France FIA Awards

MotorSportsTalk’s exclusive interview with Allan McNish

1 Comment

Having announced his retirement from motorsport at the end of the 2013 season, three-time Le Mans winner and former Formula One driver Allan McNish (pictured right) took some time to speak to MotorSportsTalk ahead of his first season without racing in over thirty years. The Scot, who now resides in Monaco, closed out his career with a win at the Circuit de la Sarthe and the World Endurance Championship – so why quit now?

2013 was a very memorable year for you, winning your third 24 Hours of Le Mans and retiring from motor racing. Could you just talk us through your decision to call it quits now? What prompted that decision to walk away? 

ALLAN MCNISH: There wasn’t necessarily any one thing. It was more quite a few things that came together at the right time to allow me to make that decision. First things first, there’s a point when you have to retire, you have to stop racing, certainly at the high level that I was racing at. I’m 44 now. To continue would require a lot of commitment, time as well as physical and mental, and having come off the back of, in terms of success, one of my best ever seasons, winning as you said, Le Mans, winning the world championship, and also for me quite a special one was the fourth time that I’d won the Silverstone 1000km or six hours, which is also the tourist trophy, and that’s the most historic trophy in British motorsport. When all of that came together, it sort of started to build up, this thought, is it maybe going to be the right time? And other opportunities started to come along as well. These situations were developing along the side and it allowed me to make what some people felt must have been a very difficult decision, but in reality was actually quite an easy decision.

In your junior career, what was it that prompted you to move into sportscars? Was it a lack of options in F1 or was there always a burning desire to race and win at Le Mans? 

AM: No, no, there wasn’t a burning desire to race and win at Le Mans, it was because there weren’t opportunities in Formula One. It was a slightly naïve route to be honest with you. I knew of the race, I’d raced the world championship there in ’85 in karting, so the race was very well known to me. The first opportunity I had there was in ’93 with Jaguar in a 220 with TWR, and they asked me about doing it. I was testing with Benetton at the time and didn’t want to change my focus from single seaters at that point. And then later on when I tested with Porsche latterly, that’s when I say I was a bit naïve, that’s when I got in the car and realized actually these are beasts of cars. The transition point was probably fortuitous and probably a bit later then it could been, because like I said, I could have done it earlier in ’93 or at least a one off race. But when it did happen, it was like a light had shone on my head: “actually this is some decent racing.”

Was going over to America ever an option for you? You obviously did the ALMS, but in terms of single seaters, was that ever an option for you?

AM: On a couple of occasions actually. In ’95, PacWest, which was a front running team at the time, they had an open test. There were five drivers, and the idea was that the fastest guy got the job. It’s no secret, I was the fastest guy, but at the end they gave the seat to Mark Blundell. They changed to Mercedes engines and he came straight from McLaren with Merc so you can understand. It obviously frustrated me because I could only do what I do in the cockpit as opposed to the behind the scenes stuff, but that’s the way the world is. You’ve got to grow up and get on with it. After that, with Toyota, they wanted me to look at going to IndyCar because they had a big IndyCar programme. I tested with Penske at Fontana when it was IRL. At the point I have to say in my career, it wasn’t the right move. I had the option of being the third and reserve driver at Renault [in Formula One] and doing their Friday programmes and things like that, or you could make the switch across to learning the ovals and IRL was a predominantly oval racing series at that point. I think unless you’re in a top team in something like that, it wasn’t going to be the right thing. Penske was full already with Gil [de Ferran] and Helio [Castroneves], so there wasn’t an opportunity there, so I took the Renault route.

In 2002 you joined Toyota when they entered Formula One. How did that come about?

AM: Quite simply because I raced for them in ’99 at Le Mans.

So the ties were already there?

AM: Basically, yes. In mid-2000 they announced that they were going to do Formula One. They asked if I would do the testing the following year and race for them in 2002 which I agreed to do.

You then moved to Renault in 2003 as a reserve driver, but after that were there any options to remain in Formula One or did you just decide that the time was right to move out of it?

AM: There were options but the options didn’t basically give me any opportunities. You’ve got to come back to why are you doing it. I go back to my first lap in the Renault in Barcelona. My first lap in the Renault was quicker than my qualifying lap the year before at Toyota. That told me everything I needed to know about where you need to be as a driver: you need to be with a team at the front. If you’re not in that position, then you’re always going to be scrapping around and having the problems that you do when you’re mid-to-back of the grid. That was again a little bit of a light on my head: why are you doing this? You’re doing this because you want to race, to win, to be at the front, to be competitive, to push yourself and all of the other things – or do you just want to be a Formula One driver? I didn’t want to be a Formula One driver; that had very little interest to me on its own, it had to be with the other parameters. Therefore, I’d kept very good relationships with Audi. If I’m totally honest with you, I was quite sure I’d return to Audi at some point. I didn’t know when, but I was quite sure I’d return there at some point. We spoke and went back into driving for Audi in 2004.

Do you think that the same is true in F1 today? Do you think that there are a lot of drivers in that midfield who are just going to remain there scrapping around until they finally have to realize that it’s not going to happen?

AM: There’s one I spoke to at the beginning of last year, and I kind of looked at him and thought “actually, you could make the switch to something else and then revitalize the enjoyment of your career.” Because that’s thing that’s very difficult for people outside to realize, that your whole enjoyment of everything that you’ve done for the last twenty-odd years does get eradicated by that constant grind and struggle that it causes. It’s only when you step out and step away from it that you get re-energized very, very quickly. If you’re on that treadmill and don’t actually know how to get off it, it can wear you down quite a lot. He’s not the driver I’m talking about, but I think Mark Webber jumping across to the Porsche programme… I know for a fact that he’ll have a smile on his face the first time he gets in the car for a race at Silverstone next year. He’ll enjoy it. He’ll enjoy the lack of pressure that goes on, and he’ll enjoy the fact that the team are treating him as a human being and an asset as opposed to someone who can just plug into a seat and plug out if necessary. This whole dynamic of it is quite different from Formula One, and it’s something that I knew from before with Audi and Porsche. From that point, when following that first lap in Barcelona and the opportunities not being there, it was quite clear to me that you’re better to be fighting at the front and having a chance of winning races like Le Mans. Because there was no world championship back then, the American Le Mans Series was like a defacto world championship. Having chances at those things is better than waking up on a Sunday morning in Budapest and thinking “crikey if we have a really good run today we might finish twelfth!”

That makes sense! Do you think this idea of wanting to enjoy racing and be revitalized is a reason for a lot of drivers moving from F1 to endurance racing? 

AM: I think it’s not necessarily the reason; I think it’s something they realize when they do make the jump. I think there’s a few things. Le Mans has gained back its real prestige, and it’s also the world championship that’s alongside it. Every driver wants to fight for a world championship. It’s got a car that’s technically more advanced than a Formula One car, it’s got more downforce and fantastic engineering capabilities there. It’s a real pukka racing car. It’s a beast. From that point of view, you’ve got I would say, really 90% kit underneath you that you can drive and drive flat-out. You don’t have to conserve the tyres, you don’t have to do all that sort of stuff. You just get in and you nail it. That’s a real enjoyable thing to do. As well as that, the racing. The racing keeps you on the edge. It’s defined by seconds as opposed to minutes, and that’s what we’re all about, fighting for the hundredths. I lost Sebring pole position by a thousandth of a second to my teammate. And that’s what you want to do, you’re fighting right at the edge. It’s the pushing and the shoving, it’s exciting all the way through, and I think that’s the reason for doing it.

Looking back on your career, what would you say is the stand-out moment? Would it be one of your Le Mans wins, or winning the world title this year? What is the one moment that really stands out for you?

AM: It’s 32 years of racing! There’s so many different ones…

Maybe if you could pick one of your Le Mans wins, perhaps? 

AM: I don’t think that I could pick one because all three of them are special for very different reasons. All in all, they were very different. But after you win Le Mans the first time, you want to win it again. No question. But then when in 2012 there was a world championship which was something that I had not had the opportunity to really go for since 1985 in karting – there wasn’t one available for the categories I was racing in except for Formula One and I wasn’t going to win that in a Toyota. With that, I have to say, 2013, winning the world championship, and the race in Austin being probably the key defining one because that was really when it took the momentum completely in our direction. It was one of the best executed races that we had in terms of delivery of everything was brilliant by every member of the team on our side of the garage, and I have to say that was one I was very proud of, the championship, because it was something that I’d never had as a trophy on the mantelpiece.

Looking forward to your plans for retirement, would you consider doing some one off races?

AM: In terms of the racing side of it, I’ve stepped back completely out of the total commitment racing programmes. I’m sure at some point I’ll do something. I still enjoy driving and I still enjoy things but it would be for the enjoyment and the passion of it as opposed to necessarily the requirement to do it without any compromises. Although I do know that if I go into something I do it like that anyway, I struggle to do it half-heartedly to be honest with you so I’d probably have to temper myself a little bit. But certainly within the Audi programme I felt that this was the right time to hand it over to the next guy and he can get his opportunity for one thing, which is important. Also the other thing is going to the new regulations and new programme with a clear view of what the team are going to do in the future. From my point of view, I’ll still have quite an involvement with Audi, that’s going to be on the marketing side as well as the sporting side, so I’ll still be pretty busy there.

NHRA: After rough 2015, Courtney Force hopes the force is back with her in 2016

Courtney Force (Getty Images)
Leave a comment

It would be great to borrow a line from Star Wars and to tell NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force, “May the Force be with you.”

Unfortunately for the youngest daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, the force wasn’t even close to being with her in 2015.

In 2014, Courtney was one of the most successful drivers in Funny Car. She won a career-high four wins (out of a career total of seven wins), became the winningest female in Funny Car history, and earned the 100th win by a female driver in NHRA history.

It was a dream season as Force finished a career-best fourth in the standings.

But as good as everything went in 2014, it was the complete opposite in 2015. She failed to win a race, never could mount any type of consistency, and failed to reach the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in her career.

Force ultimately finished a career-worst 11th in the final Funny Car standings.

Even worse, in 24 races, she was eliminated in the first round an unheard of 15 times.

Courtney Force in action (Richard Shute/Auto Imagery)
Courtney Force in action (Richard Shute/Auto Imagery)

But heading into this weekend’s season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., there’s only one direction for Force to go, and that’s up.

“Last year was definitely tough,” Force told NBCSports.com. “There’s really nothing I can point fingers at, but I definitely think it’s going to make us feel a little bit better going into this year. We’re staying positive.”

Force started off positive in Friday’s first day of qualifying, as teammate Robert Hight had the quickest run at 3.942 seconds (at 322.19 mph), while Courtney Force was second-quickest at 3.945 seconds.

 

Much like her famous father, there was a significant amount of change that occurred for the overall John Force Racing operation in 2015.

There was a manufacturer change (to Chevrolet after nearly 20 years with Ford), a primary sponsor change (to Peak AntiFreeze and Lubricants after more than 30 years with Castrol) and just a whole different mojo than she and everyone in John Force Racing had never experienced.

Not so much in 2016, Courtney Force said.

“I feel like the pressure’s off a little bit for all our teams right now,” said Force, a big fan-favorite in the NHRA world. “With Chevy coming on board, Monster, Peak Antifreeze and Lucas (Oil) as sponsors, it was huge for us.

“To have them all really behind us definitely kind of puts us back to having comfort and knowing that we have support out here.”

Now in her fifth full season in the NHRA Funny Car ranks, as well as with primary sponsor Traxxas, Force is ready to forget about 2015 and look forward to a big leap forward in 2016.

“We definitely had a little bit of a rough year last year, but there were a few things we were trying out with the car and I think it just took us a little longer to figure it all out,” she said.

Perhaps the most significant change for Force this season is having two new co-crew chiefs: Dan Hood (husband of sister and former racer Ashley Force Hood) and Ronnie Thompson, who came over from sister Brittany Force’s Top Fuel team.

“I think the two of them are going to work well together and I’m excited,” Courtney Force told MotorSportsTalk. “We brought in a couple of other new people and switched a few positions.

“We’re definitely in our routine again, and the test at Phoenix (last weekend) definitely helped. We’re really just keeping a positive attitude going into this year.”

Father John Force expects big things this season from both Courtney and Brittany.

“I want this to be a big year for my girls,” Force told MST. “I want both Courtney and Brittany to have a big year.”

While that may put extra pressure on someone, knowing it’s your father who has high expectations, Courtney looks at it a bit differently.

“I think there’s always a little bit of pressure because he is my dad, but not really so much from him, maybe just more on myself,” she said. “I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself since I started racing. I push myself hard out here because I really love being in these cars and this opportunity, I’m just trying to take full advantage of it and really show these sponsors what we’re capable of.

“After a rough year like we had last year, I’m ready to get these things turned around and get back to how we used to be. We’ve won a lot of races, we know how to win and having the support of my dad, no, he doesn’t put that pressure on me, which is nice. I’m very lucky that I get to stay on as a driver for his team. I put pressure on myself more than anything.”

If there was one key to last year’s dismal season, it was missing the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, a six-race playoff that begins after the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Heading to Indy, Courtney was still within striking distance of making the Chase, but things didn’t work out the way she hoped they would.

“It was hard, for sure, every week, we went out there,” she said. “At the start of the season, we were like, ‘No, we didn’t have it this weekend, but we’ve always got next weekend.’ The time window to get in there started to get smaller and further away.

“(Not making the Countdown) was definitely a shock. We had Indy to try to make some magic happen and it was out of our hands. We couldn’t do much about it. We went out and that was just the way it was going to be.

“We just kind of had to take it, learn from it and move on. It was definitely a bummer. Since my rookie year, I’ve been in the top 10 every year. But I think it will only make us stronger for this year, which is probably the most important thing that came out of it.”

But now Indy and the entire 2015 season is and will remain in Force’s rearview mirror. It’s full speed ahead in 2016, starting with this weekend’s 56th annual edition of the Winternationals.

“I can’t wait to get back in the swing of things at the start of the season, at my home track in Pomona,” Force said. “I think 2016 will be a great year for our Traxxas Chevy Camaro team and we are ready to make it our year.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Nobuharu Matsushita to remain in GP2 with ART Grand Prix

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Nobuharu Matsushita (JPN, ART Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _MG_4660
© GP2 Series
Leave a comment

Nobuharu Matsushita will remain in the GP2 Series for the 2016 season after agreeing a new deal with defending champions ART Grand Prix.

Matsushita made his GP2 debut in 2015 with ART, racing alongside Stoffel Vandoorne who ultimately won the drivers’ title in record-breaking fashion.

Matsushita finished ninth in the final drivers’ standings with one race win to his name, and is now gunning to battle for the championship in his second year with ART.

“I would like to thank Honda and ART Grand Prix for giving me this opportunity to continue racing in GP2 Series,” Matsushita said.

“ART Grand Prix won the championships last year, and I am so honored to be part of such an amazing team again. As a member of HFDP, Honda Formula Dream Project, aiming to be the top-world-class driver, I will give my best to win the drivers and the team championship in my second GP2 season.”

Matsushita will race alongside Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin at ART in 2016, with the Russian driver moving from Rapax for his sophomore year in the series.

“I am truly delighted to start our third year of partnership together with Honda with this reinforcement of our collaboration,” ART team boss Sebastien Philippe said.

“Nobuharu will partner Sergey Sirotkin in the GP2 Series. He had an incredible year in 2015 when he did not know Europe or the championship, the team and the car, but nevertheless he secured one win, several podiums and made massive improvements all year long.

“As a driver and on a personal level, we have no doubt at all that he has all the assets needed to fight for the title in 2016.”

NHRA: Lots of change heading into this weekend’s season-opening Winternationals

nhra logo
2 Comments

Last season, the National Hot Rod Association adopted a “#BaptismByNitro” theme to attract new fans and attention to the sport.

But as it kicks off the new season with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California,  if the NHRA were to come up with a new theme song for 2016, it’d likely be the old Scorpions ballad “Winds Of Change.”

Change – and positive change at that – seems to be all around in the wind for the NHRA, including:

* Peter Clifford begins his first full season as NHRA president (he replaced the retired Tom Compton last June). Clifford has made a number of dynamic hires in an effort to improve the sanctioning body’s reach and attractiveness to fans.

* The NHRA has embarked upon one of its most ambitious marketing and communications initiatives ever to increase fan attention and attendance at events, including the hiring of veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount late last season as new vice president of communications.

* Another significant hire is Emmy award-winning Ken Adelson as vice president of broadcasting and digital content to supercharge the NHRA’s TV and digital sides.

* Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 has become the official TV partner of the sport, with plans to televise live the majority of the 24 races this season, including expected three-hour presentations of final eliminations on Sundays. In addition, former Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon embarks upon a new career as a NHRA TV analyst.

* New rules in Pro Stock, including the long-awaited implementation of electronic fuel injection and the removal of long-standing monster hood scoops, should inject life into a class that had grown somewhat stagnant to fans in recent years.

* After becoming the first back-to-back female champion in any NHRA pro categories, Pro Stock queen Erica Enders goes for three straight titles this season.

* Fan favorite and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlan returns to the sport on a full-time basis after racing part-time last season.

* After enduring what he called his “worst season in 25 years” in 2015, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force is bound and determined to earn title No. 17 in 2016. The ageless Force (66 years old) told MotorSportsTalk that he feels as invigorated as he’s ever been and looks forward to significantly improve from last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish.

* In addition, Force will have long-time crew chief Austin Coil “helping out” in an unofficial capacity for Force’s Funny Car, as well as those of son-in-law and John Force Racing team president Robert Hight and Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney.

* John Force Racing also scored another coup in the offseason by hiring 11-time Top Fuel champion team owner/crew chief Alan Johnson as a consultant to oversee the Top Fuel efforts of driver Brittany Force. Judging by some of the runs Force had during last weekend’s preseason testing for nitro cars at Phoenix, not only does she seem likely to earn her first career win, she also is an early possible contender for the championship.

* Defending pro class champions are Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

And those changes are just for starters. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the NHRA is poised for increased growth and notoriety in 2016.

While the sanctioning body still has not capitulated to what many fans want – the return of full quarter-mile drag strip racing for Top Fuel and Funny Car competition (the standard remains 1,000 feet for 2016) – the changes that have already occurred for this season definitely hold a lot of promise.

Yes, the winds of change are swirling within the NHRA.

And if Clifford and the rest of the sanctioning body officials have their way and many of the changes prove successful, by season’s end the NHRA may be signing another Scorpions song that deals with wind: “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Helmut Marko: Modern-day F1 drivers are overpaid

xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.
© Getty Images
2 Comments

Red Bull Racing team advisor Helmut Marko believes that modern-day Formula 1 drivers are overpaid due to the reduced risk and easier driving conditions they experience.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel are two of the highest-paid drivers on the grid in 2016, earning upwards of $30 million per year from their teams.

However, Marko believes that drivers in F1 are overpaid as there is now a reduced risk of suffering a fatal accident, and that with the cars being easier to drive, their worth has decreased.

“Basically, the drivers of today are definitely overpaid for two reasons,” Marko told Sport Bild in Germany.

“Firstly, there is only a small risk that serious accidents can result in injury or even be fatal.

“Secondly, young top talent like [Max] Verstappen or [Pascal] Wehrlein can take the modern car and straight away easily do 100 laps without tiring.

“Previously you had even a Vettel have to take breaks because he was not used to the high centrifugal forces. This means that the cars are easier to drive. The drivers must do less.”