With the 24 Hours of Le Mans coming up this weekend, I thought this would be a good time to revisit one of the biggest coups I managed to pull off during my time as Ecosse Challenge Media Officer: an interview with two-time Le Mans winner and former Formula One driver Allan McNish. In an ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ moment, in April 2009 I responded to an announcement of interview opportunities put out by the Audi Sport UK press office, suggesting it might be good for our young competitors to find out what life is like as a professional racing driver. To my surprise Audi’s PR man Martyn Pass got right back to me and said he would make sure there was time for us to interview the Dumfries driver at the Audi showroom in Glasgow. The original report has disappeared from the Challenge site, so here it is in its entirety for posterity. As you’ll see McNish was a terrific guy to interview, so here’s hoping he makes it a Sarthe hat-trick this weekend!
It’s a warm summer evening in June, and I’m in Le Mans with one of my best friends to watch the 24-hour race. We’re not there as media, we’re not there as marshals and we certainly aren’t there as part of any team. Quite simply, we’ve come as ordinary, paying spectators to enjoy a week of racing in the sun. It’s the night before the race, and we’re out on the streets as part of the traditional drivers’ parade, where the crews are driven through the streets past the cheering fans in historic cars. By virtue of arriving a stupidly long time before the parade is due to pass, we’ve managed to secure a spot right up against the crush barriers which, aside from meaning our chests are pressed up against the rails by a squad of braying Tom Kristensen fans, is going to grant us a cracking view of the superstars as they trundle past.
“Got your Saltire mate?” my companion enquires upon spotting the Danish flags the Kristensen fans are waving. “Yeah, I think it’s still in my bag, I’ll root it out.” I reply, suddenly remembering I’d thrown a Scottish flag into my rucksack before I left my house so I could cheer on my fellow countrymen on race weekend. “Right, well take these and get it hung on the railings,” he continues, handing me some strips of plastic he’s ripped off a carrier bag to fashion impromptu cable ties. “Come on, hurry up mate, the drivers are coming!”
No sooner has the Saltire been anchored to the railings on top of a Dunlop banner than a particularly well-equipped vintage car surrounded by a big squad of runners turns onto our street to a chorus of cheers and air horns. Even though we can’t see the drivers yet, the speed and ruthless efficiency with which the car’s runners are handing out freebies to the crowd leaves us in no doubt as to which team’s float it is. “C’est Audi, oui, oui, c’est Audi,” murmur the crowd. As the car moves towards our point, a small, blond-haired driver becomes visible on the right-hand side of the float. “That’s Allan McNish!” my friend announces, and we both start clapping enthusiastically at the sight of a former champion.
The car is just about level with us when McNish breaks off from a quick word with his team-mate and turns his head to the right. His eyes light up as he catches sight of the Saltire draped over the banners, and in the same instant he calls over one of the young German runners. Whipping a marker pen out of his pocket, he signs two team photos and points directly at us while he hands the postcards to the runner. The young lady duly dispatches the signed pics to us, just in time for us to look up and see the 1998 Le Mans winner giving us a massive thumbs up before he disappears back into the vehicle and heads off down the road.
The next time I make eye contact with Allan McNish is a slightly more relaxed affair. We’re in the comfortable surroundings of the Glasgow Audi showroom, with the gentle clatter of coffee cups from the hospitality staff in the background instead of the klaxons of ten thousand French race fans. With the 2009 Le Mans race coming up, McNish is on a whirlwind tour of the UK, giving a full week of interviews to all sorts of journalists before he prepares for a tilt at his third 24-hour crown. The gleaming Audis downstairs in the showroom will probably never go anywhere near a racetrack in their life, but McNish emerges from the interview room to greet us ready to hit Arnage and Tertre Rouge, fully kitted-out in his race suit with his helmet tucked under his arm.
“Why the Japanese flag on your bag?” the Audi works driver asks me as I pull up a chair. I’m so thrown by the question he has to repeat it before I register the door has been closed and the interview’s started. “I went out there in the early nineties with fifty quid and a credit card and thought I’d be able to buy everything with plastic. Didn’t realise it was a cash society – I even had to pay for my bullet train tickets with notes. It’s a total cash society, it was even more so back then. Can you speak Japanese yourself?”
In a matter of seconds my rigorous interview plan, prepared like the diligent cub reporter I like to think I am, goes out the window. I’ve been slotted in for lunchtime, and despite having wolfed down his midday meal due to a late appointment with a television crew and having journalists from national papers due later in the afternoon, the two-time Le Mans winner is taking a genuine and keen interest in my life away from motorsport. At this stage, I’m the one that’s being interviewed. Little wonder, then, that McNish has such a good relationship with his Audi Le Mans team, and when the team’s press officer tells me afterwards that the Dumfries-born driver is the best all-rounder he’d ever encountered in his career, I don’t doubt him for a second.
As a result of my involvement in the Brick and Steel 205 Ecosse Challenge, I’m keen to get an insight into the life of the man who is probably Scotland’s most accomplished racing driver currently competing. With both the Challenge and the Scottish Rally Championship now putting a focus on developing our young rally talent both in and out of the car, I’m really hoping to be able to find out something about what it’s really like to be a salaried, full-time, contracted, professional racing driver. Do the top guys really think about their diet all the time? Are they down the gym every morning? And are they out there day after day whizzing round desolate racetracks in search of that extra tenth of a second?
“Diet – what diet?” McNish laughs when I press him about eating habits. “When my dietician isn’t about, there’s no diet, I just eat what I want.” I’m not entirely sure I believe this. Like myself, Allan McNish is a reasonably small guy, but unlike me, there’s not a spare ounce of flesh on him. The fact sheet Audi Sport UK’s Press Officer emailed me says the former Toyota F1 pilot weighs in at 58kg, and sitting next to him I feel like a sumo wrestler training with Bruce Lee. Seriously, if someone with no knowledge of motorsport saw Allan McNish, they would most likely guess he was a jockey.
Inside of the car, pre-race preparations are just as strict, if not more so. “Before Le Mans, we’re out there running the race on the test track – so that means we’re out there, going for the full twenty-four hours like it was a full race.” Allan barely pauses for breath as he elaborates on Audi Sport’s rigorous testing programme in phenomenal detail, his amicable Scottish voice tacking my questions with the same gusto that his R15’s V10 TDI applies to the Mulsanne Straight. “We’re going at it flat out for the full twenty-four, even when we’re practicing, so when something breaks we change it like it’s a race, we don’t stand around scratching our heads. So by the time it gets to the race itself, we already know the car can do it and we know what to do if there are any problems.”
Right through our interview, the driver who has done everything from single-seaters to prototypes to touring cars tackles each of my questions at great length with a staggering and unwavering level of enthusiasm. I’m glad I brought a digital voice recorder with me, because the notebook would have caught fire if I’d tried to write all of this down by hand. Even speaking in a foreign language wouldn’t dampen the Monaco-based Scot’s enthusiasm – I suddenly remember hearing Allan over the tannoy at the Sarthe circuit talking in fluent and elaborate French about his team’s race strategy. I might only be representing a wee website with a fanbase largely interested in rally driving, but the warmth and hospitality Allan McNish and his Audi Sport UK team have extended to me is nothing short of astounding.
It’s only when I ask McNish about his involvement with junior motorsport that I start to realise why he has such a keen enthusiasm towards the work we’re doing at the 205 Ecosse Challenge. A quick look over his website the night before the interview brought up some information on work the President of the Scottish Motor Racing Club is doing with Dalbeattie High School. “When I was a youngster, I was very fortunate in that I had lots of support from my family and friends that got me started in motorsport, so I wanted to put something back in which is what I’m doing with the junior motorsport programme at Dalbeattie High,” he explains. “The aim of the scheme is to show pupils how they can get involved in motorsport. What they have to do is design, develop, test, race and market a wee racing car, then they take it out and race it. Dalbeattie’s pupils have been doing very well in it, and if I can get even one of them interested in motorsport as a result of it then my involvement will have been worth it and I’ll be happy.”
As our time slot runs to an end and we wrap up with a handful of photos, the guy who next weekend will be hurtling round one of Europe’s most famous circuits at speeds in excess of 200mph is still telling me about at an experience he had in another of Inglostadt’s finest products. “I had a run in Hannu Mikkola’s old Quattro recently – that’s some machine,” he recounts. “It made me think, though, that racing drivers have got our world, and rally drivers have got theirs. I remember a couple of years back Sebastien Loeb came and did Le Mans and did very well, but it’s a completely different world and one that’s very difficult to cross over.” A different world it may be, but as McNish takes the time to show me out and wish me all the best, I think to myself that it would be no bad thing if the professional yet genuinely friendly approach of Allan McNish and the Audi Sport UK Team was one thing that was able to cross over directly into rallying.
I still have the postcard Allan McNish signed for me at Le Mans. Along with a few other items, it occupies a very important place in my bedroom. It sits on the same shelf as my alarm clock, a place also visible from my computer desk. Every time I stumble out of bed at 5am to turn the alarm off and go to a 205 test day, every time I’m struggling for words in the middle of the night while writing press releases, every time I’m on the phone trying to pin down a competitor for a quote, it’s there to remind me why I love motorsport. I may never be able to drive an F1 car, and I probably won’t win the world’s most famous motor race, but there is one thing I have in common with Allan McNish: neither of us have forgotten how or why we started doing what we love.