Ten years after winning the world’s longest and most gruelling race — the Le Mans 24-Hours — for the first time, Allan McNish this week stood bewildered and, completely out of character, speechless. His Audi — thankfully not his diesel-powered R10TDI race car, but his road-going hired A4 — stood in front of him perched on its four wheels which had been removed and wedged vertically under the outer edges of the stranded car.
After what felt like an eternity, the 38-year-old racer from Dumfries broke the silence: “Bloody Alex! I’ll get him back for this, don’t worry.”
Within seconds McNish was surrounded by his Audi team-mate, Frenchman Alex Premat and his laughing posse of fellow reprobates who, while the Scot had been completing a debrief after a test session had carried out the prank. It turned out though, Premat’s actions were payback.
“Yeh, it’s become something of a tradition in the build-up to Le Mans,” McNish — and bearing in mind it was now 3am — beamed, his boyish face lit up like the classroom’s favourite cheeky rascal. “We love playing trick on each other. Problem is, I only plastered his car’s windscreen with yoghurt. This? This is mainstream, but I’ll get one over him when he’s least expecting it.”
The perfect payback for McNish, acknowledged as the best sportscar racer in the world and who will again be partnered this weekend by Italian Dindo Capello and Dane Tom Kristensen, would be a second Le Mans win. And while the racer himself plays down his bad luck in the event — which hurtles along the 8.47-mile lap which includes French roads normally laden with gargantuan trucks and farmers’ tractors — it’s a victory many in the sport believe is long, long overdue.
“It’s difficult to believe it’s 10 years since I won here,” McNish, the president of the Scottish Motor Racing Club, explained. “Looking back, it all seemed so easy then. The thing is I’ve been trying to win the bloody thing again ever since, but Lady Luck just hasn’t been on my side.
“In 1999 we were going well in the Toyota when Thierry Boutsen hit a backmarker and crashed during the night. Then in 2000 we had a gearbox problem on the Audi R8 and we had to change the whole rear-end.
“In 2004 a GT car blew its engine right in front of me at the Porsche Curves and myself and JJ Lehto went off in a big way. The next year my co-driver Emanuele Pirro had a problem behind the pace car and we struggled to come back after that.
“In 2006 we had a misfire that cost us a shot at the race, and last year we were in the lead by miles when a wheel fell off while Dindo Capello was driving. So if you go by the laws of ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve,’ I’m about ready for another win. But then I say that every year.”
Make no mistake, for McNish — despite the lighthearted antics — the Le Mans 24-Hours IS his year. Everything else, either in the build-up or the aftermath, is of no consequence. This is what he races for; it’s what he lives for.
“Le Mans is just so special,” McNish, who won in 1998 driving his Porsche 911 GT1-98 with Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello, continued. “It’s the ultimate test of man and machinery. It’s awesome.”
Times too have changed. While McNish acknowledges his win a decade ago came about simply because “the Porsche was reliable and we ran smoothly all the way through,” now the race is a flat-out sprint from start to finish.
“Technology has moved on so fast, reliability is rarely an issue. Now it’s all about pace: but race pace over 24 hours, not just qualifying.”
McNish’s final remark was aimed squarely at bitter rivals Peugeot who fill the front three slot on the 55-car grid — with Frenchman Stéphane Sarrazin on the on pole — ahead of the fourth-placed Scot.
“They just wanted the early headlines for the Saturday French papers,” McNish laughed. “We want to be first past the chequered flag at 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. That’s the headline we want.”