Allan McNish (part 3)

Following part 1 and part 2 of out interview with Allan McNish, as promised here is the third and final installment.


“What age were you when you left Dumfries?”

“Basically, I ‘left completely’ when I was 19. When I was 18 I was in a British car racing championship. And I sort of stayed half of the time here and half of the time sharing a house with my then team mate, Mika Häkkinen. But when I was 19, that was when I moved away.”

“To where?”

“Just outside London, basically Beaconsfield, next to Wycombe Wanderers.”

“And after there? You live in Monaco now, don’t you?”

“Yes. After 10 years of living in Beaconsfield, I moved about 5, 7 miles away, for about a year and then I moved to Monaco.”

“You mentioned before the importance of French. Your French is pretty good I take it?”

“My technical French was always pretty good in car racing because I had a French engineer for a wee while, so you learn it quite quickly. I had French team mates and one of them was paranoid and he didn’t want to speak English in front of anybody else because they might understand him. He was odd” said McNish with a slight lowering in the pitch of his voice accompanied by a quizzed look on his face. “My French is basically pretty good, yes.”

You just know when he says this that he is in reality being modest, and commendably so, but in reality his French will be red hot.

(Allan McNish, 11th February 2004. All images of Allan McNish used in this article are courtesy of Martyn Pass at Audi Motor Sport UK.)

“Speak any other languages?”

“I understand and can get through in Italian because of the French link. German I can understand a significant amount of, especially motor racing German, because of Audi and because of previous teams before. But my German isn’t good enough to speak on TV or anything like that, so I wouldn’t classify that.”

Not good enough to speak on TV? See previous comment regarding being modest about the standard of his French.

“It’s one language I would like to get to grips with, but again like everything else, I don’t have the time. I actually took lessons but I didn’t have the time to do the homework. And so it’s probably going to be when I finally hang up my helmet that I’ll be able to go back to school and study German, which is something I had the opportunity to do up here at St Joe’s, but I didn’t take it up, I took physics and engineering drawing instead.”

“Going back to the success that you’ve had through your career, I’m not trying to make you blush and have blood rushing to your cheeks, but it has to be said that your CV is stunning. Your season in Formula 1 with Toyota, there seemed to be a lot of problems with the car?”

“Ah, there were problems generally. Formula 1’s not easy. No motor sport is. No sport is. If you’re at the highest level then it’s a bit of a fight. If you think about it, Formula 1, there’s 20 seats, and that’s less than the players in one Queens game, never mind all the games in the Scottish leagues, never mind all the games in the English leagues, never mind all the French leagues etc… It is really the elite of the elite, it’s like the World Cup Final, but for the season.”

“Toyota had their first year in it, and I think there was an element of naivety in that they felt they could go in, build a car, race a car, develop a car, and build a new car at the same time. Ultimately they didn’t have that capability. It wasn’t the man capability, they had the man power, they didn’t have the team work capability, because they had gone from a team of 300 people as it was doing other programs, to suddenly over a thousand. So it’s a big, big business. And it just didn’t coordinate in that first year, and we had a reasonably quick car at the beginning of the season but it didn’t develop. And it’s the pace of that development that was the frustrating part.”

“We could see the chances that we had at the beginning, and we had some, and then in the middle of the season they were gone, because everybody else moved forward. And there were a couple of chances, there was one in Monza as well, where I was running fourth, and the front suspension failed. You just see that coming down the pit lane knowing it’s over, that is probably the last chance of the season. And that was a very frustrating part about it.”

“But when I went to Renault at the end of that year for the 2003 season, it was a very quick realisation for me; that the distance between people fighting for a world championship in F1, or it’s the same at Le Mans or wherever, and the people that are at the mid to the back of the grid, is huge. Literally like Premier League to Third Division, just nightmare difference. So from my point of view, I decided unless there was an opportunity after Renault to race for a team at the front, then why was I doing it? It was a question, “Why?” It wasn’t as if I was 21 years old any longer. Was I doing it to be a Formula 1 driver, or was I doing it to try and win? If you’re doing it to try and win and if you’re not at one of those two or three front teams, you’ve got no chance. If you’re doing it to be an F1 driver, fine. If you want to be a journeyman - it’s not me. I do things to try to be successful and win. The other side of it is I had opportunities with Audi, to win one of the three biggest races in the world being Le Mans.”

The Triple Crown of Motor Sport is defined as winning the Monaco Grand Prix, The Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans – only one man has won all three – Graham Hill, father of Damon.

“It was a very, very easy decision, because if I look at the budgets, the program, the people, everything else at Audi, they are very easily capable of going into F1 at the right level. They’re not going to but they are capable of it.”

(Allan McNish in the Audi A4)

The Segrave Trophy – named in honour of the world land and water speed record holder Sir Henry Segrave and awarded to a British subject for outstanding achievements in transport on land, water or in the air – has an impressive list of recipients. The latest name to be added to the list is Allan McNish. We asked McNish to comment on this great distinction.

“Yeah, latterly I’ve had a few awards that have been a bit different, they’re not standard awards, in that usually you get an award for the championship, or an award for being the best rookie or something which is an accumulation of points. It’s very easy to decide who wins it because it’s there in numbers. At the end of 2008 I was awarded by the American Le Mans series, the championship I’ve been doing out in the states for a couple of years, the fans award, which was basically, the driver the fans liked most in the last decade. And if I looked at the drivers who had actually gone through the American Le Mans series, I thought, ‘wow’. They liked my driving, they liked the way I did it more than anybody else and more than some of those big star names. That was very nice.”

“Then at Le Mans this year I was presented by Speed Television Network which is a very large network throughout Americas, the fastest sports car driver in the world award. So that’s the television network, all the journalists have got together to sort of decide who is the quickest guy, so they are taking the driver out the car if you like, and looking at them and what their capability is.”

“And then to be awarded the Segrave Award was something that Jackie Stewart said to me, ‘Look, this is going to be the most prestigious award that you ever get in your career because of Sir Henry Segrave, what he achieved, how he achieved it’. And then when you realise the award is only given out when the RAC feel there’s a deserving candidate – there’s been quite a few years when it just wasn’t given out at all. Following on the list of Donald and Sir Malcolm Campbell, Geoff Duke was one, because my mum and dad were into bike racing, and that was a name in our household ringing around the rooms. Barry Sheene who I got to meet quite a few times, and the one prior to myself was Lewis Hamilton.”

“From a Scottish perspective Jackie Stewart was one. And one driver that really surprised me, one person, a double world champion from 60 miles away [Duns in the Scottish Borders], Jim Clark was never awarded the Segrave Trophy. And if I think of Jim Clark, probably the most naturally talented driver ever, he wasn’t awarded this and my name is at the bottom of this absolute array of Who’s Who on two wheels, four wheels, flight, water as well, it wasn’t just about cars, it’s about anything basically with an engine, and there’s, well, wee Allan McNish at the bottom of that.”

“I still find that slightly odd, because there’s names on there that I was hearing about when I was a kid. And then maybe you get the opportunity to meet one or two of them at one point or another in your life. And then for a group that has been deciding on this particular trophy for quite a long time now, a group of people who felt that I should follow on from them was certainly a very, very special moment. I realised it when I stood up there receiving the award, because a lot of the past winners were in the room as well, including Jackie, to have those guys looking at you, applauding your achievements then it does really bring home that maybe you’ve done something a wee bit extra special.”

“From the recognition there, and you mentioned that in a couple of weeks you’re racing in Atlanta, what do you see in the future for Allan McNish? For how much longer are you going to drive competitively?”

McNish couldn’t resist a laugh, “Is this because I’ve got this big birthday coming?"

“No, no.”

“Good” laughed McNish heartily.

“I’m older than you so you can drive ‘til you’re 100 as far I am concerned and carry the flag for us in that age group.”

Returning to a more serious tone McNish replied, “In terms of what’s coming up, basically I’m committed with Audi, Audi are committed with me. I’m very much of the belief, if it’s not broken don’t fix it, and the relationship works with the two of us together. We know the strengths of each other’s party and we know how to fight, and ultimately we’ve got a bit of a fight on our hands this year because the Peugeot car is very quick, we got beaten at Le Mans. We’ve got to retaliate, we’ve got to come back. In the longer term future, I’m not a big one for looking, I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not a big one to look too long into the future.”

“What I do know is that I love what I’m doing at the moment. I’ve got a really good group around me in terms of the technical people but also the people at Audi. I’ve got a lot of support from my family. And I just get that kick when I’m getting on to a plane to go to a test or a race or something. Just thinking about Atlanta, I’m thinking, ‘crikey me, this is a fantastic event’. We’ll go there, we’ve got everything pre planned, we’re ready to go, and that side of it is what drives me on.”

“Right now I’ve got no thoughts of retirement, I’ve got no thoughts of it. I think the stop watch is the thing that dictates retirement, or there’s 2 things that probably dictate it; the stop watch and also your motivation to get up and do a run on a cold, set Sunday morning, and right now I enjoy that cold wet Sunday morning run, I enjoy getting up and going to races, the stop watch is still OK right now but there will become a day when some young kid comes up and kicks my back side or alternatively, I don’t want to put in that effort any longer that I have done for the last 20 odd years.”

“It is tiring, there’s no question, the career is long and it is tiring. As much as the travelling is only 230 days of the year, the brain works 365 days of the year. There’ll be a day when a next generation has to come through and get the opportunity. There’ll be a time when I’m hopefully the first one to realise that I should step aside and give them that opportunity. But it’s not there right now, and they’ll have to prove themselves first.”

McNish signed off with a few last comments on QoS.

“The current owners and management are obviously doing a pretty good job, very committed, very positive by what I understand. It’s very sad Ronnie Bradford has now passed on and everything else. The new era that’s come in, they’ve grabbed it and there’s sort of a fresh lick of paint in terms of the feeling and the passion and the results are showing that, and hopefully that continues because I think Mr Chisholm certainly knows what he wants and gets on with it.”

“Thank you Queens and thanks very much for a lot of memories, thanks for the support from the area as well which is really appreciated; every time I come back there’s somebody saying that they watched a race or congratulations or good luck or whatever. We do, us people in sport doing something outside the region do really appreciate that.”

“All the very best for this season, it’s been a fantastic start, so Queens, good luck from me.”

"Allan McNish, from everybody at Queen of the South football club, thanks very much for your time and all the very best for the future."