McNish: guest editor and World Champion


Talk about timing. It’s almost as if we planned it…

Motor Sport has invited guest editors in before over the past couple of years: Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jackie Stewart, Jody Scheckter. But we’d never asked an active racing driver to join us to put a special issue together. That’s all changed now, as Allan McNish nudges me from my seat for the January issue to talk sports cars and 30 action-packed years in motor racing.

Being the decent chap he is, Allan showed admirable dedication to the guest editor role – although it was surely beyond the call of duty to ensure ‘his’ issue hits the newsstands just a few weeks after he’d claimed the first world championship title of his career. The man is clearly a born marketer…

Audi’s World Endurance Champion secured his title alongside old mate Tom Kristensen and new-for-2013 comrade Loïc Duval in Shanghai on November 9 – about 10 days before the January issue closed for press – but he’d already put in the lion’s share of work for us on the magazine. He’d spent a day in the Motor Sport office, recording another great audio podcast, and had already helped me piece together the key feature of the new edition. It’s something a little different.

A different kind of road trip

Back in September I traveled to Austin and witnessed what would turn out to be a key victory in McNish and co’s successful title campaign. It would also prove to be a much better race than the Grand Prix a couple of months later, even if barely a tenth of the crowd turned out to watch it. Daft – but such is life beyond F1 and NASCAR these days.

The day after his victory, instead of flying home, Allan and I embarked on a good old-fashioned US road trip, to explore the glorious Lone Star State of Texas.

Racing drivers relish travelling the world, but rarely get the chance to see little more than airports, hotels and race tracks. Here was a prime opportunity to find out more about one of the best places on the WEC calendar, and happily for me, McNish jumped at the chance.

The morning after the race he and I set off in an Audi RS 5 for a two-day trip that would lead us to the most German town west of Ingolstadt, visit hallowed historical ground in San Antonio, pass oil refineries the size of small cities, gaze in awe at behemothic aircraft carriers – and a meet a sociable cricket with ambitions to broaden his horizons…

The trip (I guess I was Rob Brydon to Allan’s Steve Coogan) offered me a chance for unguarded interviews with one of the best Le Mans drivers in history. Away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I hoped it would offer a great chance for McNish to reflect on a life dedicated to motor sport, and I duly returned with recordings that ran to about 10,000 words of transcription…

I crammed the best bits into the magazine article, but still there were fascinating chunks that didn’t make the cut. So I thought I’d share a slice with you here.

McNish thinks hard about his sport and as I’d discover, it’s never far from his mind. Every now and then, he’d catch me off-guard with a question such as “if you could change one thing about F1, what would it be?” (Perhaps you’d like to share your thoughts below.) He’s also caught up in the history of racing and is fascinating on the subject of how the sport has changed.

Driving has changed

Over an unlikely lunch of Bratwurst on day one, he offered this fascinating nugget:

“Physically, old racing cars are not that difficult to drive, but they need a different sort of concentration,” he began.

“Even in my time it’s changed so much. But particularly before wings you had to pivot the car on the throttle, using the brake and the throttle to pitch it and move it. Now you load it all on to the front tyre, and hook it in.

“Before you couldn’t do that, you had to play on the throttle. Now we’ve got traction control systems so we don’t do that anymore. The whole concept of how you get around the corner has definitely changed.

“The powerslides coming out of corners was partly because it was the only way to get round, and the concentration to get the correct slip angle was all about feel and understanding because back then they didn’t have computers to help them. The concentration to be at that level for a large amount of time… you were doing everything – downshifting into corners, heeling and toeing, one hand off the wheel trying to go through an H-pattern gearbox…

“Now there’s no thought process into driving at all: pull a paddle and away you go. We shift down in the middle of corners now. But we use so many more gears per lap than we used to. Gearshifts at Le Mans have probably gone up by 20 per lap – just because we can and because we get more performance out of the car by doing so. Driver concentration is still very high, but [beyond driving] it’s to maximise performance with brake balance changes, hybrid setting changes and so on, all of which sometimes happen corner to corner.

“You use your brain capacity in different ways. So those that have the feel, understanding and driving capability naturally and don’t have to work for it, have more brain capacity for performance and how to improve, whether it’s knowing what the car’s doing and downloading it with the engineer later or whether it’s being able to adjust all the parameters they can to make the car go faster [in real time]. If you’ve got less brainpower going into driving, you’ve got more available to do the other stuff.

“It’s like you – you write as second nature, you don’t look at the keyboard when you type, whereas I do.”

For the record, I’d rather be able to do what he does.

More on sports cars
Brian Redman
Allan McNish, World Endurance Champion
Mario Andretti at Le Mans
Looking ahead to Le Mans 2014
Nissan unveils ‘zero emissions’ racer

Suitably for a McNish issue, we also offer some insightful Formula 1 content this month. Allan remains engaged with contemporary Grands Prix through his Radio 5 Live commentary work, and in the January issue we feature a jaw-dropping interview with Lewis Hamilton. I say jaw-dropping because when Adam Cooper caught up with the 2008 champion, he was clearly in a relaxed and open frame of mind. God, girlfriends and Bob Marley were all on the agenda…

Simon Arron offers a profile of Daniel Ricciardo and explains, with the help of those who know him well, why the young Aussie should be just fine when he steps up to join four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull next year (no pressure though…).

The other Simon, that man Taylor, lunches with an old friend of McNish’s – two-time IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran. Meanwhile, Australian Michael Stahl talks to one of motor racing’s great engineers and designers: Ron Tauranac.

If we thought Hamilton was open, we’d seen nothing yet. Jack Brabham’s partner was always blunt – and age clearly hasn’t mellowed him. His attitude to death – including his own – is particularly enlightening.

Allan offers further thoughts in Matters of Moment, but as I write he’s already moved on. This weekend marks the final round of the WEC, in Bahrain, while he’s already thinking about 2014, the defence of his title – and the juicy prospect of taking on the returning force of Porsche and a certain Mark Webber.

He can’t wait. And neither can we.

Click here to read more from Damien Smith

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