Allan McNish: I can't wait to get started

After a year setting the pace for Audi UK in the inaugural Le Mans Endurance Series, Allan McNish is turning his back on sports car racing for the time being. In 2005 the British star will embark on a new career in the DTM with the factory Audi team

Allan McNish: I can't wait to get started

McNish is the latest in a long line of international superstars to make the switch to the world's leading touring car championship. Only last month double-F1 world champion Mika Hakkinen announced his racing comeback in the category with Mercedes in 2005. Add to the mix fellow F1 stars Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen as well as Le Mans winners Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello and it's not hard to see why Allan is chomping at the bit. caught up with McNish after Audi announced it's expanded DTM programme at last week's Essen motor show, and got him to talk exclusively about his new challenge. By Simon Strang.

Yes, in some respects. I don't know if it's your archetypal touring car though. If you look at it, it's a little bit of a departure from the touring cars of old that's for sure.

It's actually not far off what a sports car is. The width of the tyres has got an effect on it obviously and it's got a restriction in horsepower but from an aero point-of-view it's in the right direction. To be honest with you the only time that I've driven one is during an Autosport track test, so I've not exactly got a tremendous amount of in-depth experience in the car, but by what I've heard from speaking to the other drivers that have jumped between the two - Rinaldo (Capello) especially from his China experience - I'm told that once you get the feel of it, it's actually quite a fun thing to drive.

Obviously I'd been speaking to (Audi Motorsport boss) Dr Ullrich about plans generally and the DTM programme came up and the possibility of running in one of the new cars obviously was quite appealing. It's something new and it's another aspect of competition. From a personal point-of-view another factor is the championship itself. I went to the last race of 2004 at Hockenheim and I saw that the championship itself is now at an extremely high level in terms of technical performance, it's profile, and its competition level. It's a bloody hard championship.

You've got a lot of very experienced people from other categories coming in, and you've also got some youth coming through as well. I think each one brings something different to the party if you like. So from that point-of-view it's a pretty strong mix.

Well we did have equal equipment in the Vauxhall Lotus, and in F3, but that was the last time we actually raced against each other and that was in 1989, because obviously he stopped in Formula 1 just as I started. So we never got a chance to renew (the rivalry), no I would call it the entertainment. I'm looking forward to that.

I don't know exactly what's going to happen at the moment. I've always enjoyed racing them and I've also always enjoyed the element to sports cars that you don't necessarily have in single-seaters - you've got to work intensively with your team to be successful. There is a slightly different element to it. I would say it's likely that I would go back to sports cars at some time, however it's not in my thoughts directly right now. I have to focus 100 per cent on the DTM. That's the only way you can do it I think, you can't do programmes with one eye here and one eye there you've got to get stuck into it.

Yes. I don't think people appreciate what winning Le Mans does to you until you've actually done it. Once you've done it you know the feeling of standing on that centre spot of the podium and being a rock star for five minutes looking down at 50,000 people. That is a big, big buzz, but also Le Mans can have situations like I had at Toyota in '99 and also this year where things outside of your control happen and it goes away, and at that point it really is a hard, hard beating. It takes a long time to pick yourself back up from it. The odd thing is that it just makes you want to go back again, once you've suppressed that initial adrenaline rush. From that point-of-view, if there's a chance to go back to Le Mans in a competitive car that can do the job then I'd be stupid and I'd be lying to you if I wasn't interested in trying to do it. In this particular circumstance now though, I've got to say to you that that's not a definitive part of my plans in 2005. That's not to say that it won't happen but it's certainly not part of the plans. I'm focusing on what I'm doing now instead of trying to look a bit wider than that.

Crikey, that's a bit of a brave statement isn't it? For me to win the championship straight out of the box. If there is one thing I know, it's that you can't make predictions like that in motorsport. The car's obviously going to be competitive, Audi had a good car last year and a good team of people working on it, people that I've known very well because they were involved in other programmes as well and so from that side I think there is definitely a lot of opportunity. There's going to be probably 20 other people out there who want to make sure that I don't win it and until I get a real feel for the cars or until I get to the first race in Hockenheim, I don't think anyone can predict what's going to happen. But I'm certainly not expecting to go and win the championship in my first year!

No, no, no. But I looked at Tom (Kristensen) quite a lot this year because obviously he made the jump from a similar sort of background, not necessarily from the Formula 1 side but from the sports car side, and it took him a couple of races to find his feet but after that he was very strong at the end of the year. The important thing is, if you get a bit of a feel for it straight away and a bit of an understanding and a good team around you then certainly a lot of those elements are still in place. So now it's a case of now we've got the tools we've just got to get on and do the best job we can.

I'm actually really looking forward to the racing. Not just to the driving of the car, okay that's an element of it but, the actual fact that you've got such a high level of competition between so many cars. I'm looking forward to wheel-to-wheel racing. Actually we did get that with the sports cars this year because obviously there was quite a strong fight with Johnny (Herbert) in the sister car for the Le Mans Endurance Series and also with Champion Audi in America. Using identical equipment, there was actually a few bits of rubbing, but that's what it's all about. That's the point that I'm really looking forward to most.

There's a set of regulations that you fight by and you just do whatever you can within those to be as successful as you can. I'm not a driver who will drive people off the circuit, I certainly won't ask for an extra inch more than I need and I won't give an extra inch more than I need, that's a fact of life. But you've got to drive to what you have to drive to. That's probably the safest way to put that without incriminating myself.

I don't know yet. I'd like it to be tomorrow. I really don't know. We're looking at the testing programme now to see what fits. But ideally if it could be before Christmas that would be the best situation for me.

Of course you do, but if I was going back to the sports car it would be exactly the same. There's no substitute for experience and certainly you want to get experience of a new category as quickly as possible. The tyres are obviously a key component to performance in the DTM from what I understand and that's something I want to get a bit of a feel for and to understand how to work with the car, the engineers and get a bit of a feel for it.

I would say it's definitely a new challenge. However I don't know if it's necessarily as far removed as people think. It's bloody competitive and there's nothing I like more than something like that. I'm up for it, I'm really looking forward to it and I can't wait to actually get on with the programme now. Get all the professional aspects out of the way and just get back to what I do best which is drive racing cars and racing them.

Is there a hierarchy within the ranks of Audi drivers or are you going to get the same equipment as everyone else?

AM: My experience from before is that Audi are very balanced in that respect. Obviously there's a difference between the old and the new cars but apart from that they try to keep a level playing field between us all. That's the philosophy, that's just the way they are. So I would expect that I'll have the same opportunities as everybody else, and likewise they'll expect to have the same opportunities as me. I've got no problem with fighting on a level playing field along with everyone else.

From that point-of-view there's one thing I said to you before is that the profile of it has increased. That is an attraction. It is also a little bit trend-setting in some respects because they've got an open paddock system, which I have experienced from America, and that's really good. To actually get the people through the doors and let them see and feel and touch the cars and get a little bit of interaction with the drivers, is a positive thing. I would agree with you that now it is certainly, outside of Formula 1, probably the highest prestige premiere motorsport category.

I don't think it's been totally confirmed yet has it? I hear there are a few things like Brno that are a still in a bit of an unconfirmed situation. You do go to some pretty sexy circuits and Spa last year in the sports car was mega and I think Eau Rouge is going to be pretty much where everybody stands to watch these things go through.

What do you think it's going to be like for us sitting inside it? It's okay for you lot standing at the side, terrified...

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