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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.

McLaren matched best ’16 result at COTA, 40 years to day after Hunt title

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads a line of cars including Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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October 23 is a key day in McLaren F1’s history.

Some 40 years ago, on October 23, 1976, James Hunt scored his dramatic first and only World Championship in the scintillating 1976 season in Fuji, as Niki Lauda retired early while Hunt scored just enough points to usurp “the rat” and win the title. The season, of course, served as the inspiration for Ron Howard’s Rush, which was released in 2013.

October 23, 2016 may go down as the day McLaren began to look like McLaren again in terms of results, as it matched its best result of the season with Fernando Alonso finishing fifth, and Jenson Button in ninth in what may have been his last United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Alonso charged from 12th on the grid up to fifth, with late passes on Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. being particularly impressive, while Button made a strong start early from 19th to get near the top 10, and then benefited from other retirements to score points.

It’s tough that a 12-point day is considered a high-water mark for McLaren in 2016 terms, but this result in Austin has matched a similar fifth and ninth place for the two drivers in Monaco this year as McLaren’s best points haul of the season.

McLaren sits a clear sixth in the Constructor’s Championship on 74 points for the year. Williams is fifth with 130 while Scuderia Toro Rosso is seventh with 55. By contrast, McLaren only scored 27 points total last year, ending ninth in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It was good and interesting today, I enjoyed it, especially the final part of the race,” Alonso said in the team’s post-race release.

“Carlos [Sainz] was on a different strategy and different tyres to me and Felipe, which allowed us to close the gap.

“Our tires were in better condition than the Toro Rosso’s and we took advantage of that. The last couple of laps were very intense, as we had some extra speed so we tried hard to overtake. It was quite easy to overtake the Toro Rosso as they’re slow on the straights, so you just need to open the DRS. I was following Carlos for 45 laps and he drove very well, very consistently, zero mistakes – so we had a great battle.

“To get past the Williams today you needed to overtake them in different places, like tight, slow-speed corners, and quite forcefully, and it was tough but hopefully enjoyable for the fans.

“Our result today is nice for motivation, so I’m happy with fifth, but we gained a couple of positions because of other people going out, and our pace hasn’t been great all weekend here, so we need to understand the reasons for that.”

Button added the start was key for him to get into a points-scoring position.

“I’m pretty happy to get into the points after a frustrating day yesterday,” he said. “The start was a bit of a crazy mess – there was so much action. Starting 19th makes your race a little bit more difficult but I had a good first couple of laps which I really enjoyed. I made up a lot of places and then fought my way into the top 10, and then I fluffed up my second pit-stop a little bit where I lost a place to Checo [Perez], but I think he would have got past me anyway.”

Felipe Massa joins Race of Champions field in Miami

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams walks in the Paddock  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 6, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Although his Formula 1 career will be over in just three more races, Felipe Massa will continue in competition at next January’s Race of Champions held in Miami.

With 11 Grands Prix victories in a nearly 250-start career dating to 2002 (didn’t race in 2003 and was injured second half of 2009), Massa will hang up his helmet at the end of the year.

But the Brazilian joins countryman Tony Kanaan this year once again for the RoC – as he did in 2004 in Paris.

PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 4:  Tony Kanaan and Felipe Massa of Brazil pose for photographers prior to the Race of Champions at the Stade de France on December 4, 2004 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 4: Tony Kanaan and Felipe Massa of Brazil pose for photographers prior to the Race of Champions at the Stade de France on December 4, 2004 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon Getty Images)

“It’s a fantastic pleasure for me to participate in the Race Of Champions for another year,” Massa said in a release. “The event is a big challenge and it’s a great idea to have a race with the best drivers from all the different motor sport categories. I look forward to meeting up with my old friend and fellow countryman Tony Kanaan. In 2004 in Paris we made up a very good combination: he beat Sébastien Loeb and I beat Michael Schumacher until we were both given penalties for touching the guard rails too much…

“The atmosphere is special at the Race Of Champions too: you’re in the middle of the grandstands so you can hear all the fans and they can see all the corners. It’s a great feeling and great enjoyment for everyone. Even better it’s in Miami, which is one of my favorite places and somewhere I’ve always enjoyed going for holidays. So it’s a perfect combination and I’m really looking forward to it, especially to starting my new life after retirement!”

The list of confirmed RoC drivers for Miami thus far is below:

  • Sebastian Vettel
  • Tom Kristensen
  • Juan Pablo Montoya
  • Tony Kanaan
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay
  • Kurt Busch
  • Travis Pastrana
  • Petter Solberg
  • Felipe Massa

How Max Verstappen became Formula 1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin will go down as a memorable race for a handful of reasons.

It may go down as the race that saw Lewis Hamilton begin a late surge that culminated in a fourth Formula 1 world championship. More likely, it will go down as a race that did wonders for the Circuit of The Americas as it broke its attendance record, exceeding all expectations with a little help from Taylor Swift.

While it will not be remembered as a classic grand prix, there were certainly periods of exciting on-track action and a number of impressive drives through the field. Fernando Alonso’s run to fifth for McLaren turned heads, while teammate Jenson Button rose from 19th to ninth. Perhaps the most impressive drive of all came from Carlos Sainz Jr. who, despite racing in a Toro Rosso with a year-old Ferrari engine, and despite the team’s own predictions having the Spaniard finishing 12th at best, wound up sixth.

And yet when we look back on the 2016 United States Grand Prix in years to come, none of those names will be listed as winning the ‘Driver of the Day’ award.

That honor went to Max Verstappen.

Verstappen drove a fair race. Or at least, half a fair race. Starting fourth, he slipped behind Kimi Raikkonen on the first lap to run fifth during the opening stint in Austin. Verstappen battled back past Raikkonen on Lap 13, and then closed up on the back of Nico Rosberg in third. The Dutchman told his team “I’m not here to finish fourth” when given the call to consider his pace, his tire wear causing concern for Red Bull. A radio mix-up meant Verstappen came into the pits on Lap 26 to find the Red Bull crew still hurrying to their positions, costing him masses of time. He did manage to take a place off Felipe Massa while fighting back, only to grind to a halt moments later when a gearbox issue arose while exiting Turn 11.

Max Verstappen passed two cars, fluffed a pit stop and took part in half a race before retiring. Any reasonable observer of Sunday’s race would know he was not the Driver of the Day.

Alas, when the votes were totted up from the public vote conducted on the official Formula 1 website, Verstappen came out on top for the third race in a row and the seventh time this season.

The new scheme launched at the beginning of the year has its merits. Formula One Management’s digital strategy has been massively impressive throughout 2016, with its Twitter account (@F1) in particular being livelier than ever and hugely engaging. The FOM archive is being put to good use with videos of classic moments in F1 history being shared on Twitter and Facebook regularly. The idea of a Driver of the Day vote was a step that looked to also give the fans something to engage with; a way to be heard.

At the start of the season, the Driver of the Day scheme was launched with a bump. Romain Grosjean won the voting for Australia, but it was Manor’s Rio Haryanto – a driver with enormous support in his native Indonesia – who had garnered the most votes. The result was given with the sidenote saying that multiple votes from the same source had been discounted.

Voting traditionally opened in the closing stages of a race, with the result being announced the next day, but this changed for Singapore. Voting now opened earlier and shut when the race finished, meaning a result could be given not long after the flag dropped. While being more immediate and encouraging fans to interact on Twitter mid-race, it also meant that the final result at the checkered flag could not be considered before voting.

So, that’s a backstory of how one F1’s rising stars has matched a memorable internet meme this year.

That is how Max Verstappen became F1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface.’

Boaty McBoatface rose to internet popularity earlier this year when the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) invited the general public to come up with a name for its new $244 million polar research ship. A regional BBC radio presenter suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ which duly went on to get over 120,000 votes; four times that of any other submission.

In the end, the fine print of the competition rules meant the NERC could pick the winning entry. The vessel was therefore called the RRS Sir David Attenborough, named after one of the UK’s most beloved and influential naturalists and broadcasters. One of the accompanying remote controlled submarines on the ship did, however, get called ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ while Attenborough himself was subject to a petition with over 2,000 signatures calling for him to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface “in the interest of democracy and humor”.

The whole affair was very amusing, but it suggested that the public cannot really be trusted in some instances, particularly online. In the age of internet memes and trolling, it is all too frequent to see well-meaning contests such as this descend into banter.

The F1 Driver of the Day vote has gone the same way.

The fact is that votes such as these are designed for human beings who are perfect. They are rational, understanding, conscious and able to see things from multiple angles. That way, you get a set of results, with the ones that are most popular coming forward as the ‘most correct’ (in the case of Driver of the Day, at least).

But we’re not perfect human beings. Fans won’t vote for the driver who they thought performed best. They’ll most likely vote for their favorite. And as Spa showed in August, Verstappen is the favorite for a huge and growing number of fans. It’s the same reason Haryanto gained the most votes for the opening award in Australia.

It is a shame, because the Driver of the Day vote is a great move by F1 to increase fan interaction. It’s something fans have been clamoring for years to get. At all of the previous races, the results may have been a little dubious, but there was always a half-decent argument for the winner. In Austin, it was frankly farcical that Verstappen won the vote.

It also sparks the bigger question about fan involvement in deciding the future of F1. We’re approaching a crossroads on the direction that it will take following Liberty Media’s acquisition of the series, and many fans want a greater say in things. Interests such as lower ticket prices and more accessible viewing on TV are certainly key in helping F1 grow, but when it comes to bigger things such as regulatory change, can fans really expect to have a say?

It is imperative that the Driver of the Day vote continue and be made an important part of the race weekend. Much like there is for pole positions or fastest laps, a small award at the end of the year for the driver with the most Driver of the Day nods would be fitting. It would give fans the chance to get their voice heard.

A good way to make things more serious would be to create a shortlist of drivers that can then be voted for via the F1 website once the race has been completed. This does cause problems of its own, as only so many drivers can be included. Earlier this year, we conducted a few ‘Driver of the Day’ polls on Twitter via the @F1onNBCSports account, where you can only have a maximum of four options. Naturally, we got tweets back saying: “Why isn’t this driver on the list?” – simply, we’d picked the four best-fitting.

So while it would not be without issue, a shortlist system would work well. A good idea here could be taken from soccer coverage in the UK, where the man of the match award in some cup competitions is actually selected by one of the commentators. There are a number of pundits (and even ex-drivers) in the paddock who would be well-placed to pick four or five drivers who they thought impressed in the race. This list then gets put on the F1 website, where fans go and vote. The winner gets picked from there.

While it may not be a truly democratic process, the Driver of the Day would at least have some kind of credence and argument in his favor. It would give the vote more legitimacy, and we would avoid a situation like Verstappen winning the vote in Austin.

Or, indeed, a Boaty McBoatface.

Gray area: 3rd generation of NHRA Pro Stock family to debut in 2017

Photos courtesy of Geiger Global Media
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Like father, like son, like grandson.

First came Gray Family team patriarch Johnny Gray, who had a standout career in the NHRA Funny Car and Pro Stock ranks.

Then came his son, Shane, who took over the family’s Pro Stock car reins.

And now, Johnny’s grandson and Shane’s son, Tanner, will carry on the Gray family racing heritage in 2017.

The Gray family announced over the weekend that Shane will step out of the family’s Gray Motorsports Valvoline/Nova Services Pro Stock Chevrolet at the end of this season.

Exit Shane (at least for 2017), enter Tanner.

“I’m not driving next year,” Shane Gray said in a media release. “I’m going to let (Tanner) drive the car, and I’ll be there to support the team. I’ll be there for him and wherever he needs help.

“We’re very active in drag racing. He wants to drive the car, and I’m 100 percent cool with that. It’s always better for the dad to sit back and watch the kid than do it yourself. It’s just time to let him drive.”

Interestingly, Shane Gray is currently ranked fourth in the Pro Stock rankings with two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.

Shane Gray, who has four career Pro Stock wins, is only 134 points behind Pro Stock points leader Jason Line, 108 behind second-ranked Greg Anderson and just 20 points behind third-ranked Greg Nobile.

There are a combined 260 points available to be earned by any driver in the remaining two races on the schedule, this weekend in Las Vegas and the season finale Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California.

If Line or Anderson slip in one or both of the races, Gray is still mathematically eligible to steal the championship away, which would be one heck of a way to go out.

Tanner has already begun preparing for his new role, having recently tested at Rockingham (NC) Dragway.

“I’ve been around it since I was 9 or 10 years old,” Tanner Gray, now 18, said. “I think it’s really cool to be able to do what they’ve done. We’ll see if we can win some championships one day. … I’m pretty excited for it.”

Tanner tested both his father’s Pro Stock car and crew chief Dave Connolly’s sportsman car to get a good feel for what his future holds. Having both his father and Connolly in his corner will put him that much further ahead of the game starting next season.

“I think I would’ve been lost if it wasn’t for Dave letting me drive his bracket car, just getting used to the speed and how the car reacts,” Tanner Gray said. “But driving his Cobalt helped a lot more and sped up the progression.”

The third-generation driver has driven a number of different types of race cars, from NHRA Junior Dragsters to Mini Sprints, Outlaw Karts, 360 Sprint Cars, Late Model Stock Cars and even go-karts.

But it’s NHRA that has won his heart and his future.

“We put Tanner in a race car when he was 12 years old,” Shane Gray said of his son. “I have 100 percent confidence in him.

“He’s already made some test laps. Tanner will be fine. We put him in the car, showed him how to do it and what he needed to do, and by the end of the day, we had him going down the race track.”

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