Audi’s veteran ace teams with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval to tackle the Circuit de la Sarthe
“I dislike a lot about Le Mans,” says Allan McNish, who has twice claimed the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “It is one of the most beautiful places in the world when you are winning; it is one of the most painful places in the world when you don’t.”
The Audi factory driver first drove in the legendary French sports-car race in 1997.
“Until I arrived here, I was under the impression everyone drove around at 75 or 80 percent. I didn’t appreciate it,” he says. “Then I did my first stint, going 200 mph down the Mulsanne. It felt like I was going 2,000 mph.”
That was the moment he understood Le Mans and the Circuit de la Sarthe.
“Until you go there for the first time you think it is only a race,” he continues. “But once you get there you realize it is the race.”
The 24 Hours has given McNish more than his share of memories. The good ones include eight trips to the podium including those two overall victories, in 1998 and 2008. The worst of the bad memories was his massive crash at the beginning of the 2011 race.
“I simply did not see the [other] guy,” he says. The crash destroyed his Audi and left McNish with a concussion, sidelining him for several weeks. Only once he understood what had happened was he able to immediately put the accident behind him. He says simply, “The fact of the matter is, if a crash affects you and you are not in a position to go flat-out [because you are timid afterward], then you are beaten and you might as well look to do something different.”
Scottish driver McNish is just one of several notably successful racing drivers produced by his country, which also claims as its own some of the sport’s incredibly successful stars: Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Colin McRae, David Coulthard and Dario Franchitti.
“We come from a country of only five million people,” he says. “We have been punching above our weight since the 1950s. We are the best sporting export Scotland has. It makes you proud.
“There are big shoes to fill and I am quite proud the current generation are doing a good job. And the next generation will do an even better job. We feel a common bond, and we are proud of who we are and what we do.”
McNish is asked to give an example of how much the cars and technology have changed during his years at Audi.
“In 1999, the Audi R8 hit 220 mph on the Mulsanne and had the fastest race lap of around three minutes, 35 seconds,” he says. “In 2012, the R18 averaged around 200 mph on the Mulsanne, 10 percent slower than the 1999 car, but did a lap time of 3:23.00 — a full 12 seconds a lap faster.”
He describes race week as an ever-increasing build-up of pressure. This is due to the responsibilities outside of the cockpit such as technical scrutineering and autograph sessions early in the week, daily sponsor commitments, pit-stop practice, daily team meetings and driver debriefs, and not getting to bed until the wee hours of the morning following practice and qualifying days, and media interviews throughout the week.
“It is an intense affair, unlike any other, “says McNish. “It requires 200 percent professionalism. But when you are sitting on the grid and the race is about to get going — that’s the enjoyment of it all.”
McNish will co-drive with Frenchman Loic Duval and eight-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. This year’s race promises to be an epic battle within the Audi ranks, as the veteran Scotsman and Dane both want another trip to the top step of the podium.
With the weekend scrutineering complete, and the first practice session a day away, the excitement and tension of the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans has begun.