Matters of moment, June 2014

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A few days before the big sports car season-opener at Silverstone, newly retired Allan McNish was in London to accept the Segrave Trophy at the Royal Automobile Club. The citation read: ‘First Briton to win the Tourist Trophy, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the FIA World Endurance Championship in the same season.’

Yes, 2013 – his last year as a full-time racing driver – was quite a campaign for the 44-year-old. But he remains puzzled by the plaudits he has received since calling time on his career in December. You see, Allan still just thinks of himself as “a wee boy from Dumfries”.

The beautiful trophy named in honour of the great Sir Henry Segrave is awarded for ‘outstanding skill, courage and initiative on land, water and in air – the Spirit of Adventure’. McNish joins a small band of heroes to receive the honour twice, having previously been selected in 2008. He takes his place beside Sir Malcolm Campbell, Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jackie Stewart, Barry Sheene, Nigel Mansell and autogyro pioneer Wing Commander Ken Wallis.

“I feel a bit of an interloper,” he told me after his eloquent acceptance speech. “OK, I’ve had a good career, been successful and won things, but some of these names are real heroes. I feel a bit odd to be tagged on to the end of the Segrave list – and now twice.”

That’s McNish for you. He’s still the “wee boy” who started his first kart race at Rowrah in 1981 – and not just because he hasn’t grown much since.

“Racing is still the reason I get up in the morning,” he told me as we chatted about his new role at Audi, which goes far beyond the glad-handing ambassadorial brief so many ex-racing drivers fall into. “You know me,” he said. “I’m not into just doing things for the sake of it. It’s got to have a purpose and a result at the end of it.

“The crux is I have 32 years of racing experience and I’m very much of the opinion that you try to harness these things – and give a little bit back.”

He’ll juggle his BBC Formula 1 punditry with a role still at the heart of Audi Sport, as an intermediary between engineers and drivers. “Increasingly the engineers now, thanks to the complexity of the cars, are working so much on the numbers and the details that sometimes the driver’s feeling in the car can get a bit lost,” he explained. “So I’m there to make sure the reality is still there between what the numbers say and what the drivers are going through.

It’s often difficult for a driver to push a point. I made quite a few enemies by pushing a point that I felt was important for my performance, though it didn’t always match other people’s feelings… So I can help on that.”

Pushing young driver talent is something Allan has always been passionate about, and this too is part of his Audi remit. He’s already got stuck in, brokering the deal for top-class graduate Filipe Albuquerque to join Jota’s LMP2 squad for ELMS rounds ahead of his big-break factory debut at Le Mans in June. McNish took satisfaction from that.

But when we spoke, just ahead of Silverstone, the obvious question to ask was: how’s the transition going from current to ex-racing driver? Any pangs of regret?

“If I’m ever going to feel anything it’ll be this weekend,” he said. “It’ll be cool to see ‘1’ on the car, to see my old partners Loïc [Duval] and Tom [Kristensen] and to watch the two cars go at it without having a vested interest in one or the other. But I don’t think I’ll wake up on Sunday morning and think, ‘shit’… At Daytona in January I saw Dario [Franchitti] on race morning and said ‘How is it, son?’ That was the first race, for both of us…”

It’s an odd coincidence that these old friends should step away at the same time – albeit in very different circumstances. Allan stopped on his terms, Dario only because the doctors told him to, following his dreadful Indycar accident at Houston last year.

For McNish, finding peace with retirement must surely be easier – particularly because he knew the time was right to step away.

During our road trip following last year’s WEC round in Austin, Texas (see the December 2013 issue), we’d discussed the inevitability of retirement. It was in the air, even if the decision had yet to be taken. As we talked about it, Allan said he’d always admired Jackie Stewart’s approach to the biggest decision a racing driver will ever take.

Stewart stopped, point-blank, left that part of his life behind him and never looked back. McNish admits he might race something somewhere again at some time, but never with the same old intensity. There are echoes of Jackie in his thoughts about the end.

“The fuel tank was pretty close to the red, and when you get to that point you have to recognise it,” he said.

“I don’t have that sheer enjoyment of pure driving that I had. It had rubbed off over the years. The driving only gets you to winning races, which is where the enjoyment was towards the end. That was probably because a lot of effort went into it, and there was a ‘job’ aspect to it.

“Ask her,” he said, pointing to wife Kelly across the room. “The grumpy times coming home after races where it had gone against us…

“Harry Tincknell [whom McNish mentors] is doing Le Mans for the first time this year and he was down at our place in Monaco looking at the trophies, including those for second and third at Le Mans.

“As I explained to him, if you go there to win, those trophies represent massive disappointment, like a hole in your heart. Even though it’s a huge achievement, bluntly you haven’t won. I enjoyed the competition element of the races, but only because it led towards the fight to win.

“I’m sure in the fullness of time, after a long break, if I get back into something I’ll probably enjoy the driving again. At Daytona in January there were five minutes in the morning where it felt strange – but it was soon gone. When I got to the circuit I had no interest in jumping in a car.”

McNish loved the life of a racing driver. But now it’s someone else’s turn. He’s already moved on.

?

“There’s nothing slick about Donington Park,” I wrote two years ago, following a visit to see my old friend Christopher Tate as he took on the big recovery job as MD of a circuit ravaged by an ill-conceived British Grand Prix bid. “Jonathan Palmer would blanch at the potholes and the peeling paintwork…”

I didn’t mean to stick the boot in, and Christopher took my observations in the endearing spirit they were intended. But still, I’d stomped on a nerve.

Now, Christopher has never let me off the hook on this one, each time he’s updated me on the great working going on at ‘The Heart of British Motor Sport’. So I had to chuckle when an email pinged in from Mr Tate entitled “Paved external roads at Donington…”

It was followed by photos of brand new, billiard baize asphalt now in place over the rutted surface that was the excuse for a road linking the main entrance to the paddock gate. The least I can do is show you.

Potholes? What potholes? Jonathan Palmer would surely approve.