Allan McNish – Racing, that’s all that matters

(Interview by S.Murtas – realized and published in September 2014)

Thirty-two years behind a steering wheel, from karting to F1, excelling in endurance, always side by side with the legends of modern motorsport. If his break in F1 came a bit late, Allan’s spectacular racing career must serve as an inspiration to those who have talent and passion running through their veins.

Wenige Tage vor seinem 44. Geburtstag hat Audi-Werksfahrer Allan McNish erklaert, seine aktive Laufbahn in der Saison 2014 nicht fortzusetzen.

Allan McNish wearing the Audi colours in 2013.

The guy is non-stop excitement. Super cool, friendly, exciting, Allan’s contagious enthusiasm kept us hooked for about an hour during the European Championships final round. He shared his inspiring story, a fantastic journey that began and ended with Karting, and found an FIA World Championship title, three 24H Le Mans victories and many more wins in between!

1985 British Karting Champion: you’ve gone a long way…

“Yes, I can’t believe so much time has gone by! I actually started racing karts in 1981 at Rowrah, in north of England, just before my 12th birthday – the earliest you could start karting back then was at 11. It all happened thanks to a guy called David Leslie, he was from my home town in Dumfries, a great inspiration. David also raced cars, and when I said that I wanted to take a look at it, one day he took me to Rowrah and it all sort of went from there.”

Six years in Karting, three British titles, six Scottish titles, and then your racing career has been non-stop…

“That’s right, from 1981 to 1986. I spent most of my Karting career in the Junior ranks, and then I moved up to Seniors for my last season. Some great runs, a couple of British Championships, Super One or Green Man as it was called back then, Scottish Championships, and ultimately the World Championship in 1985 where I finished 3rd and the European Championship the following year…”

Terry Fullerton was your mentor: it must have been great to have him as coach in the early part of your career…

“I was fortunate enough to have Terry by my side in ‘85 and ’86. Terry has got an instinctive feel of what’s right, when a driver is going to make a mistake. He instinctively knows what’s going to happen before it actually does happen, and he taught me to think along those lines. Over the two years I raced for him I think I had one compliment off him, and we truly won a lot of races.

We won every single Super One race in 1985, which was a stunning year for us in Senior. Of all those races and wins, only once I remember him saying “yeah, that was good”, which meant that you had to improve, you weren’t the best you could be, and he was very clear at telling you when and where you needed to improve.”

It must have been tough…

“I needed that! Just to give you an example, when we went testing sometimes we would run together, especially for engine tests. The trick was that we did the track backwards, to see who was the quickest to get the best laptime. And were things like this that made me realize the immense skill he had on a kart!”

How important has your Karting experience been for the rest of your career?

“The last two years with Terry were fundamental, but Karting as a whole taught me a lot; it taught me all the race craft, which I used all the way through my racing career. Overtaking was something I had to learn in Karting, because we used to have three heats – one starting at the front, one in the middle and one at the back of the field – so to be anywhere near the front grid for the final you had to be good at overtaking. And it’s been one of my strengths throughout my entire career, also in racing cars.”

What else do you value most of your Karting experience?

“Karting also gave me a real feel for what was important: how to look at a circuit, understand which part of the circuit you needed to take risks and which parts you needed to be clean on your exit, where you can gain time on entry or is it better to lose time on entry and gain on exit… all of that structure, it really gave something that I’ve built on in the rest of my career.”

Sparsamer und schneller zugleich ? so hat Audi die 24 Stunden von Le Mans 2013 mit dem R18 e-tron quattro und seinen Fahrern Lo c Duval (F), Tom Kristensen (DK) und Allan McNish (GB) gewonnen.

The Audi trio celebrating the 24 Hour Le Mans 2013 win next to the R18 e-tron Quattro. From left, Loic Duval (F), Tom Kristensen (DK) and Allan McNish (GB).

Why do you think Karting has seemingly lost some of its popularity among the younger generations?

“Difficult to say, but in Karting as well in other sport there are trends. The Senna film highlighted Karting a little bit again in the public eye, but times have changed. Back when I used to race, Karting was a hobby for most people, and a business for very few. Now Karting is a business for a lot, and a hobby for a few. This is something we need to be careful of, because if you only have the top and nothing below it, it doesn’t work. Back in my days, everyone viewed Karting as a sport, whereas nowadays it’s viewed as a career, something that it’s going to lead to car racing, to Formula 1… that can definitely happen for a few, but for most it won’t. And so for the continuation of this sport, and for club Karting the situation ought to be addressed.”

If you were to identify a measure from which to start, which would it be?

“The world has changed, we live in a world of social media, where everything that happens can reach millions of people around the world in five minutes. Something that Rob Jones and the MSA have been very proactive is to try to understand where Karting is now and where it needs to be especially in the United Kingdom. This is the starting point. Then, I think we should at Karting in two ways: the Club level, for the people who want to enjoy the sport as a sport, something they do over the weekend purely for fun; the professional level, teams and drivers that want to progress. But the starting point is to understand your marketplace.”

Expanding on this, do you think the recent news of Max Verstappen signed in F1 by Red Bull for 2015 can be beneficial to Karting or it’s rather a double-edge sword?

“I think it’s very much a double-edge sword, because it allows people to think that’s the correct and normal way. You see, I think the biggest difficulty for Max Verstappen will not be driving the Formula 1 car. His biggest difficulty will be coping with the life of Formula 1, with all of the media attention, the travelling, the constant stress of a racing weekend, plus the fact that your career is defined by what you do at the beginning. It’s something that requires a little bit of worldly-wise experience. I know that at his age I wasn’t prepared, but people develop differently, nowadays there are driver development programs such as the one of the MSA, and coping with F1 pressure at such a young age is something that only a few people can do. In this respect, I’m sure that Max Verstappen is the exception, not the rule. Generally speaking though, I’m a big fun of learning to walk before you can run…”

It seems that the age limit is getting lower and lower. Even the recent measure announced by the MSA allowing drivers as young as 15 to step in single-seaters, as well as the launch of the FIA Formula 4 Championship in the UK go in this direction… does this benefit Karting?

“You can look at it in two ways. It may bring more people into Karting, because they know they have to gain experience to go through, but it takes them out of Karting a little bit early. To some extent it’s market forced, I personally think that 16 is a good age. But I believe that the MSA is very correct in making sure that young drivers in the UK continue their racing and learning careers in the UK. So the opportunity to reduce the age to 15 on certain basis was a clever measure to keep drivers in the country.”

What was it like for you when you moved your first steps into car racing?

“Honestly, I didn’t want to leave Karting. I was very happy to race go-karts, I wanted to race the Karting World Championship in Senior, but I had a sponsor who prompted me to jump in a single-seater. So I kind of started Formula Ford by accident, I was quite fast, but I didn’t enjoy it, I hated that season! It had no grip, it was just alien to me, I didn’t get on with it. Sure, I won races, but it just didn’t click. Then at the end of the year Marloborough was looking for young drivers for their young drivers program, and they asked me to go to a test at Donington Park. They were picking 2 drivers out of 8 for Formula 3 Opel Lotus and Formula 3000, and Mikka Hakkinen and I were selected for the Opel Lotus. Only driving that car I understood, because it had wings, downforce, slick tyres, and I could relate to it. I’d say my first year in Formula Ford was far less enjoyable than any of my karting years, and it was because the kart and the car didn’t have any relationship.”

 

McNish testing the McLaren in 1989

McNish testing the McLaren in 1989

Then you had your first test in Formula 1 with McLaren in 1989…

“I just raced the first three of four rounds of my F3 season when I received a call from Ron Dennis asking to go to Woking and have a discussion with him. I didn’t really know what to expect, he said “you’ve won British F3 Championship, you’ve done a good test in the McLaren, so here’s a 3-year testing agreement”. Clearly at 19 you’d jumped over the desk, grab his pen and sign it, which is exactly what happened. So my first test was in 1989 in Estoril, Portugal, with Senna on the other side of the garage. It was a pretty cool situation, my father came and took plenty of pictures, but because the cars were doing 200 mph, all he got was the grandstand! So I have no picture record of that special day.”

 

Few more years of testing at Benetton with Schumacher, then the GT Series with Porsche, but your big break in F1 came only 2002 with Toyota. Was there ever a time when you felt unaccomplished because your F1 career never gained momentum?

“Not really. When I signed with Toyota I had done so many kilometers in the Benettons and McLarens, but in reality it was too late. I was already 32 years old and it was just too late. But you take the chance when it comes, I already had a very established racing career so I knew it wasn’t much of a risk, I could go back to that without question. To have the biggest car manufacturer in the world, signing as their first Formula 1 driver was quite a thing. Ultimately we never got the results we wanted, but it actually gave me a lot of experience that I was able to use in sports cars with Audi. In Formula 1, unless you are with one of the top-3 teams, you never going to win. So when I signed with Renault as test driver the following year, I realized the huge gap despite all the money and facilities Toyota could dispose of. The first ever lap I did with Renault in Barcelona was quicker than my best qualifying lap in the Toyota!”

Allan's big break in F1 came only 2002 with Toyota Racing Team

Allan’s big break in F1 came only 2002 with Toyota Racing Team

You had a fantastic racing career despite F1, I’d say. In 2013 you managed to win the FIA World Endurance Championship. How special was it?

“You don’t know how special! In my career I competed four times in the FIA World Championships. Karting in 1985, Formula 1 in 2002 where there was no chance, Sports Cars in 2012 where I finished 2nd, and Endurance in 2013 when we won. But 1985 in Karting for the World Championship in Le Mans was probably the biggest single disappointment in my career. It was a big fight throughout the weekend, there were some huge names, and I jump-started from pole in the final, just out of pure inexperience. At the end I finished third, behind Andrea Gilardi, an incredibly talented kid, and none other than Michael Schumacher. I kicked myself like you wouldn’t believe, there was like a knot in my stomach twisting for a long, long time. At the time it was the biggest kick I could have had, because I knew I had one chance and it went.

Then another chance came last year, we were in a good position halfway through the season, and I was never going to let it go. So when I crossed the line in China it was one of the most special slowing down laps because I finally got the title, and also I knew that was it, I knew it was my last season. This shows that it might take a long time before you get the next chance, but sooner or later you’ll get that chance, so a bit of that win in China was for 1985.”

 

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