Audi's McNish and Jarvis on Le Mans

Le Mans News

“Oh s**t,” says Allan McNish after a long pause. I had just explained how much track time I was getting for the Le Mans Legends race this year and how I had (obviously) never raced at Le Mans before. His response was to the question ‘Any tips?’ He did go on to impart some very useful nuggets of information, as did fellow Audi driver Olly Jarvis who I had spoken to only minutes before, but I wasn’t chatting to the two drivers to quiz them about racing an MGB at La Sarthe, we were catching up after the Le Mans test, ahead of the big one, the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Jarvis has only competed in two Le Mans 24 Hours before – one in 2010 in an Audi R10 TDI and then in 2012 when he finished third in an R18 ultra – but he has now established himself as a handy Audi factory driver. A position he’d unsurprisingly much prefer to be in than “at the back of the Formula 1 grid in a team that’s making up the numbers”. This year he’s in the third Audi R18 e-tron quattro alongside 2009 Le Mans winner Marc Gené and ex-Virgin F1 racer Lucas di Grassi and, despite the number ‘3’ on his car, he’ll be looking to grab his first Le Mans win.

“One of the great things about Audi is that it’s an open book,” he says of the competition from the two sister cars driven by last year’s winners André Lotterer/Marcel Fässler/Benoit Tréluyer and Tom Kristensen/Loïc Duval/Allan McNish. “If I want to look at what the number one car’s running I can look at every detail – I can look at their data and setup sheets. There’s a complete share of information between the cars and Audi’s goal is to win the race. From their perspective, as long as it’s Audi, it doesn’t matter.”

It’s admirable that the German manufacturer lets its cars race, which will be music to many people’s ears if the news from Toyota is to be believed. “As it is, our chances at Le Mans are very, very small,” Toyota Motorsport’s technical director Pascal Vasselon told Motor Sport last month in light of the pace they showed at the Spa Six Hours. The Le Mans test day was no better and the Japanese cars languished behind the Audis on the timesheets. However, Toyota’s petrol-powered hybrids have been given a performance break – they can now carry 76 litres of fuel rather than 73 – and Audi is wary of the longer stints they will be able to do. “Toyota is playing down its chances,” says Jarvis, “but that’s not how we feel. The mood in the Audi camp is that Toyota is a very real threat. They’re going to be competitive and because they can run longer we have to be quicker on the track…”

Gone are the days, hopefully, of the Le Mans 24 Hours being won by a huge number of laps and even if Toyota can’t quite match Audi, the winning margin won’t be a big one, especially if all three Audis are still running. “The reliability is so good now that you have to keep pushing all the time,” says McNish who will be contesting his 14th Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend. After spending five minutes discussing the problems of having a BBQ in his home town of Monaco (apparently they are frowned upon because of the smoke/apartment mix, but McNish has gone for an electric one as gas models are banned) we soon move onto Audi’s record at Le Mans.

In the current poll on this website the German manufacturer sits sixth in the popularity contest. Up front is Porsche (31 per cent of the votes), Jaguar (17 per cent) and Ferrari (11 per cent). Audi is (so far) less successful at the 24 Hours than Porsche, with 11 wins to 16, but why is it so far down the poll when it comes to popularity? “I think there’s an element of Audi doing things in a very different way, a very Germanic way,” says McNish after putting down his BBQ assembly tools. “Since 2000 Audi hasn’t won Le Mans only twice so there is an element of the Schumacher era in F1 when you’re thinking ‘crikey, I’d like someone else to win for a change’. That’s not necessarily because people don’t like Audi, or they don’t like Michael, but they just want a change.

“It’s funny because when Audi was looking at withdrawing from the ALMS when the economic crisis hit there were a lot of fans on ALMS websites saying ‘ah piss off Audi, we don’t need you, we’re better off if you’re not here’. Twenty-four months later they realised what Audi brought to the party and they came to appreciate the way it did things. Their attitude changed and I’m talking about specific fans who came back and said ‘it would be great to see the Audis back at Sebring, we’ve really missed them’.

“There may also be case of rose-tinted glasses because Porsche isn’t here at the moment. Going back to the Michael Schumacher era… even drivers were saying ‘I wish Michael would retire so someone else can have a go!’”

The same might have been said of McNish’s team-mate Tom Kristensen at Le Mans – he’s won the race an incredible eight times since 1997, but there’s a ‘new breed’ of Audi driver in the shape of André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoit Tréluyer. The three drivers won Le Mans in 2011 and 2012 and are considered by many to be the fastest Audi men out there. “Yes, we’d like them to piss off and finish a very fine second,” comments 43-year-old McNish jokingly when I bring them up. “Crikey, though, when I was 30, which is roughly what André is, I lapped the field at Sears Point, including my team-mates, in a stint and a half. I would sincerely hope that they are giving us a hard time because if they weren’t they should be looked at. That’s a simple hard fact of life.

“Competition has got to be there and new people must come through, which is good for everyone because every new group that comes in does things a bit differently. I know I did when I arrived at Porsche [in 1996]. I did things differently from [Hans] Stuck, Bob [Wollek] and [Thierry] Boutsen because I was a different generation. It opens your eyes if you look at what the new people are doing. It’s better than just sitting back and saying ‘I wish they’d bugger off’.”

McNish only looks one year ahead at a time, but is adamant he won’t be racing for that much longer. He has two Le Mans wins under his belt and is widely regarded as one of the best sports car drivers of his generation, but with the likes of Lotterer, Tréluyer, Fässler and Jarvis in the sister cars he’ll need to use all of his experience to claim that third win. As we all know, though, anything can happen at Le Mans, which is why so many of us love it. See you out there.

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