In racing your team-mate is usually your rival, but in sports cars you need to get along. Rarely has this worked better than in the case of Audi’s Le Mans winners – different men with a common goal
By Rob Widdows
It is not glamorous, this partnership, but it is effective. And this is just the way they like it, the loquacious Scot and the quiet Italian. It’s a good match, in and out of the car.
Team-mates means something very different in long-distance racing. Here they work in support of each other, not in competition. Think of Bell and Ickx, Hill and Gendebien, Bell and Stuck, Pescarolo and Larrousse or Tom Kristensen and whoever is with him. The list goes on. These are the sport’s team players.
You cannot help but like Allan McNish. He’s just so normal, such a decent bloke, and always so enthusiastic, unspoilt by his success. Not surprisingly, that’s partly why he gets on so well with Dindo Capello, both men genuine people and real racers. Their partnership speaks for itself, McNish and Capello having made a significant contribution to the success of Audi Sport these past few seasons.
So how did they get together? “Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure at the beginning,” laughs the wiry Scot. “I mean, he was just some Italian touring car driver, you know, and I didn’t really know much about him. It was February 2000, I’d already signed for Audi, and I was partnered with Michele Alboreto and this chap Rinaldo Capello for the American races – I didn’t really know who he was except that he was very quick in touring cars. Anyway, I met this guy called Dindo, and our first conversation was very short – about all he could say in English was: ‘I’m Dindo’. So I was a bit nervous about how this relationship was going to develop. My first impressions weren’t all good – I mean, he didn’t seem to fit the picture, he kind of looked like an Italian touring car driver, not a man who struck me as someone who was going to fit into the scene. He was facing double the horsepower, four times the downforce, stuff like that, and I was a bit nervous.”
The language barrier was just one of the problems, especially as McNish is a communicator, always up for a chat, a restless man, always inquisitive.
“Yes, well, he hardly had a word of English,” he laughs, “and technically he wasn’t too knowledgeable. But I could see that he was a very straightforward person and that appealed to me. Like so many Italians, even when they’re robbing you blind, it’s really hard to dislike them. He was a nice guy, easy to get along with after a couple of days. The boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich – who speaks Italian – told me that he was quick, that he would fit in well alongside me, and I found that hard to see at first. But after eight years I guess I can say he was right.”
What really mattered to McNish, in the beginning, was just how competitive Capello was going to be. How deeply did he want to win?
“I am very, very competitive, as most racing drivers are,” says Allan. “But there are different levels – I’m the kind who just hates to lose – and I needed to know this about Dindo, how much he wanted to win. Then, about halfway through that first year, we were at Sebring and I found out more about him. At the last stop Dindo took over the car – we’d had some problems with overheating the brakes and the pedal was getting longer and longer. Anyway, he went out of the pits, did 15 minutes, and then spun it away at the hairpin. After the race he came to me, looked me in the eye, and said: ‘Are you annoyed with me?’ and I just didn’t know what to say. I had never, ever had a team-mate confront me like that before. I said: ‘No, I’m annoyed, but I’m not annoyed with you.’ And he said, in very pigeon English: ‘Good, because I couldn’t have done anything, the way the brakes were.’ And I liked that, the way he looked me in the eye, and I knew he was a genuine person. I still wasn’t sure about how deeply he desired to win but I got the answer at the Nürburgring soon afterwards. It was very wet, the car was sliding all over the place, and we kept changing tyres. I was in and out of the pits, trying to catch the leaders, then I spun. We sat in the truck, looked at each other, and we both resolved to start winning, get the programme back on track, and soon. I realised that he had this inner strength under that casual Italian demeanour, that he wanted to win just as badly as I did. That was the moment I knew I could race with Dindo, knew he was a real competitor. Until then I hadn’t been sure about him.”
The character assessment out of the way, McNish was able to study more closely the driving style of his new partner, how they could work together to find the ultimate settings, the best possible racing car for them both, wet or dry, day or night. This fusion of skills and styles is essential for success in long-distance races where the car has to be tailored to more than one driver.
“Luckily, we like the same kind of car,” says Allan.
“We both like an aggressive car, a car that can turn in quickly, and even if the rear is slightly unstable we’ll handle that. We both prefer this kind of set-up to something that is docile and full of understeer. So, in that respect, we both like a lively creature under us. In terms of size he’s a wee bit bigger than me, both vertically and in width, but not so much that it creates a problem. The best thing is he is very, very adaptable – I’ve never come across a driver like him who can just jump into the biggest pile of crap and drive it fast when he has to. I don’t know why or how he can do this, and nor does he, but this adaptability has helped us enormously.”
McNish is hardly ever still, always searching for a better answer, the better to explain what he’s talking about. Racing or talking, the job needs to be done properly. He sits, as well as walks, on the balls of his feet.
“What we’re talking about here,” he grabs a new thread, “is like a marriage. You spend a lot of time with your team-mate, you’re always on the road, travelling or just hanging out, and you’ve got to understand the other guy. You’ve got to be able to look him in the eye, know what he’s thinking. That doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a lot of time. Every racing driver is a bit of an egomaniac – to a lesser or greater extent – we’ve all got big egos and we like to have that ego satisfied. But there has to be a balance and, when you get a third driver in for a longer race, three can be a crowd. Always though, you need the others on your side, and as long as there is a common bond, a common desire to win at all costs, you will find a balance as long as you’re a bit flexible. When we knew we had Tom Kristensen coming to drive with us, for Sebring and Le Mans, Dindo and I talked about it, how we’d make it work. And it did, because Tom wants to win. Anyway, Dindo and I have won more races than Tom, despite his success at Le Mans.” Quite so.
All three, however, are now one victory ahead of where they were, having won a thrilling battle against the Peugeots at Le Mans this summer. McNish and Kristensen basked in the lion’s share of the glory in the days after a historic win for Audi, but the Scot is first to give credit where it’s due.
“Make no mistake,” he says, “within the team Dindo is just as much a hero. Internally, at Audi, he’s well respected and he’s grown into a pretty technical driver. Dindo has a great feeling for the car, for the grip and the braking, and he’s probably better than Tom and I in the braking areas. He did most of the set-up in those areas for Le Mans and he’s a great connection between me and Tom – we need Dindo to make it click – and he’s a great calming influence on us. I tell you, he could drive a bedstead fast, he just gets in and goes flat out, and that’s a key factor at Le Mans.”
So, despite the headlines, Capello is a vital ingredient in the magic mix at Audi Sport. The kind of team-mate all drivers dream about.
“Yes, he was under extreme pressure from the Peugeots this year,” says McNish, “and Dindo took no risks, made no mistakes, and other drivers I know could not have done that. He had not had any wet running before the race and when we were being hunted down by the Peugeots he minimised the damage, drove a perfect stint. Both Dindo and I knew we could win it if we did a clean job and put enough pressure on them. The Audi is designed for Le Mans and we’re a great team.”
Long distance sports car racing, in the midst of a great revival right now, is the one place where you need a strong, fast and reliable team-mate. Allan McNish and Dindo Capello have that special chemistry, that harmony, so essential to consistent performance. This year’s Le Mans – a particularly tense and gruelling race – underlined the strength of this partnership perhaps more than any other event in their years together. Neither man will be in a hurry to upset a winning applecart.