Allan McNish started the 2008 edition of Petit Le Mans sitting on a five-mile deficit.
The two-time Le Mans winner – one of the best to grace the world of sports car racing – reinforced the notion that even the all-time greats can make giant mistakes. Pulling away from pit lane in his No. 1 Audi R10 TDi to drive at a modest pace around the 2.5-mile Road Atlanta circuit on the way to stopping on the front straight and parking for pre-grid, McNish hurled the big LMP1 car off the track and into the concrete barriers.
Crashing along the downhill section between Turns 4 and 5, Audi Sport’s leading entry, set to start second next to Peugeot’s brutal 908 HDi FAP, limped back to pit lane with front and rear bodywork missing, suspension bent or broken, and the gearbox in a sorry state of affairs. Crabbing badly, dragging carbon fiber, and dangling a front tire in the air due to a puncture at the rear, McNish pulled into the paddock, came to a halt under the team’s tent, and watched as the blended Audi Sport and Champion Racing teams sprang into action.
The good news was the car could be repaired. The bad news was the 10-hour race was drawing near, and despite Audi’s role as a headliner at every American Le Mans Series event, the stewards weren’t going to delay the start as a result of McNish’s gaffe.
A Herculean effort to repair the No. 1 Audi – some of the crew from the sister No. 2 R10 TDi also pitched in – returned the car to mint condition, but due to the long laundry list of fixes that were required, the other 36 cars in the field took the green flag and ventured off on a 10-hour journey while McNish and his co-drivers Dindo Capello and Emanuele Pirro stood under Audi’s awning.
After sitting stationary while the Peugeot Sport team, the No. 2 Audi, privateer LMP1s, all manner of rapid LMP2s from Acura and Porsche and Mazda, plus a deep field of GT cars began their battles, McNish finally rolled out to pit lane. Mashing the throttle to join the fray wasn’t an immediate option.
The first order of business was to follow the arcane pit lane procedures established by the ALMS that called for stopping in his pit stall, powering down the stump-pulling 5.5-liter twin-turbodiesel V12, then re-firing the motor before he could head towards the entry to Turn 1 to take part in the fight. Two laps down.
The mission was as simple as it was risky: go forth and pass those 36 cars – twice, if possible – and seek redemption for an unfathomable and uncharacteristic crash. Taking nothing away from Capello and Pirro, it was McNish’s performances inside the R10 TDi that produced the craziest comeback drive Petit Le Mans has ever seen.
Five miles in arrears and with more than 70 passes for position required, McNish and his teammates made the 2008 race into the unlikeliest of spectacles. The No. 1’s charge forward became the story within the story at Road Atlanta; there were class leaders to follow and fine clashes among the best drivers, but there was no escaping the fact that one car was ripping around Road Atlanta in a private race against time.
Would McNish and Company catch the Peugeot before the checkered flag waved? Was it even possible? On the 10th anniversary of their improbable win, we already know the answer to the question, but at the time, it was a mystery that enthralled those who were following the drama unfold.
McNish’s efforts to catch the leader gifted us unforgettable in-car footage as the he used the almighty R10 TDi – with a rumored 650hp and nearly 1000 ft-lb of torque on demand – to depict how frighteningly fast the former ALMS LMP1 machines were around the winding road course.
Where most of today’s LMP2-based IMSA Daytona Prototype internationals labor to pass the quicker GT cars in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, McNish’s R10 TDi behaved like a guided missile that blasted by almost everything in sight. Even the privateer LMP1s were easy prey during the race-long attack.
Add in the split-second decisions on when to pass, where to pass, and all of the risk vs. reward calculations being formed on the fly, and McNish’s talents were pushed to the limit. It’s hard to imagine another endurance race where the Scot has driven harder or more decisively than Petit Le Mans 2008.
In the end, he broke Peugeot’s will, shattered any mystique 908 driver and former F1 man Christian Klien possessed, and turned the race into a career-defining moment that continues to shine.
“It’s like he becomes a different guy in the car when he has prey in front of him,” Audi Sport engineer Brad Kettler said after the victory celebrations. “His voice changes – it’s more sharp and urgent. He’s all about the hunt. I think of a National Geographic show where the tiger is crouched in tall grass with his eye on a caribou. The tiger knows the caribou is about to go down, you know the caribou is about to go down, but the poor dumb caribou just keeps munching on grass without a clue… that’s what Allan does to them. The Peugeot boys are nice guys; I really like them, but their eyes kinda gloss over when they see Allan coming. It can’t be fun.”
To celebrate the milestone, enjoy the original in-car edits done shortly after the race (that have been lightly freshened for 2018), and listen to a new podcast with McNish where he takes us inside the wild day-to-night drive that was, as he reveals, capped off by wolfing down a box of Krispy Kremes in the Road Atlanta media center…
Allan McNish: Last to First at Petit Le Mans 2008, Pt. 1
Allan McNish: Last to First at Petit Le Mans 2008, Pt.2
Podcast: Allan McNish, Last to First at Petit Le Mans 2008