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.