Allan McNish: “What is Formula 1?”

McNish, Allan WEC 6h Bahrain 2013

Opportunities to interview respected and revered racing drivers are not that often, especially when their schedules are always packed with too many commitments. However, I just had the chance to interview Allan McNish on topics close to him and I would very much like to thank Allan for his time and his very open answers. Enjoy!

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Do you think the new Formula 1 regulations have gone in the right direction?

Principally, yes. Cars will be faster, more physically and mentally demanding, not that the old ones weren’t mentally demanding, because they were. Trying to understand the hybrid systems, recuperations, brake balance adjustments and everything else was definitely a handful. But, definitely in my view, to be five, six seconds off what the car can do in qualifying trim is far, far too much.

Even with a full fuel load?

Even with a full fuel load. So in that respect I think they did need to be faster, and at the same time I’m smiling that Pirelli have confirmed that the tyres will have less degradation than they did before. Now you have less degradation with more downforce anyway, naturally. One thing it will in my opinion not do, it won’t necessarily allow cars to follow close, to allow overtaking, it will shorten braking distances and it will not help in the entry phase to the apex for overtaking, so, therefore, overtaking predominantly will be done on strategy and or the DRS zones.

Now if I come back to the last race at Abu Dhabi, you had to be 1.9 seconds faster than the car ahead per lap to be able to overtake, now that’s the reason Lewis Hamilton couldn’t back up Nico Rosberg. So that’s too much from a racing point of view, but I don’t know the answer to that, I’m not a designer, yet I think it is definitely a step in the right direction. But it’s got to be a vision going forward, the question that still stands out there though, which is probably what we are talking about, when we come down to the nub of it is “what is Formula 1?” Is it entertainment? Is it a purist sport? What is it?

It’s both?

But which side?

It should be a sport that’s entertaining.

Yes, but then there’s the questions of why do you have DRS and the like, it’s a slightly ethical question, yet it’s also one I think the new owners should ask themselves. Because the world is changing, we’ve got to be prepared for the next part, not reacting to the next part.

I recently spoke to Johnny Herbert and he was saying that he and Martin Brundle discussed bringing background effects a while ago: it would help to create a cleaner aerodynamic effect instead of relying so heavily on wings and causing so much turbulence to the car behind.

Part of the skill sometimes is creating a wing that causes the turbulence behind. Bringing background effects?  Yes, that’s what they use in the Indy lights series in America. A driver that I manage – Dean Stoneman – raced like that last year. I spoke to him about it as I’ve never driven ground effect cars in races so I don’t know, but Dean was talking about it and he was saying they have big downforce and you’ve got the ability to follow closely behind each other.

It’s not just pure downforce though, because the Audi I raced in had more downforce than any Formula 1 car and we could run nose to tail, so we could do it. Therefore, it’s how the downforce is made and the style of it.

Would you drive a hybrid Formula 1 car given the opportunity?

What, for fun!?

Sure, or maybe for a TV piece like Martin Brundle has done for Sky in the past.

I’ve not really thought about it, but yes, I probably would. Not for any sort of chest-beating because, I’m fine with that, that’s done! [Laughs] I would be actually interested.

Get the helmet back on and have a go!

I’d have to make sure my helmet was still legal. [Laughs] I’d have to phone up Hiro from Arai and say “hey son, I need an updated helmet!”

Alejandro Agag has done a good job so far and he has to keep the sport relevant.

With no Audi in the World Endurance Championship anymore, can it lose a sense of competition? Or perhaps keep its edge with Porsche and Toyota in the LMP1 class?

It changes its competition. Rewind to 2012, Peugeot on the last day of entry of the first world endurance championship, they pulled out at the last second, literally at the last second, then it was down to Audi and Audi alone. Audi stayed in, there were questions whether they would, but they stayed. Then Toyota brought forward their entry with one car, which was meant to be the following year. That was the first ever world endurance championship before the first race.

Now we’re a few years down the line, you’ve got Toyota and Porsche at the top, a strong LMP2 grid, you’ve got strong manufacturers in GTE Pro, plus the GTE Am class. But that means you’ve got a lot more substance than we had back then, so I think it changes something. Audi is a loss, I take my Audi hat off and it is a loss, it’s been there for a long time, you look at Le Mans, you look at the branding, you look at everything about it. Even look at the fact even in the bad times, like in 2009 when everybody evacuated out of motorsport, they were still there.

They kept it alive with WEC when that first ever day was on the rocks, so it is a loss, but as I’ve said it before, I think it’s a speed bump.

Do you think they’ll come back to world endurance?

Well, they’re in world endurance, just not in the world endurance championship; they were racing in Dubai 24 hours with the GT3 cars, I’m going to Daytona next week and they’ll be there, they’ll be in Bathurst with GT3 cars there, they’ve got a TCR program which is not sports cars. So they are in sports cars, just not LMP1. Will they come back to LMP1? No plans at the moment.

At the moment, DTM and Formula E are the two factory programs, obviously like every manufacturer, you look at what else is going on and that’s standard. It’s not a case of you come in for a year and come out, I don’t think you can do that.

No, you end resetting all of your resources, cash flow and everything else.

Yes, and that’s exactly why the focus is on Formula E and DTM.

What’s it like being involved in Formula E for you?

It’s different, totally different. If you’re a traditionalist, then you’ll struggle, because it changes the way you do things in so many ways. That’s technically as well as from a fan’s perspective, it’s one race, one day in the middle of a city. From a team’s point of view, you arrive, you have to build everything up, you’ve got all your practice, qualifying and race in the same day. It’s all action and there is no time to really do anything, there is no sitting there at night looking over data. It’s reaction and boom! You’re gone.

So you arrive, we go to Buenos Aires and we’re gone before we realise it, so if you’re not really on it, you’re behind and that’s the championship.

It’s quite embryonic in some respects, well in many respects in reality, technically and also as a championship, but they try to do the Vegas E-race, which is something completely off the wall, and there are a few off-the-wall things, some of them are working and some aren’t so far.

I’ve got to say it surprised me, because I went to the Monaco race in season one purely, with my wife and kids to sit in the grandstand and watch it, to see what it was like from that perspective. Then I went to Berlin and that was from the TV perspective in the commentary box, I watched it from that angle. Now, during the last two races, I was actually in the pits with Audi, inside the team, in the workings of it and the background workings of it. The series has developed so much in the last three years, so it’s got a lot of potential. Season five is a critical point when it goes to one car, one race.

Mercedes potentially coming in as well!

Yeah, Mercedes potentially, BMW is in, Audi is in, the manufacturers are building up, there’s a twelfth spot, another manufacturer potentially for that? There are still some hurdles to overcome, but so far they’ve gone three years and it’s been on an upward trajectory, and that’s probably three years more than most thought they would get to. So Alejandro Agag has done a good job so far and he has to keep the sport relevant, to keep it actually feeding back what the manufacturers require out of motorsport, keeping it in the cities, keeping a stable platform and a stable calendar and that’s something which is quite difficult to achieve, but I think it’s something they need to achieve.

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