Early learning centre

The one that got away
Allan McNish, 1985 Junior World Karting Championships

Trying to do it by the book is very laudable, but it isn’t always the best policy, as Scotland’s other Formula One driver tells Adam Cooper

I was only 15, and the world championship at Le Mans was my second overseas event. I should have done it the year before when I was eligible for the first time, but I was ill. I was being run by Terry Fullerton, who had won the world championship himself in 1973.

If you raced karts in the UK it was to a completely different format to Europe, in terms of the tyre, the chassis, the engines. So it didn’t really set you up very well to go from a British event in the rain at Clay Pigeon on the hardest tyre in the world to two-wheeling around in junior internationals, where they were probably 3sec a lap faster.

I was a tiny little kid, so we had about 35kg of lead on the kart to bring it up to the minimum weight. The big star was Andrea Gilardi, who’d won the year before, and then there was Michael Schumacher, who we’ve heard of since! He had a white leather suit with little stripes around the side. There were also guys like Christian Fitiipaldi, Yvan Muller and Laurent Aiello, but you didn’t really know who they were. We were all between 14 and 16, and you didn’t really mix.

It was a week-long affair, with testing followed by the meeting proper from Friday. You were split into two groups, and you’d go through four heats, a pre-final and final on Saturday, and the same on Sunday. All those were aggregated together and you’d get your position for the overall pre-final on Sunday, when everyone came together for the first time, before the final itself. Basically, you had to keep winning.

Things went well in practice, and again on the Saturday. I was running second in the final when we had an engine failure, which knocked my aggregate points down. But on Sunday I won the heats and finished second in the group final. That put me third on the grid for the overall pre-final.

In that I was running third, but I managed to get past Michael into second behind Gilardi, who was on pole. So the grid for the final was Gilardi, myself and Michael.

It was a rolling start. I was on the outside of the last corner, and Gilardi got his foot down a little bit earlier than I did. Michael followed him through, and the two of them were bumper to bumper, an inch apart. Both of them knew exactly what they were doing. There was no way I could get in, so I got boxed out halfway down the straight after the start. I had to slot into third.

After that, we just sat nose to tail. It was 25 laps of absolute attack from the three of us, and we pulled away from the rest. But ultimately, whoever got into the lead at the first corner was going to win the race, and that was it, so I finished third.

It was the only time in my karting career that I was beaten off the line in a rolling start. I was racing against guys who had done the world championship twice already, and I got jumped through inexperience. I was trying to make it a clean, non-jumped start, and unfortunately played a little bit too much by the rules. That one single thing, before the race had even started, lost it for me.

On the podium I was pleased to have finished third at my first attempt. But it was also very disappointing, because I knew I wouldn’t have another crack at it. My 17th birthday was December 29, 1985, so I was two days too old to be able to do it again in 1986, and I had to go into seniors. If my birthday had been a few days later on January 3 — like Michael’s! — I could have done juniors for another year.

Looking back on it now I’m very proud of the fact that I did so well on the one occasion that I raced in the world championship, but I still feel that it was the one that did get away, because I had the speed and capability to win. I learned a very hard lesson, and it took me six months to come to terms with it.

I never raced karts there again, but I did go back to look at the kart circuit in 1998 and it still brought back horrible memories. When I won the 24 Hours that year I realised that in ’85 I’d got exactly the same trophy, but a smaller version!