It may have been 10 years in the waiting, but after what he described as the “most stressful and hardest” Le Mans 24-Hours race of his career, Dumfries racer Allan McNish finally clinched his second victory in what is accepted as the world’s toughest race.
After 381 laps of the 8.47-mile La Sarthe circuit — which combines part of the race track and long, high speed sections of French country roads which, thankfully, are closed off to the public for the race weekend — McNish celebrated as his No2 Audi R10TDI crossed the finish line 4mins 31.094secs ahead of the second-placed Peugeot.
“That was tough; bloody tough,” the 38-year-old Scot, who last won the epic endurance race in 1998 driving for Porsche, admitted minutes after the gruelling race finished. “We knew the race was going to be intense, but we didn’t fully expect it to be close right up until the final 10 minutes.
“There were dramas all the way to the end, plus the weather decided to mix things up a bit by raining over the closing hours. That certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons.
“We knew before the start of the race that we would have to be fast, very reliable and have good pitstops right through the race. But we also knew we had to be totally committed and exploit any chance that came up. Thankfully Peugeot gave the opportunity to us.”
Scottish Motor Racing Club president McNish, partnered by Italian Dindo Capello and Dane Tom Kristensen — who brought the car through its final stint to take the chequered flag — acknowledged his diesel-powered Audi was not the quickest car.
“We all know Peugeot took the front three places on the grid in qualifying,” the Scot, whose achievement was witnessed by a record crowd of 260,000, continued, “so we knew they were fast. But as I said before the start, it’s who’s fastest over the 24 hours which matters most. And thankfully, today that was us.”
McNish, who over the past few years has seen winning positions at Le Mans snatched away from him through technical failure and unforeseen accidents, admitted to missing a few heartbeats when Kristensen spun late in the race.
“I don’t know who hit Tom, but when I saw him spin I must admit I did think ‘oh God, not again’. Thankfully though there was no damage to the car and he was able to get straight back up to race pace.
“For the last half-hour or so of the race, I couldn’t watch so I hid myself away and really only came back out once Tom was on his last lap. But even that was nerve-racking enough.”
While it was left to Kristensen to take the glory stint and the chequered flag, McNish was responsible for two crucial stints in the Audi. His first stint, which lasted more than two-and-a-half hours saw him hound the three lead Peugeots right from the start of the race.
Such was the Scot’s unrelenting pace and doggedness that within 10 minutes of each other, just after the two-hour mark, the suspected frailty of all three Peugeots came to the surface. As all three pitted for repair work, McNish inherited the lead.
Then in the morning, after Kristensen had wrestled back the lead from Peugeot as the rain fell, McNish took over the car with a slender lead of 30 seconds ahead of the Peugeot — which eventually finished second — driven by Marc Gene, Nick Minassian and former F1 world champ Jacques Villeneuve.
“That stint was crucial because Nick, the best driver in their trio, was behind the wheel and by the time I handed the Audi over to Dindo we’d opened the gap to just over two minutes,” McNish explained. “I think that broke much of their resistance.”
And while the second Peugeot recovered to finish third, the other two Audis completed the race in fourth and seventh. But it was McNish who beamed the biggest smile as he celebrated on the podium perched high above the thousands of spectators who filled the pitlane after the race.
Afterwards drenched in Champagne, resting on the winners’ trophy — which was almost as big as himself — and pointing to a Saltire being waved proudly in the crowd, McNish couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.
“This; this is what my racing life is all about,” he said, his steely eyes betraying his body’s need for sleep, “winning the world’s biggest races and knowing there’s always another Scot watching. It’s brilliant.”