I asked him if he thinks sports car racing is on its way back to the glory days of the 1970s, when any performance car manufacturer worth its name was taking part.
“These are the glory days, we’re there already, and we’ve seen some great battles these past few years. People say Audi have had it all their own way but that’s just not true. What about Peugeot and Toyota? They have pushed us very hard and Audi always wanted some serious competition. This year they’ve got it.”
World Champion Allan McNish won’t be racing sports car any more but he remains an Audi ‘ambassador’ and keeps closely in touch with developments in the World Endurance Championship which kicks off with the 6 Hours of Silverstone next month.
“Yes, you can go back to the ‘70s and compare,” says McNish, “but it was very competitive in 1998 and ‘99 and it’s as good as that now, if not even better. In LMP1 we have Audi, Porsche, Toyota – all fighting for the championship – and Nissan on its way too. And I know Ferrari are looking at it, Luca di Montezemelo would like to win Le Mans, but they have to be sure they can do it at the right level.
“Look at the problems in F1 testing, they’re using technology that we’ve been running in WEC for a couple of years, so a move into sports cars is by no means a simple job. To get these hybrid cars to run for 20 laps can be a challenge, never mind 24 hours.”
Does he think times are about to get tough for Audi with Porsche and Toyota determined to get on terms?
“Times are always tough, we’ve always wanted the competition, and of course both companies are big players. OK, Audi has dominated at Le Mans, but there were other races where Peugeot had us over a barrel and yes, Audi will have to work very hard.
“Porsche will bring a different dynamic, especially at Le Mans, but they will have to be very good to beat us, and the same with Toyota. To win Le Mans you’re going to have to beat Audi, simple as that, and nobody will be resting on any laurels I can assure you.”
Times are changing for drivers too, aren’t they? These complex hybrid cars, in both F1 and WEC, are mentally and physically demanding.
“You can’t just drive them flat out,” he agrees, “and there are a lot of things a driver can actively control in the cockpit – electronic brake balance, energy recovery systems – and so drivers and engineers will be constantly optimising the performance. KERS was just a tickle before, now it’s worth an extra 160bhp, that’s four mega joules of power per lap.
Audi’s 2014 LMP1 challenger
“Sports car drivers are used to this, an LMP1 car already has more technology than an F1 car, and communications between driver and engineer will become a lot more important, maybe the difference between winning and losing. The driver now has far more he can do than we’ve seen in recent times, with ERS and a fuel limit, so there’s more brainpower, more communication, and this will be a major factor for the new season.”
Working with the BBC
This year McNish will be going to the Grands Prix as a BBC TV commentator as will, on the odd occasion like Melbourne this month, Mark Webber. How does he think Mark will fit into the world of WEC?
“When I look at the Porsche driver line-up there’s a lot of experience there, but clearly Mark will be seen as the team leader, the person they will listen to when he gets out of the car. He has a very strong personality, and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes, how well the balance between the different drivers works.
“The guys coming up from GT cars, however, will find the LMP1 a very different kind of racing car. These are glory days for the WEC and when I look back on 1998, when I won for Porsche, I think we are now at a much higher level of competition.”
Meanwhile, with his BBC TV hat on, who does McNish think will be leading the pack in a new era of Grand Prix racing?
“Lewis Hamilton has his best opportunity for a long time, but he will have to work really hard for it, on and off the circuit, if he’s to beat his team-mate. I think Mercedes has enough of an advantage in the first few races before Red Bull and Renault get back on song. But I’ll be at Silverstone in April when the real racing season starts… not this other stuff I’m talking about for the BBC!”
McNish will be a very welcome addition to the BBC team this season, just as his mate Mark Webber will be an exciting addition to the World Endurance Championship. Lots to look forward in and out of the cockpit in 2014.
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