Allan McNish’s exploits behind the wheel of P1 machinery will be sorely missed. (Marshall Pruett photo)
Two of Scotland’s greatest racing drivers have retired within the span of a month Dario Franchitti in the wake of his IndyCar crash at Houston and now Allan McNish, who had the good fortune to choose the timing of his exit from atop the world of sports car racing. Both stood atop their respective disciplines, and will be missed by their throngs of fans. The quality of post-race press conferences and race weekend interviews will also plummet in their absence.
This writer has enjoyed a close relationship with McNish for many years, making our first post-retirement interview a fun and somewhat loose stroll through a variety of topics, starting with his current state of mind.
“I’m happy, for God sakes had a pretty good run of it,” he told RACER. “There’s no way, when I started karting, that I thought I’d end up with any type of success, never mind what I’ve been lucky enough to get a hold of. And play with the cars I’ve played with and race with the people I’ve raced withthere’s no way you can look back at anything except that it was one hell of a ride.”
He claimed his third win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, recently added the WEC Drivers’ title to his array of ALMS championships, and has won almost every major international motor race he’s entered. McNish made a point to announce his retirement from P1 racing, specifically, leaving the door open to other driving adventures if and when he’s motivated to dust off his firesuit and helmet.
The next big race on the calendar, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, would be a logical place for McNish to turn up. It’s one of the few events he’s yet to win overall, but as he explains, there’s no rush or need to chase the next phase of his life.
“You might see me at Daytona next month but I won’t be sitting in a car!” he said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that you should never say never to something, but right now I’m stepping out, stepping back, very happy to do so. I’m sure that at some point I’ll do some races for more fun of the drive than to win the race, but I also know myself. I think it would be unlikely if I did get into a car that when the boys came down I wouldn’t just want to totally win the race.
“That’s an element. There’s no plans to drive anything in the future. There’s no plans to sort of sit and think and do something different. But what is very clear is that there isn’t just one thing to pursue at the moment. There are other things in life to invest my time and energy, and things that I would like to try to maybe divert and do something else with right now.”
McNish called his good friend Franchitti Tuesday morning to tell him about the upcoming retirement announcement. Unaware he’d flown from Scotland to Indianapolis on Monday, McNish’s call from England woke the three-time Indy 500 winner from a deep sleep at 4 a.m.
“I guess I’m doing a bad job of time zonesI apologizehad no idea he’d left the UK!” McNish said with a laugh. “In all seriousness, though, Dario is on the other side of the coin on this one. I’m very fortunate that I had the opportunity to basically walk away with my own decision. Whereas Dario certainly didn’t have that opportunity and that’s where I think it’s tough for the driver. If you know what you’re wanting and feeling it’s time as I did, OK, but it must be one of the toughest things when you don’t have that opportunity when it’s dictated to you.“For me, this year was perfect in so many ways because we did all the things that we wanted to do. We ticked all the boxes that we needed to tick. The championship, winning Le Mans, and personally, also winning the [WEC] TT at the beginning of the year at Silverstone (LEFT). And in terms of this year’s speed, I think it was the right way to go out by winning a championship. I don’t think there was a better way to sign off than when you’re still at a very, very high level. In some ways, Jackie Stewart’s way to go a little bit early as opposed to a little bit late was right for me.”
With an embarrassing number of wins to choose from, McNish highlighted some that meant the most to him when asked to reflect on his long career in sports cars.
“I find quite a few: the Sears Point [Sonoma] win in 2001, Lime Rock 2006 the last race of the Audi R8,” he explained. “Sears was important because it was the first win for Dindo [Capello] and I, and it set up the championship in a way between us. I choose Lime Rock (BELOW) because it was the last race of the R8, which we won. I suppose there’s wins as well that I came away with personal satisfaction, and maybe some that didn’t have the victory but also held big personal satisfaction.
“2005 at Silverstone in the p**sing rain was another one that springs to mind. The Laguna Seca one in 2006, because that was technically a very tough one because I was sort of sent out there without necessarily having the knowledge whether we were going to make it on the fuel. It was only going to be in the last lap that we really knew whether we had the chance or not, which was obviously a little bit late if we got it wrong. But the other thing was the tire temperature was dropping massively because I was coasting so much that I wasn’t able to load the tire to get the temperature, and it was slippery like hell anyway and difficult to get sufficient grip.
“And I have to say that actually the Silverstone TT at the beginning of this year is one where I could drag it out; I think that’s the one thing that I’ve enjoyed is when your back is against the wall and you’ve got to really drag the race out, when you’ve got to do something just a little bit deeper than what you’ve had to do before. And that’s where I’ve always enjoyed the fun of the battle and the fun of the fight. And sometimes it does get a little bit up close and personal. But that’s what’s made it pretty special in the end.”
One of the first things that came to mind with the news of McNish’s retirement ahead of the new-look 2014 season for P1 cars is whether his decision, even to the smallest degree, had anything to do with the reduced demands being placed on his brand of driving. With energy-efficient driving, rather than all-out racing, being required to succeed in the ACO’s new fuel-saving formula, did McNish question whether his supreme hunter/killer skills fit where P1 racing is headed?
“I think definitely the way that the formulas are going and this is across the board is that it’s a slightly different style of driving and the cars are going to be different the way you drive them, the way you race them, the way you think about it,” he replied. “And it’s not to say that you don’t adapt every driver has to adapt, you have to adapt to whatever it is. Whether they ban traction control, bring it back in, whether they allow hybrid, no hybrid, more downforce, less downforce, you’ve got to adapt. On that side of things I think you would adapt but I think in the pure enjoyment of driving the hard, aggressive fast lap, it’s going to be different next year.
“Not that it played in my mind, it wasn’t a big part of my thought process, but I personally like the enjoyment of just getting out there and ragging it one. And sometimes that’s not necessarily the right way to do it. But in general, that’s the way I basically tick, if you like.
“And it’s not that it’s like this at all, but the worst radio call I’ve ever, ever heard from a driver was Lewis Hamilton in Barcelona last year. He said, I cannot drive any slower.’ He’s being told to protect the tires, and as racing drivers, for the reason we came into the sport, we’re not in that conservation game at all. It certainly is going to be a change in characteristic. But I think my style is a certain style, and I quite like the way that it is.”
In a call shortly after earning his WEC title, McNish revealed a certain “bucket list” event he wanted to experience. In light of his retirement, the 44-year-old admitted it was still on his radar, but only after offering up a bit of grousing.
“It’s only been six hours since I retired, give me a break!” he fired back. “Look, like you said, as a general point, I think you don’t stop being a racing driver overnight. You maybe stop doing it but you don’t stop being the racing driver and you don’t stop the adrenaline, you don’t stop the passion. And I don’t feel any less passion than I had a few weeks ago in Bahrain or in China, there’s no question about that. But just your feelings, your thoughts, your circumstances, your desires, you change your focus, whatever it may be, but ultimately, you’re still that same person, an individual that’s been there for 32 years of that career. And that doesn’t change overnight.
“I’m not thinking about anything, to be honest, beyond what I’m going to be doing literally in the near future, but yes, doing Baja is still something I would like to go and see and have a crack at. I’ve done thousand-mile endurance races, but that’s the granddaddy of them all.”
He’s called time on his driving career, but thankfully, it appears he won’t be shrinking into the background anytime soon.
“It’s like turning the page in a way because I’m looking forward to the next chapter,” he added. “This life is all I really know. I’ve been involved in the car industry since I was born and I’ve been involved in the motor industry and car racing since I was 11 years old. I don’t think you’re going to get rid of me just yet.”
The native of Dumfries was the king of the comeback drive the fiercest competitor on the track wherever he went. Formula 1 drivers spoke of seeing Ayrton Senna’s yellow helmet in their mirrors and knowing that being passed was all but inevitable. In sports car racing, that helmet was pearl white, featured a tartan band across the front and belonged to Allan McNish.