Interview with Allan McNish
In the latest in Autosport-Atlas' exclusive interviews before this weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours, Champion Racing's Allan McNish explains why he doesn't think he'll qualify on the front two rows of the grid, why he will have to employ different tactics than before, and why there could be more accidents in this year's race
Q. How is the preparation going for this year's race after you had had to miss the Test Day because of your DTM commitments?
McNish: "For Le Mans we're as prepared as we're are ever going to be. In terms of driving with the new weight ballast and air inlet restrictions I haven't actually done that yet, so Wednesday night is going to be the first time I'm going to get the car in the latest configuration. But I think from the pre-test the others got a handle on the set up of the car."
Q. Do you think you will notice the difference in the car from last year, in terms of performance?
McNish: "I definitely will. Every year they reduced the engine power I've noticed it. In 1999 we were doing 350k on the straights and now we are significantly less than that. I think it was 309k during the pre-test so I'll notice that. It will be a massive step in that respect. The weight will be a penalty but it will just be a little bit harder on the tyres. For the racing it is the air restrictor that is going to be the decisive factor.
"It means than we are not much quicker, if at all, than the GT1 and GT2 cars on the straights. Which then means we are going to have to do our passing in the braking areas."
Q. So you don't think you are going to be able to pass traffic from different classes easily?
McNish: "It just means we are going to have to be a bit more calculated in our risks. Obviously you still have to overtake but now it will be in the corners and it makes it more critical. I can see some irate drivers both in a prototypes and in GTs because they both could trip over each other.
"There is still the same speed differential in the corner, with possibly up to 40mph difference in the corners. But we might be only 10mph quicker on the straights. And I could see more incidents because of it.
"If we're coming into the Porsche curves and we have to wait until the slower cars go though the series of bends we'll lose five seconds and we can't afford to do that. We will have to make clean and decisive overtaking manoeuvres. It is not as if we can expect the guy to just get out of the way. That is just not going to happen."
Q. Is there anything you or the officials can do to warn drivers that this could happen?
McNish: "I've got to say it is not just about them but it is about us too. We had this problem in ALMS in 2000 when there were lots of complaints from the prototype drivers complaining that the GT drivers did not get out of the way quickly enough.
"But there was the exactly the same complaints coming back from the GT drivers saying that the prototypes just dived down the inside and they've had no respect. The fact of the matter is that both are right.
"I don't expect slower cars to get out of my way. But I do expect them to know I'm there and vice versa. They have got to expect me to come past. It is an awareness thing. I don't think you can instil anything in to anyone by passing on the left or the right or whatever. That's silly. You've just got to make people more aware.
"I'm pretty sure knowing that Le Mans, they will run the drivers briefing as they have done in the past, which is quite direct and straight forward. I think they will know exactly what they are talking about."
Q. Do you think Pescarolo Sport has the straight-line advantage to get past the GT cars easy?
Q. And you guys don't?
McNish: "Yes. That reflects maybe what you want to do with wings, so you can go that little bit quicker down the straights. So there are a lot of variable situations and each one is going to compromise us one way or another."
Q. How will you approach qualifying? Do you treat it just as a chance to get used to the Audi R8 again?
McNish: "Well, I know the car and I certainly know the circuit well enough to just jump in and go. Being frank with you, I think it is unlikely that you will see an Audi on the front two rows of the grid. The Audis will go out there and look to win the race rather than the trophy for qualifying.
"Getting pole is great to do and having done it in the past I can tell you, it is nice to be quickest in qualifying. Even though it doesn't mean anything more to the overall result than a feather in the cap.
"The tactics will have to change and we have to react accordingly so as not just continue on as we were able to do in the past. Which means we will have to take a longer-term view of the race than we have before.
Q. So what are these tactics? What can you do to win the race that you haven't had to do before?
McNish: "What we will have to do is be as fuel efficient as possible and as easy on the tyres as possible. Yes, this sounds like fairly standard stuff but it is just going to be more critical than it ever was before. We have an 80-litre capacity and the Courage has 90 - and it has more grunt. So the racing we do has maximise what we have and be a little bit different. What we are going to be in, for the first time in a long time, is a wheel-to-wheel race with traffic.
"As far as my memory serves me of Audi in Le Mans it has been a dominant factor often starting from the front row. And the race has been just an Audi battle but this year it is going to be quite difficult."
Q. So under what circumstances can you win this race, if outright speed isn't one of them?
McNish: "I personally think that even though we didn't show competitively in overall performance in the pre-test, I think that we will be able to run pretty much at the pace we were able to achieve there. And I'm hopeful, extremely hopeful, that others can't achieve their test pace in the race.
"But we all know that Le Mans is not about four o'clock on Saturday but four o'clock on Sunday. And that is the area where we are very strong. We have a car that knows how to win big races."
Q. But is this race in your own hands or will you have to rely on other's bad luck?
McNish: "At the end of the day, if a car in any category is quicker than you, starts at the front and goes off into the distance and doesn't have a reliability issues it is going to win the race. We are not reliant on other's misfortune, that is the wrong word, but we must keep an eye on people like Pescarolo because the pace that they have is impressive.
"It's not totally in our own hands, but we are in a more comfortable position than them because we know our car will go the distance at a very high pace. And I'm not sure Pescarolo and Courage actually know that.
"From a totally different perspective, I'm actually looking forward to it. Obviously it is nice when you go to a big race and you have the strongest package on paper. But this year is going to be a hell of a fight. Last year the fight was internal and within Audi and this year I don't think it is. I think this one is going to external and internal and that's quite cool actually. It goes back to the 1998-2000 period."
Q. So will it be every Audi for itself again? Or can the three Audi's team up to try and beat Pescarolo and Courage?
McNish: "I don't think you can run a race trying to be too clever. Each one has got to have a separate programme. You work together to an extent, but there is not much you can do on track, other than keeping out of each other's way at pitstops, that can try and alter it.
"You don't always get a clean race, something will happen to you. That was shown last year with the two shunts for JJ Lehto and I. Both teams were very quick to get the cars back out on track. Considering they were 160mph shunts, one finished third and one finished fifth. I don't think that was too bad, personally!"
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