Unofficially the nicest man in motor racing, Allan McNish’s single-seater career had seemingly stalled when he was picked to spearhead Porsche’s attack at Le Mans. “I still have a special place in my heart for Porsche,” he says without a trace of soundbite triteness. “It was at the end of 1995, beginning of ’96 when I got a call asking me if I was available to drive a Supercup car at the Nürburgring. I wasn’t but it did lead to a drive in the British GP support race. It wasn’t one of my best races: I qualified seventh, I think, and was taken off on the last lap by someone whose name I can’t even pronounce let alone spell. But it was through doing that race that Herbert Ampferer [Porsche’s motorsport boss] asked me to become involved in the GT1 programme.
“What you have to remember is that the ’96-97 cars were essentially road cars turned into race cars, in the spirit of the regulations. Some other manufacturers took the opposing view, so we were up against purpose-built racers that masqueraded as road cars. In ’97 we had come close to winning at Le Mans and, in reality, it outwardly seemed like a flat year as the Merc CLK-GTRs were dominant in the sprint races. The ’98 car was very different, more a purpose-built racing car, and our focus was Le Mans. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but this event is of such great importance to manufacturers that any series you are competing in is just a way of filling in time between visits to Le Mans.
“The amount of effort that went into winning was enormous. At the beginning of ’98 we took the previous year’s car with the new sequential gearbox to Daytona for the 24-hour race. Not so much to win, more to test for Le Mans. There was great pressure on us to succeed. This was Porsche’s 50th anniversary, remember, as well as partner Michelin’s centenary. There were guests being flown in in droves, and we had competition from Toyota, Nissan and BMW. I had pre-qualified fastest and was out of my race suit when a Toyota went quicker. I was ordered back out – it wasn’t a request – and went fastest again. The race itself wasn’t without problems but we finished first and second. You have to hand it to guys like Norbert Singer. Being with him in the pits at Le Mans is like being in his living room: he’s so at home. You could say that all we did was obey his instructions, as he and the rest of the guys had such a wealth of experience. Saying that, we followed them well. The overwhelming feeling on crossing the line was of relief. It was only up on the podium that the reality of what Le Mans means really began to sink in: when you’re standing there looking over a sea of people, it really does take the breath away.”
A pity then that the programme was canned at the end of the year: “We were unlucky not to do better In the shorter races. We had a good run at Laguna Seca and should have won at Suzuka, but I was punted off by Zonta. I signed for three more years but, if anything, I was more disappointed that the V10 LMP car was dropped. In its one and only test, that car was superb.”