McNish on being voted into Hall of Fame: ‘I’m so proud to be recognised’

Sports Car News

After being voted by Motor Sport readers into the Hall of Fame as our next 'Le Mans Legend', Allan McNish looks back on a glittering career

McNish lead

McNish's gritty determination saw him come to be a legend of endurance racing

Audi

It’s not just what you do, but the way you do it. Allan McNish’s achievements on the track are incredible in themselves, but the manner in which he succeeded at the top level of motor sports, with what he describes as a “determination never to give up”, has endeared him to sports car fans the world over.

Perhaps no surprise then, that Motor Sport readers have voted McNish as the ‘Le Mans Legend’ to go into our ‘Hall of Fame’ this year. It’s a recognition the Scot says he’s “very proud” to receive.

“I’m so proud to be recognised by the readers, because they’re very, very knowledgeable,” he told Motor Sport. “They understand their stuff – they definitely know a Capello from a Kristensen from a McNish!”

“I never believed I would race Le Mans, never mind pick up a few trophies”

Looking back on his career, McNish explained how his earliest steps in professional motor sport set him on a path to sealing his place in the Le Mans history books.

“When I was karting, one of my first ever sponsors was Hugh McCaig had revamped the [cult Scottish sports car team] Ecurie Ecosse in the early ‘80s,” he says. “He took Group C2 cars to Le Mans, and so I was very aware of what was going on there.

“As well as that, the person that really started me off in racing, David Leslie, was driving for Hugh, and was the lap-recorder holder at La Sarthe in that class.

“So, whilst I was obviously focused on and watching Formula 1, I was also hearing all about Le Mans in the background.

26 Aiello Laurent (fra), McNish Allan (gbr), Ortelli Stéphane (fra), Porsche AG, Porsche 911 GT1, action during the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1998, from June 6 to 7, in Le Mans, France - Photo DPPI

Surprise Porsche Supercup appearance ultimately led to first Le Mans win in ’98 (pictured)

DPPI

“However, I never ever believed that I would actually race there, never mind being thankful to pick up a few trophies along the way.”

McNish’s entry into sports cars, however, did come in some age-old circumstances for many F1 aspirants, when his single-seater career stalled.

Having at one point being McLaren’s test driver, McNish almost replaced an unwell Gerhard Berger at the ‘91 Monaco GP, but by 1996 his bid for F1 was going nowhere. He was now humbly relegated to spotter work for Bernie Ecclestone’s FOCA TV channel.

Then suddenly, everything changed. By virtue of being a presence in the grand prix paddock, McNish was asked by then-Joest now-Williams boss Jost Capito to be the guest driver at the British GP Porsche Supercup round. His impressive wildcard performance at that race opened a door.

From the archive

Before he knew it, the man from Dumfries was in the Stuttgart hot-seat driving the fearsome 911 GT1 at Le Mans ‘97 – not that he was totally comfortable with the experience first time round.

“Terrifying – absolutely and utterly terrifying,” he says of his initial La Sarthe laps. “I had driven Formula 1 cars, probably 150 days worth in between McLaren and Benetton, so I knew what speed was.

“But I remember it as if it was yesterday, going down to that first chicane – it was like being in Star Trek and going into Warp Factor 3. Back then there were a lot of tram lines in the middle of the road, where the trucks had been going every day. It wasn’t as if it was resurfaced every year.

“The car was sort of dancing around in these tram lines, it didn’t have huge downforce.

“When I got a telephone call from Porsche it was like someone said, ‘We believe in you.'”

“I braked towards the end of the straight, downshifted and then had to accelerate and upshift again, because I’d braked so early for the corner! Your first laps were like 15/20 seconds off the pace. It’s easier these days!”

That ’97 Le Mans attempt ended in a DNF, but one year later he was a La Sarthe winner, the Porsche pulling through where the might of Mercedes, BMW and Toyota couldn’t. McNish relished the moment, and said he felt totally rejuvenated by sports cars.

“When I first got a telephone call from Porsche motorsport boss Herbert Ampferer, it was like someone said, “Yeah, we believe in you.”

“It’s difficult to estimate what value that has, and also what lap-time value that has, but without question, they had confidence in me.

14 Apr 2002: Allan McNish of Toyota in action during the Formula One San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. \ Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Tough year in F1 brought a ruthlessness which McNish utilised once at Audi

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

“When I was standing on the podium at Le Mans ‘98, it was a Laurent Aïello, Stéphane Ortelli, and myself – three complete rookies. Not the fancied runners but generally, I think, the quickest ones who delivered in terms of getting the car to the end and winning. But I had no idea how it would change my career in the way that it did.

“Suddenly it brought me back to people’s attention, including in F1. It just showed the power of Le Mans, one of the biggest sporting events in the world.”

After Porsche pulled out, McNish moved over to Toyota before the Japanese giant quit sports cars too, but the links he had made with the latter swept him along into its burgeoning grand prix squad.

Though that partnership ultimately ended after a single 2002 season, McNish says the experience made him an even better sports car driver.

“One thing that was very clear is that even before the first race, the politics of F1 is huge,” he says. “That was internal within the team and it’s also just the drivers lined up at the motorhome wanting to get your seat!

“It made me a much, much harder driver within a team. Probably not a nicer person, if I’m very frank with you, but it made me much more ruthless to make sure I got what I needed for my car’s success.

“I was maybe a lot more accommodating in ’98, but after the Formula 1 experience, I was significantly more on point on all the areas that we needed to be looking at to be successful.”

And so from there, mighty levels of sports car success came. Back at Audi (he had driven for the German marque for one season in 2000 before leaving for F1) with the ground–breaking R8 and R10, McNish claimed four Sebring 12 Hours, four Petit Le Mans, three ALMS titles and two more Le Mans wins, in 2008 and 2013.

Those cars put its pilots under F1-levels of g-forces, but they were also heavier – not to mention the fact they had to be driven for considerably longer. He therefore credits his mental strength developed in sports cars as being just as important as his physical fitness.

“Right from the beginning, I realised that one of the things that you had to do was to concentrate for a long period of time, at a very, very high level,” he says.

“When we did tyre tests, we either did 20 hot-lap glory runs on new sets, or you’d do the donkey work, as I called it, i.e. the long stints. I always put my hand up for those, and would push like hell to get me physically and mentally in the zone for what I would need during Le Mans. It would also set a benchmark for everyone else.”

McNish 2008

Second Le Mans win came with Audi R10 in ’08 – McNish’s favourite competition car he drove

Grand Prix Photo

Once McNish was teamed up with Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen and eventual three-time winner Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello, they became an almost unstoppable force, as the results mentioned above illustrate.

“There was definitely a mentality, and it was not just myself, but our car and team, that we would take everything to the edge,” he says. “First lap: on it. Last lap: on it. And everything in between had to be on it too.”

It was with this combination that McNish took one of his greatest sports car victories, and one he picks out as a particular favourite.

“The 2008 Le Mans win was probably one of the ones for me because in ’07 we were leading by three and a half laps on pure speed, absolute pure speed – we delivered the perfect performance.

From the archive

“At eight in the morning, the right rear wheel came off for Dindo coming into Indianapolis with six hours to go. “I thought, What do I have to do to win another one? What on earth?’

“But that actually created a resolve and I think it was one of the things that actually delivered the ‘08 victory. We knew we had to dig deep particularly as Peugeot had stepped up the game significantly.

“We had to come in on the first safety car because we were so on the limit with fuel. We were stretching everything from first second to the last second of that race. That was definitely a key one, because that was about the human performance as much as the car performance.”

McNish would sign off his racing career in style in 2013 by taking the World Endurance Championship, helped along that year by a third Le Mans victory.

As well as an Audi Le Mans victory being picked out by McNish, it no surprise he also plumps for an Ingolstadt machine when asked to choose his favourite competition car.

“Easy, the Audi R10!” he exclaims. “That car changed so many things. It was a car that was a bit of a brute to drive, in that it had so much power and torque that if you did not control it, it controlled you.

McNish 2013

2013 in the Audi R18, and en route to his final La Sarthe victory

Audi

“You had to pick it up and throw it around to get the best out of it, but when you did, God, it gave you so much back.

“It was also a pretty ruthless time of racing because we were racing against the might of Peugeot at their peak, but I loved that car and I just enjoyed the whole challenge of it – never mind the fact that it brought us a Le Mans win, two ALMS titles, a couple of Sebrings and three back to back Petit Le Mans.”

Appraising his career, the “ruthless” yet affable Scot is only grateful for what sports cars has given him, and also evidently humbled by the Motor Sport award.

“I never, ever thought motor sport was going to be a career for me,” he says. “We are basically farmers, as a region, where I’m from.

“For a wee boy from the southwest of Scotland, when I first heard about the Ecurie Ecosse team for the first time, there’s no way I would ever have believed that I would be recognised into the Motor Sport ‘Hall of Fame.’”