Allan McNish (Interview – Mike Hayden, March 1999)
Still on track: A part from David Coulthard, two other kart drivers of the 1980’s who gave the impression of having the ability to reach top level motor sport, were Jason Elliott and the multiple Junior and Senior kart champion and international karter, Allan McNish. Elliott reached Formula 3000, and came close to taking the next step, whilst McNish, who graced the front cover of Karting magazine in December 1985, always had the look of a Formula 1 driver. He added that accolade to his CV with two Grand Prix teams, Benetton and McLaren, for whom he was appointed as test driver. And yet despite his undoubted success in every formula in which he raced, his career seemed to fall ‘on hold’ in 1990. following an enormous F3000 shunt at Donington in which a spectator was killed. Was this a point of view that Allan shared?
“It was obviously a big accident that had serious consequences. I do not think that in my mind, it restricted me in any way. At the next race I was in pole position and took fastest lap. think, however, in the minds of other people, it probably affected their opinion of me. One thing that is very, very important in motor racing, much more than in karting, is that first initial impression. If someone has got something sticking in their mind, it is very difficult to change it, even if it has arrived there through no fault of your own, or by third party circumstances; it does not really matter. I think that it is also fair to say that it took me two or three years to get to grips with everything, although I do not think it really affected my driving at all.”
Within two years of leaving karts at international level, Allan was sat behind the wheel of a Formula I can “The first time I experienced the power of a Formula 1 car was my first test in 1989. The power was something that never really surprised me. I had only previously driven a Formula 3 car with 175bhp. Then suddenly you jump into something with 700bhp. The delivery of the power is very, very smooth, and so that makes it relatively easy to drive well.”
“I had a contract with McLaren for three years through 1990, ’91 and ’92, and [then did selective testing for Benetton in ’93, which I combined with racing and other things in those years. That continued with Benetton through ’94 and ‘95.1 think in both the McLaren and Benetton, I drove probably two of the best Formula 1 cars from that era. It meant I was not struggling with a back of the grid Minardi or something. I was testing World Championship winning cars at that time. The biggest thing was always the sheer cornering and braking forces. Those ‘6’ forces, well, when you come from a Formula 3 car, and you then go to Estoril and suddenly find you are pulling 3 or 4g through a corner, it feels different. You have to hang on! That is just something you have to develop as your body builds up to it, as your muscles develop to be able to cope with it. The neck definitely takes the most punishment. The actual steering weight of the car is less, or it certainly was the last time I drove a Formula 1 car, than that of a GT car or F3000 car. It is just the sheer speed through the corners. It makes it very physically demanding.”
With regard to any Grand Prix debut it might have happened, but motor sport is a fickle business at the best of times. To have done so with Benetton or McLaren would certainly have been a major moment for the young Dumfries born Scot. “Yeah, there were opportunities with both of them, which arose at different times, although neither obviously came to fruition. There were however things that were being discussed although the circumstances were out of my control. It’s very, very difficult in that situation because you can only do what you have to do in the car, and that is your best calling card. Then after that there are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes, sometimes as a driver you might get to know about, but also there are times when you do not get to know about it. It’s those sort of things that can make or break your destiny.”
Autosport recently reminded its readers that McNish had the beating of Hakkinen back in their Vauxhall Lotus days, but it is not something which bothers the Scot today, despite the Finn’s success in 1998. “Yeah, I beat Mika back in Vauxhall Lotus, but drivers develop at a different pace. If a driver reaches Formula 1 whom I have raced against and beaten, then good luck to them. I do not feel any bitterness at all. To feel that way would be silly and you would just end up being a crotchety old man! I’m quite happy doing what I have, especially during the last couple of years racing for Porsche. The success that I have had there has opened up doors in Formula 1 and ChampCars, but I decided not to pursue them because I felt where I was gave me the better option for myself. I have no real desire to sit on a Formula 1 or t, ChampCar grid just to say I was there, to have raced in Formula 1. I just happen to have found myself in a very good position ce with Porsche. I enjoy driving -; their cars and working with them. We seem to have a very good relationship together. To jeopardise that just for the sake of getting your picture in Autosport at the last race of the year does not really appeal to me too much.”
From that comment one is left with the impression that Allan was given the opportunity to make his GP race debut at the end of 1998 but turned it down. It is evident that he holds a well balanced view on his career, and that where Formula 1 is concerned, it most definitely is not the be-all-and-end-all. Other drivers might well have rushed in head first at the chance of Formula 1 ‘stardom’, but would racing for a place inside the top twelve, retirements permitting, have done any ‘star’ driver favours? For someone who had nothing to lose, then it might have been a risk worth taking. For Allan, his star is still on the rise, and the decision he appears to have made was both brave and bold. Particularly with the late season announcement from Porsche that they were curtailing the GT race programme for 1999.
Turning the clock back to his karting career revealed a glint in the Le Mans winner’s eyes. For sure his karting years meant a lot to him and he had a good teacher! “In karts I mainly raced in Juniors, I only did one year of Seniors. It was not really by choice, it was just how it happened. My parents were actually more involved in motorbikes, and my father used to do some motocross. I was very small though and that made it a little bit dangerous. It meant that my parents, actually through David Leslie (the 1998 Honda Touring Car driver) who knew a little bit about karting, that we went one Sunday to a kart meeting at Rowrah, saw the karts and we quite liked the look of it. It was the usual sort of story, where we entered the local events, became half successful at that, before we went for the Scottish 2 Championships, followed by the British, European and World Championships.” If being three times British champion, and six 7 times Scottish champion, is ‘half as successful’, then perhaps the majority of drivers would settle for a quarter success! Just accept that as a kart racer, he was definitely of the highest calibre.
-To be honest though, all through my karting career, I did it as just a hobby. I just happened to be reasonably good at it, winning a few races and a few championships. I had no major desires in my mind to make a career out of motor racing. It just sort of evolved ou1 of what was going on. But I loved my time in karting and if! was not racing now as a profession, I’d still be karting as a hobby. I would go karting every day of the week. It is just so exciting and a lot of fun, and I honestly believe that you have to be a more complete driver to win at top level in championship karting, than you do at top level motor racing.”
Just as importantly perhaps is the knowledge that Allan still keeps a keen interest in who’s who in karting. “I like to keep in touch with the karting scene because it basically allows you to see what people are coming through from karts. 1 try to get Karting magazine as much as I can, usually picking it up in the newsagents. At the NEC Autosport show it was quite funny when I saw all these little kids and remembered what I was like. Looking back at some of the pictures you have brought from your archives, I’m not sure if Lewis Hamilton in 14 years time will look back and say, “I didn’t look that young did I?” Trust me, you do get old quick!”
But back to the more serious side of karting, Terry Fullerton’s place in Allan’s rise cannot be overlooked. “I raced for Terry in 1985. He is very direct. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. There is no question about it, he taught me a tremendous amount. About driving, about the way to work, and about mental attitude and the way you do things. The tricks of the trade came that way.
Anybody who works with him can never, ever, deny that he knows the business. Whether his way is the best way for them is a different thing, but it certainly worked for me. He definitely gave me a very good basis to start. I had a pretty good grounding through Dave Boyce and Simon Wright, especially Dave in my formative years, but it was Terry who helped me to develop onto the international stage. He gave me the opportunity to race in the World and European Championships, and to allow me to be pretty successful at it. It is really where you start off from, but Terry takes away all the question mark areas, because he knows what to do and how to do it. Where he helped me was on the racecraft side. He was able to see my mistakes and show me the areas I needed to work on. He certainly was not backward in coming forward by telling me! Certainly I learned a tremendous amount from Terry, which are definitely things that 1 still use today!”
I mentioned that Karting magazine’s August 1986 Mike European Championships race report at Gothenburg in Sweden stated, ‘spurred on by TF, leaning over the fence and making threatening gestures, the young Scot got back into contact.’ Allan thought about this for a few seconds before smiling. “I can’t remember where he was standing but he certainly wasn’t blowing kisses!” The race that stuck in Allan’s mind though was the Junior Cup in 1985, which was the equivalent of the World Championship for up to 16 year olds. “Andrea Gilardi and Michael Schumacher jumped me at the start. It was one of the few times I was ever beaten off the line, and it was basically inexperience. It was a race that I probably should have won. We certainly had the speed and capability to win it but we didn’t. It was a bitter pill to take. OK, I finished 3rd in the World Championship, which was a big thing. It was a good result and it was nice to be there, but in reality we could have had the better of them both. That race was probably one of the biggest disappointments of my life, from the point of view of my racing career, because I was off the front. and I had had a pretty good run until then.” Did you get the impression at that stage that Schumacher might have something different from the rest? “Apart from S30,000,000? No, not really. We raced quite a lot together in various races. He did not win them all and he did not stand out as strongly as he does in Formula 1 at the moment. But as I said, people develop at different rates. All you can say is that if someone has got the potential to go further, you don’t know how he will react when he gets to 19 or 20 after he has a bad season. Maybe the car is not good, or he gets into a team that does not speak his native language, and how he copes with that. It is pretty naive and stupid for someone to say that some kid will be World Champion in ten years time, because you never know what is going to happen.”
Schumacher once said that when his time in Formula 1 is finished, he would return to his roots and head towards old age as a kart racer once again. It begged the question whether the name McNish would be seen on a kart programme again, and not necessarily after he had retired. Like now? “With Porsche’s decision to pull out of racing for a year, then I now have more time on my hands. I would certainly hope to sometime! As for karting this year, what you fancy and what you can contractually do, are two completely different things. As you know, I like to drive a kart as often as possible, and, with Dave Boyce, any time when I have been up in Scotland we have always gone out and had a little run at Larkhall. So yes, I would like to be able to race karts more often, but realistically, I’m not really in a position to just pull on a helmet and leathers and go for it again. Oh, you don’t wear leathers any longer, do you?,” he remarked with a laugh. “It shows my age! Yes, I’ve still got my old TF’ leathers. I can’t fit in them anymore; I have grown you see! !Carting is a sport that gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure.” So back to the present day and that famous Le Mans 24 hour victory with Porsche, which brought the McNish name back into motor sport highlights. “Physically, I found Le Mans relatively easy. Some of the other races, like Budapest or Suzuka, were worse than Le Mans because of the humidity and heat, but at Le Mans you have around 10 or 15 seconds on the straight where you can just look around. You then have a chicane, followed by another 10 to 15 seconds before the next chicane. so there is plenty of time for you to relax,” as long as the driver is able to find the desire to do so when travelling at over 200mph! “Emotionally though it is tiring really, really hard. I had the chance to have a little sleep through the night, with the odd 10 minutes here, and 15 minutes there. The stints are two hours minimum, although I did a couple of three hour stints, with a fuel stop every hour, which lasts around 12 seconds. GT racing now is just a sprint from start to finish. It’s 100% all the way with no slack given. The competition though is just so strong now that it is what you have to do. You would never, ever ease back and drop 1,000 revs, or save fuel, or try to save the gearbox, every lap is a qualifying lap. This plays into the hands of the younger generation of driver, because they are used to driving like that, to being very aggressive and attacking all the time. Karting trains the driver very well to do that.” Something many a Pro-Kart endurance racer would understand.
Speaking of Pro-Karts turned the conversation to tyres and how after a stop the tyres cooled so quickly, with usually a lap needed to bring them back ‘in’ after leaving the pits. “Unlike Formula 1 (and so the same as karts) we are not allowed to have tyre warmers. There is a lot of work that goes into tyre compounds and constructions and the way the tyre works with the tarmac. At different periods throughout the race we will often change compounds and constructions, so that we can maximise what we have. But generally no, during those 12 seconds to refuel, the tyres do not cool down. When you go back out you tend to have very good grip at the first corner. On new tyres. and it depends on how soft the tyre is, but if we are talking an average, then about three-quarters of a lap. If it was a qualifying tyre then, if you wanted to, you could perhaps go flat out from the third corner, but they might not last, so ideally you would wait until the final corner of the lap before you really started to push it. As for the lack of grip on cold tyres? I like that! It’s very hard to make time, but you can make as much as two or three seconds on the first lap (on cold tyres), just by feeling where the limits are. I’m quite happy with that, thank you!” P.S. If Allan should ever be in your endurance team, make sure he races in the first stint.
One final thought, the appeal to many young drivers remains at Formula 1, and they are blinkered at the thought of doing anything else. Could the GT route ever be considered as the wrong move to make? “Oh, God no, definitely not! There is no way I would ever advise that because if you look at Alexander Wurz, he got his opportunity at Benetton because of GTs. Michael Schumacher also came through sports cars. Ricardo Zonta (the new BAR driver) is another. My opportunities have now opened up since driving sports cars, and I know of other drivers as well who have not made the move elsewhere, but have had the opportunities to do so. You should never rule out a move like sports cars, and you should especially never rule out the chance to be involved with a manufacturer. It is very, very important to be able to secure a deal with a strong manufacturer which can be very positive to your career.”
OK, but Formula 1 in the future? “I’m enjoying what I’m doing at the moment, and the future will take care of itself, as long as I take care of what happens in the cockpit.” A silly question maybe but a positively first class answer. Allan McNish knows where his future is heading.