I’m constantly making sure I have enough fluid on board for the next stint. I like to have a cup of tea – it gets cold hanging around the pits in the middle of the night.”

And when it’s all over? “Just fatigue. Your battery is completely empty. Every time I come back from Le Mans I have a bug, a cold, ’flu, it takes that much out of you. You’ve lived there for a week, but it’s been the focus of your life for a whole year. You just don’t want to see the place any more. You just want to crawl home and recharge. Mind you, if you’ve won it’s a hell of a lot easier to get out of bed on Monday morning.”


Last F1 appearance was in 2003 when McNish performed Friday testing work for Renault

Motorsport Images


Le Mans has always been about shifting fortunes and unforeseen disappointments. Even Audi’s relentless preparation cannot make this unpredictable race predictable. But whatever happens on the second weekend of June, many of us hope the little lad from Dumfries will wake up on Monday morning with a smile on his face. After the ups and downs of his switchback career, he surely merits a third victory at Le Mans.