Allan McNish's ferocious accident in the first hour of the Le Mans 24 Hours will be remembered as one of the most dramatic incidents of the race's recent history.
The Audi driver was unhurt despite the severity of the impact, and was back at the circuit to talk to the media next day. AUTOSPORT was among the gathered press as McNish recounted the incident, which had occurred when he made contact with Anthony Beltoise's GT Ferrari.
Allan McNish: First of all I had a tremendous amount of messages and that was really comforting because I hadn't seen the accident. But when I saw the ferocity of the accident it made me very thankful. I was in an Audi, and it was strong, so the guys that designed it did a bloody good job. I am also very, very relieved that there were no injuries apart from the one I was involved in, because I saw the people at the side of the track and that was a lot of luck, I have to say. It made my heart stop when I saw that as well.
Regarding the incident, Timo Bernhard was leading and I was in second and he slid wide coming up to the Dunlop and he ran up on the Astroturf. I ran up alongside him, came down the inside of the Ferrari which I saw in front and gave him room. I never even thought that there could be a collision but obviously when I turned left and went towards the barrier, obviously I realised that he had hit my left rear with his right front.
Anthony mentioned in a media article - I haven't spoken to him - that he didn't realise that I was there. He thought that there was one Audi there when in reality there were two. I put it down to one of these racing incidents. Unfortunately it is part of Le Mans, it is part of the fact that you have got to get through these 24 hours, and partly because we are racing in a very highly contested duel. It's just very unfortunate for Audi that we lost the car so early on.
For me, I went to the hospital. No particular dramas. I was slow to get out of the car because the right door was on the ground. The marshals did a very good job, they took me back and checked me out. They then sent for a precautionary check over at the medical centre on the other side of the circuit. That turned out okay - just basically banged around a little bit.
In reality the biggest thing I seem to have is a little bit of pain in the bottom of my back and big graze around my shin. So considering the impact and the speed of it, and everything else, I think we all got away quite fortunate today.
Q. Now you have had time to collect your thoughts, can you reconstruct your feelings in the moment of impact?
AM: You don't have any feelings at the moment of impact at that sort of speed. You are just hanging on. You know it's going to be an accident and you are just hanging on. The actual impact itself was quite heavy going in backwards, which is was probably quite fortunate, but after that it was just long until it stopped.
When it stopped and it was on the side of the car, on the roof, the first you think is: 'Right how do I get out of here?' I radioed to the pit, there was no radio communication, which I think worried them a little bit. Obviously I knew I was fine but they didn't have that knowledge at that point. But I radioed to say that I was okay but also to see what the damage was because I couldn't see it.
We've been in quite a few incidents with Audi where you tend to get the car back to the pits in the most spectacular fashion and unfortunately it was too damaged to continue.
Q. You knew straight away it was write-off?
AM: No I didn't know it was write-off and that's why I radioed to find out what the situation was. But I didn't get a response. But looking around it, with no front wheel, no mirrors and no rear section then the chance of getting it back was minimal.
Q. When you were cartwheeling did you fear you were going over the barriers?
AM: No you've got no knowledge of where you are. You just know you are up there.
Q. Can you imagine if you had still been driving an open car?
AM: You can't imagine these things. There's no point. It's a kind of silly question to be honest with you because I was in a closed car. I think the fin did a very good job, with the ACO and their regulations, because if we look at incidents in the past then it might have been a different thing. So it's probably a big tick for the regulations of the fin. It's definitely a big tick for the construction guys at Audi - you know they go over and above the standard limits that are set to ensure that the cockpit cell is safe and as I understand it the monocoque is completely intact.
Q. How did your family deal with this?
AM: Okay your family and everybody is concerned. I've been involved in this sport for 30 years this year and obviously you know there are risks. You don't take undue risks. Everything we do in the preparation is done to minimise what they can be. But there is always an element of risk as there is when you drive back to the airport.
I think they are more disappointed that the race is over and we have got to wait another year before we can have another crack at it. But saying that, looking at the situation right now, with Andre [Lotterer] in the lead then there is obviously a bit of lift for everyone at Audi.
Q. The reduction in power has meant that LMP1 drivers have been taking more risks in traffic. Was that a contributing factor to some of the accidents we have seen this weekend?
AM: I have not really seen too many of them but you know it's definitely more tricky to overtake with less speed differential. When you have got less speed differential on the straight you are overtaking more in the corners. You can see that the race is coming down to just tenths right now, so you know you have got to maximise advantages when you can.
But whether it increased the chances of it I'm not sure to be honest. It definitely... if I had 100bhp more then I would definitely have overtaken him easier, but then again it might have been at a different state in the corner.
Q. When you had the accident and you were upside down, the marshals couldn't get you out until they righted the car. Can you tell us what they said and were you worried that they had to right the car to get you out?
AM: No because I knew I was okay. First of all they opened the left hand door and I said I'm fine. I can speak enough French to say that, even though I was shaken around a bit. I told them everything was okay and then to be careful and slow righting it over, because obviously you can still have another heavy impact in what was then a 850kilo car by then I suppose!
If need be I would have tried to climb out the left hand door but there wasn't a requirement to do that at that stage.
Q. What did Dr Wolfgang Ullrich say to you when you got out of the car because he seemed quite emotional.
AM: The first thing you have got to understand is that we have been together for a long time at Audi, the driver groups and the teams. It is kind of like a family. That does start from the top down, there is no question. There was genuine concern, that was not TV concern, and that runs through everybody. I think we are all quite fortunate on that side of things.
But anyway he said; 'You're fine, you're A-Okay, no problems. Let's get on to the next one.'
Q. It was the first hour of the race, do you think you were being a bit ambitious?
AM: No I don't think so to be honest. From where I was sitting going into that corner there was not one bit of me that thought I was going to have a crash. What you see on the television camera is a very different angle to what you see in the cockpit. From my point of view it wasn't a risk to get into that corner. And Anthony said that he didn't see me at all. But I kept well to the right hand side so that he had as much vision as possible. I didn't stay in close tight to him, I kept well to the right hand side to come through into that gap.
I had no plan to pass the Porsche, I was just looking to pass one car and to me it was a safer solution than to try to squeeze in with Timo. With the momentum it wasn't a problem.
I've made that overtake many, many times before and I saw other drivers doing it in the race afterwards when I was resting. Obviously there was an accident but at that time I wasn't thinking it was like that.
Q. Was the crash due to the visibility of the closed cars?
AM: I think the crash is due to the fact that two cars into one doesn't always go. I would think it is probably easier to ask Anthony that because it was my left rear and his right front.
Q. Do you blame Beltoise for the accident?
AM: I think you can't blame people in these circumstances. It's a part of racing and it's a part of Le Mans. He obviously had concern about the situation. He's not new to this type of racing, he's experienced and a good driver. I don't apportion blame, and I don't think it is the right to be honest considering what could have happened and where we are I think we should be a bit more positive about it.
When two cars are surprised by the incident, then I don't think you can apportion blame in reality.
Q. What is the mental process you go through when you realise you've lost control of the car?
AM: You just hold on. Different drivers do different things. I've never done anything in an accident except press the brake pedal as hard as I could and hold on to the steering and wait. You don't think of anything you just wait for it to stop. When you are flying you can't control anything. You're out, that's it. You just wait for it to stop.
Q. There has been quite a lot of criticism of the standard of driving in other classes. What's your view?
AM: It is very fast nowadays here. We've got a very high level of performance and you can see that in every category, you can see in qualifying it was all by little bits. I thought from what I saw that the standard was pretty reasonable during the time that I was in the car. I do think that it is a big ask to come here for the first time and to get on with it.
There is a minimum level. You've got to have certain regulations on the percentage of lap time you achieve relative to the class leader, you have got to have a certain licence category. Maybe there is a discussion to be had whether that should be looked at but there are certainly things in place. I don't think it contributed to this incident.
Q. Might it have contributed to Mike Rockenfeller's later on?
AM: I didn't see Mike's.
Q. Does it even for a second make you think, I've had enough of this?
AM: In thirty years I've seen quite a lot of things. When I started in motorsport I have to say I probably wouldn't have been able to talk to you right now [had I had the shunt then] and that is one of the big things we've now got significantly stronger, better cars.
I know how important it is for Audi as a company that the cars are absolutely as strong as possible, and I know the effort that goes in to that. So from that point of view I have no reservations about strapping myself in at Imola and getting with on with it.
Q. Is this the worst crash you've had?
AM: I really don't know. Not in terms of force no.
Q. Are you completely out of danger now?
AM: I'm okay. I was checked at the medical centre, and then the hospital. Like I said they did the scans and everything else and then our team doctors monitored me last night and then again this morning. And then an hour ago they told me I was okay. I will keep in contact with them over the next four or five days.