MotorSportsTalk’s exclusive interview with Allan McNish

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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.

Ryan Norman set to take next ‘Journey’ in debut Indy Lights season

Photo: Andretti Autosport
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One of the more unheralded drivers entering this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires campaign has been Ryan Norman, the 19-year-old out of Cleveland who has made strides in his rookie campaign.

Norman was the only one of Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights quartet new to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires this year. Teammates Nico Jamin, Dalton Kellett and Colton Herta have all been in the MRTI before, while Norman has undergone a significant learning process of taking on new tracks and a new championship.

But Norman’s been one of the year’s more pleasant surprises with methodical growth and improvement over the course of the season.

Through 12 races, Norman has improved his starting position by the end of the race in nine of them, and scored 10 top-10 finishes overall – a number that is tied for second in the series with Zachary Claman De Melo, behind only season points leader Kyle Kaiser who has been in the top-10 in all 12. He’s also won multiple Tilton Hard Charger awards for advancing the most positions in a race from his grid position, and additional Staubli Awards.

Norman ranks 10th in the points standings, ahead of two three-year veterans and two rookies.

Incidentally, it’s been the few races where Norman has qualified in the top five – fourth at the Freedom 100, third at Elkhart Lake race one and fourth in Iowa – where his results haven’t measured up to his starting position. A first lap accident took he and Herta out at the Freedom, while he still banked solid fourth and eighth place finishes in the other two races.

Norman heads to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend for the next step of his journey on his rookie season – literally.

After running in a vibrant orange-and-black livery the first 12 races, Norman will now step aboard the No. 48 Journey Mazda for Andretti Autosport this weekend, as the legendary rock band formed in 1973 comes onto the car, and the livery changes along with it for the balance of the season.

Not far from Norman’s hometown of Cleveland, the same city of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Lexington, Ohio course will see Norman debut the new livery. ORACAL’s new 970 Premium Special Effect Cast in Sunset Shift, a color-changing wrap like Norman’s Red Bull Global Rallycross teammate Scott Speed’s race car. The new design echoes Journey’s iconic logo, featuring giant wings on the side pod and nose cone of Norman’s Dallara IL-15.

It’s an orange livery with yellow and blue stripes. Needless to say Norman is ready to rock out on home turf this weekend and look to continue his rapid growth in his first season this weekend.

“I am very excited to have Journey on board for the rest of my 2017 season,” Norman said in a release. “It’s unique to have a rock band sponsoring a race car. Journey was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which is my hometown, so it makes the next race at Mid-Ohio very special to me. I love Journey’s music and having “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the side of my car is very fitting. This song has inspired a lot people including athletes like myself.”

Norman isn’t the only Andretti Autosport driver with a story this weekend at Mid-Ohio; teammate Jamin looks to snap a rough patch of results and extend his own personal winning streak at Mid-Ohio from its current run of five races between USF2000 (three races in 2015) and Pro Mazda (two in 2016) while Herta looks to keep his championship hopes alive. Kellett has had the opposite bit of luck as Norman this year; he’s qualified significantly better but had a rough run of results in the races themselves that haven’t matched his potential.

Indy Lights race coverage from Mid-Ohio airs Sunday, July 30, at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Luca Ghiotto joins Hungary test list for Williams

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
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Formula 2 front-runner Luca Ghiotto is the latest young driver to be confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test, with the Italian set to run on one of the two days for Williams Martini Racing.

Ghiotto battled Esteban Ocon for the GP3 title in 2015 but lost out to the Frenchman, and has since moved up a category on his own.

Ghiotto and Felipe Massa will split the two days of running between Tuesday and Wednesday after the Grand Prix.

“A big thanks to Williams for this opportunity. I think the first F1 test for any driver is a special moment, and to do it with such an historic team is even better so I’m really excited. Of course, I also need to focus on the F2 weekend beforehand, but I’m really looking forward to the test and I really hope it goes well,” Ghiotto said of his first F1 test.

Claire Williams, deputy team principal added, “This will be Luca’s first opportunity of a Formula One outing. Our team has a strong track record for developing young talent, and we always enjoy seeing young drivers getting opportunities to demonstrate their ability. I look forward to seeing how he performs in the car next month.”

Magnus brings in ‘hired gun’ Spencer Pumpelly for Mid-Ohio

Photo: Magnus Racing
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With Mansfield, Ohio the home of the prison in The Shawshank Redemption in the Ohio State Reformatory (also known as the Mansfield Reformatory) and with Magnus Racing PR ace and “Dinner with Racers” co-creator Sean Heckman one of two who’ve coined the inside joke that Spencer Pumpelly allegedly tried to kill a guy, it was only natural that Pumpelly will play the role of Magnus Racing’s “hired gun” near the prison at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Pirelli World Challenge competition this weekend.

The joke stems from the first season of “DWR” and was a running joke throughout the season. The “hired gun” play-on-words riffs on the fact Pumpelly will be substituting for Pierre Kaffer in the team’s No. 4 Audi R8 LMS this weekend, with Kaffer on duty at the Total 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps for Audi Sport.

Pumpelly has raced alongside Kaffer and Dane Cameron in PWC SprintX competition this season – Pumpelly and Cameron actually won the second race of the weekend at Lime Rock Park – and now the veteran sports car driver and Atlanta native will make his first PWC Sprint starts of the year, and first since his similar fill-in role with Heckman’s “DWR” co-creator, Ryan Eversley, at RealTime Racing last year… which also started at Mid-Ohio.

“It’s great to have Spencer back in the team,” stated Magnus Racing team owner and driver John Potter, who is in the team’s No. 44 Audi in GTA. “Spencer has always fit right in with us, but driving the team to our first series victory of course sealed a very special place for his legacy with us. We’re hoping Mid-Ohio suits both Spencer and the No. 4, and hopefully we can repeat the same feat.”

“It’s great to return to the team,” stated Pumpelly. “Obviously our last race together went extraordinarily well, and we’re hoping that same momentum can continue in to Mid Ohio. It’s always tough to say what to expect, especially in these very frantic sprint races, but we’re optimistic that the circuit should suit us. The entire team at Magnus has done a great job putting this effort together, and we look forward to pushing for additional results.”

Jay Frye expresses positive outlook on 2018 car

Photo: IndyCar
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In a teleconference with members of the media on Monday, the prevailing mindset of INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye, who helped oversee the design of the 2018 universal aero kit (pictured above in a Chevrolet livery), was one of positivity following it’s official unveiling, in speedway trim, earlier today.

First and foremost, though he helped head the effort, he was vocal about the input he got from a number of different entities during the process of creating the design.

“This has been a year and a half in the making, and the process has finally come to a point where we can get the car on the track, so we’re quite excited about that,” he revealed. “We certainly appreciate everyone’s help, from Dallara to the teams who have helped to the manufacturers who have helped and certainly the fans. Over the last few months we kept putting out some different things to get reactions from fans to see what they thought of the project. It helped us a lot, because it made us feel like we were going in the right direction, which is great.”

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Honda livery. Photo: IndyCar

The overall timeline of the project dates back to last year, particularly at tests at Phoenix International Raceway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where the experimentation process began. It was after those tests, as Frye explained, that the 2018 car began to take shape. “From that point (after tests at Phoenix and Mid-Ohio), we took what we thought the car should look like, and that’s where we talked about reverse engineering the car and to aesthetically make it have a historical feel, but in a very forward car, and I think we’ve done that.”

And with the project now open for the public to see, Frye appears confident that people will like how it performs. “The numbers have come back very strong, which we’re quite excited about. And here we are coming up to tomorrow, where we’re going to have our first on-track test. It’s been a long process, but it’s been very methodical,” he added.

Specific to those numbers, two obvious areas stand out the most: cost and downforce. First, as Frye explained, the operating cost of the 2018 aero kit is expected to be considerably less in comparison to the current aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda. Further, the conversion costs, the money the teams will spend in switching their chassis over to the new kits, is less than expected, making the package significantly more economical. As Frye explained, this is a result of negotiations in which it was agreed that this package will be in use for at least three years.

“From a total cost perspective, one of the things we looked at is called a conversion cost. What would it cost to convert the cars now? It’s not as much as we first thought it would be,” Frye detailed. “The annual cost will be 30-40 percent less than what the current car is. One of the things with having a universal car is we were able to negotiate the term, which is for three years, so the teams can plan for it. That was something that was very important: what the conversion cost was going to be and what the annual cost was going to be over this term.”

And, in terms of downforce, there will be reductions in aerodynamic downforce as well as overall downforce. First, most of the car’s grip will be generated from the bottom of the car, whereas currently most of the grip is produced by airflow over the top of the car. As Frye explained, this not only is significant to the overall performance of the car and how it will race, but it also reduces the chance for large debris fields after an accident.

“Sixty to seventy percent of the downforce is generated from the bottom of the car, where as before it was 40-45 percent, so there’s been a big gain in that. Also, another piece to the puzzle, there are less parts and pieces on top of the car, which creates less debris opportunities,” said Frye.

Further, the overall package is expected to produce 20-25 percent less downforce, that estimation even accounting for teams’ ability to develop the chassis to find areas where downforce could be added.

Frye added that this was a key element in the design of the car. “What we tried to do is create a window, so the total potential window of the car’s downforce level has shifted down. Obviously, as the teams start running the car, they’ll get better and better and better, so we wanted to make sure to move it a different direction that, once downforce comes back to a degree, we haven’t exceeded this window we’re looking at,” he revealed.

And, of course, enhanced safety was a big factor as well. Frye discussed a particular emphasis on side impacts, especially in the wake of accidents involving James Hinchcliffe (2015) and Sebastien Bourdais (2017), in which they suffered serious injuries following side-on impacts with the wall.

“The side-impact piece that’s in this car is moved forward, the radiator is moved forward, so it’s also a much more robust protection piece for the side-impact of the drivers,” Frye described.

And, of particular note in the wake of the F1 Strategy Group revealing that a halo will be introduced in 2018, Frye added that cockpit protection remains at the forefront, and while nothing is set in stone at the moment, the new chassis has room for cockpit protection to be added.

“The cars are built and designed around having some sort of application like that,” Frye said of cockpit protections. “At some point, we’ll test something, whatever application we can come up with. We’re definitely conscious of it, we’re conscious of how it will affect aesthetically, we’re conscious of the safety piece.”

The Verizon IndyCar series will test the 2018 car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tomorrow, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia doing the driving, with additional tests scheduled for Iowa Speedway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Sebring International Raceway later this year.

Soon after series testing is complete, Honda and Chevrolet will begin receiving chassis for their respective teams to test, with all IndyCar teams scheduled to receive their cars beginning in November. Individual team testing will then begin in January of 2018.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.