TWENTY-FOUR HOURS AFTER WINNING HIS SECOND LE MANS 24-HOURS RACE, SCOTS RACER ALLAN McNISH TALKED EXCLUSIVELY TO JIM McGILL
Twenty-four hours after winning the world’s greatest race, the Le Mans 24-Hours, Scots racing ace Allan McNish was back behind the wheel of a car. This time though, rather than hurtling round the 8.47-mile La Sarthe circuit in his Audi R10 TDI race car, the 38-year-old from Dumfries was piloting his diesel-powered Audi A4 hire car up the motorway to Paris.
“Bit of a change to what I was driving yesterday,” he smiled as he headed to the airport before catching a plane to Nice and an emotional reunion with his wife, Kelly, and three-year-old son, Finlay.
“But this is the real life of a racing car driver. One minute we’re racing the most technologically advanced cars at breakneck speeds, the next we’re queuing like everyone else to pay our toll at the peage. It can be pretty surreal at times.”
The fiercely proud Scot, one of the most articulate and consummately professional racing drivers in the world, admitted the significance of his second Le Mans victory — the first was 10 years ago with Porsche — was only now beginning to sink in.
“The biggest feeling I have is one of relief,” McNish, who drove for nine-and-a-half hours and was partnered in the race-winning Audi by Italian Dindo Capello and Dane Tom Kristensen, admitted. “This year there was incredible pressure on Audi because everyone knew Peugeot had a faster car; they were four to five seconds a lap faster.
“We also knew our car was at the end of its life. It’s three-years-old now and this was always going to be its last race at Le Mans. We knew we needed to apply pressure immediately to the three Peugeots, which had all qualified ahead of us on the grid, and hope they made mistakes. Thankfully that’s exactly what they did.”
And McNish confided his aggressive approach to the first lap of the race — which eventually covered 381 laps and almost 3300 miles — was something he had not even discussed with the Audi management.
“I knew if I got half a chance in the first couple of corners I would try to get past at least one of them, especially the No8 Peugeot with Nic Minassian driving it. They were always going to be our biggest rivals and it was important for me to strike the first psychological blow,” he continued.
Seconds into the first lap, McNish dived down the inside of Minassian’s car forcing his way up to third. Irrespective of the fact the Frenchman regained the position later in the lap, the Scot knew a job had been done.
“Nick, and everyone at Peugeot, knew then we were going to hound them right through the race. We were going to race them every second of the 24 hours. There would be no rest; no hiding place.”
Fast-forwarding to the final minutes of the race, with Kristensen bringing the lead Audi home, McNish — who had never won for Audi in his six attempts, but had finished second and third — couldn’t bear to watch and instead buried himself in detailed discussions about the final tyre choice.
“We knew we had one final tyre change to make and the choice was crucial,” McNish explained. “A heavy rainstorm was forecast to hit the circuit with just 21 minutes left, but fortunately at the last minute it was blown off course. We made the right choice.”
While the Scot fully expects to be back to defend his title next year, he admits he doesn’t know what his car will look like, or whether it will be diesel or petrol-powered.
“There’s a lot of technical things going on behind the scenes at the moment; things that not even we drivers are privy to. Diesel or petrol? I honestly don’t know. Like me you’ll have to wait and see.”
McNish also gave an insight into the camaraderie which percolates through the teams despite the intensity of the Le Mans 24-Hours week.
“After the race while we were celebrating, the mechanics from Minassian’s Peugeot came down to the Audi hospitality. Not only were they applauded when they came in, but they wanted to swap shirts with the Audi mechanics. It was brilliant. Just like the end of a football match.”
And McNish, slipping into his role as president of the Scottish Motor Racing Club, hopes his latest success will fire other young Scots to success.
“I know how important it is for young racers to have targets and hopefully by winning Le Mans I can inspire other young Scots to improve and reach the top. I can’t go on for ever, but I know we’ve a fine wee crop of youngsters coming through the ranks.”
Hours after Sunday’s historic win — which, of course, came on Father’s Day — and as the celebrations gathered pace, McNish slipped back into ‘dad’ mode as the tiredness crept over him. Knowing he had a flight to catch in the morning, he was tucked up in bed by 11pm and slept like a log before waking with his 7.30am alarm.
“Then I had to pack my bags — yes, I pack my own bags — pack the car, not forgetting the trophy, and get on the road. I spoke to Kelly this morning and she’s told Finlay I won the big race. Problem is, being a three-year-old, he thinks it’s the Piston Cup from the film ‘Cars’. I’ve a feeling he might be a bit disappointed, but I’m sure it’s nothing an ice cream won’t cure.”