As he bids to reclaim the laurels in the race frequently referred to as 'the toughest in the world', Allan McNish has underlined his confidence that Audi will be able to successfully take the fight to pace-setting arch-rivals Peugeot in the 78th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours – hinting that the home heroes pushed right to the limit and occasionally beyond in qualifying, and revealing that Audi has put everything
into this weekend.
McNish will begin the round-the-clock La Sarthe classic from just sixth on the starting grid in the Audi he is again sharing with 'Mr. Le Mans' Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello, sandwiched by the sister R15 Plus TDis and behind the quartet of Peugeot 908 HDi FAPs.
That said, gap between the two arch-rival manufacturers was more than halved between Wednesday and Thursday evening's qualifying sessions – and the Monaco-domiciled Scot scoffed at suggestions from pole-sitter Sébastien Bourdais that Peugeot could have gone 'even quicker' [see separate story – click here
], arguing that the French outfit was visibly right on the ragged edge as it was.
“Racing drivers who are on pole always say they could have gone quicker,” the former F1 star told Crash.net
. “I've heard that for 20-odd years. It doesn't matter what you think you can do – it's what you do
that's the important thing – and to be honest, the qualifying pace difference is irrelevant because we've done qualifying now and it's just a position on the grid.
“Yes, I would have liked for us to be one-two-three and they (Peugeot) were four-five-six. As it turns out it's the other way around, but I think on race pace we're closer and there are a lot of strategy angles to that as well. You're not necessarily going to see how it all unfolds in the first half-lap or lap or hour even – I think it will take a bit longer for it all to unfold.
“Definitely everybody [at Audi] is a little more comfortable [than after first qualifying]. Peugeot straight out-of-the-box was very fast in the unofficial session. When they went into qualifying, the 3m19.7s was quick by Bourdais – I thought it was personally very rude of him to go that fast – but clearly they wanted pole position. We saw that by [Stéphane] Sarrazin jumping over the kerbs quite a lot, Bourdais the same and [Anthony] Davidson had an issue – he skipped a chicane on one lap, so they were all pushing quite hard, and I think there was a little bit of inter-team rivalry to get the pole.
“I don't think you can say there are just three Peugeots, though, because the Oreca car is sitting in there as well, and if I look at the damp conditions at Spa and the damp conditions on Thursday night, then it was the quickest Peugeot by some margin. [Nicolas] Lapierre was on a very fast lap on Thursday night and aborted for whatever reason, and I wouldn't discount them in the mix either.
“From our point-of-view, [pole position] was never our objective, but we also wanted to be close and the first night we were four seconds off, which was far too far. We put together everything that was learned from the three cars [for Thursday] – because we all ran different programmes on Wednesday – and it suited Tom in the wet. He was quick in the wet on Thursday and Dindo was very comfortable just before 9 o'clock.
“I've driven the R15 in the wet in testing, but not round here. It wasn't really wet, it was more heavily damp I would say, but looking at the lap times then definitely we were competitive, and that has historically been quite a good quality of Audis in the past. They've been very driveable, even the R8 – if you look back at the monsoon 2001 race, then they were driveable and adaptable and agile – and the same with the R10 and obviously with the R15 as well. If it's wet, I don't think any of us will be disappointed, but I personally would also be quite happy if it was dry for the complete race.
“We did the driver rotation for the night practice and I went in and had one run at qualifying, which wasn't ideal, starting really your first acclimatisation of the circuit for the day in the dark on a qualifying run, but it was a good lap and it put us a bit closer. It was interesting that they (Peugeot) then started to push again, but they either went off, made a mistake or did something. We're closer, we're all happier with the car and more comfortable, but we still have the knowledge that they're a little bit faster.”
Over a race distance, however – and particularly one as long as 24 hours – McNish is well aware that consistency and durability are of infinitely more importance than one-lap speed. Whilst far from underestimating the threat from Peugeot – including the separately-run Oreca entry – having been defeated this time twelve months ago on all three of the above counts, the 40-year-old is insistent that this time around, Audi has returned to La Sarthe fully-prepared and equipped with all the tools it needs to do the job properly and steal back its Le Mans crown.
“Peugeot got the upper hand partly because they learned the lessons from us,” he concluded. “In 2008 they saw how we did it – which I think we did very well. Last year I think we underperformed ourselves. The R15 came here and I was on the front row; it wasn't much of a difference and it took Sarrazin three attempts to get pole, so that was an interesting point from our side. In the race, though, we missed the set-up completely and had a couple of reliability issues – little things like intercoolers getting blocked and things like that – which meant that they had a runaway victory.
“This year, we've planned our whole testing programme around Le Mans; we've planned our whole racing programme around Le Mans. I don't think there can be more commitment to focussing on this race than compromising your races prior to it in the Le Mans Series which are on high-downforce tracks, by running those particular events with a Le Mans set-up, even though it was detrimental to the performance there.
“For me, when the green light goes on, the race starts, no messing around. It's a flat-out sprint now; the reliability is there – we don't think about gearbox failures or saving this or that, you drive flat-out, and it's the best way. We have prepared, I think, better than we did last year – more cleanly, more clinically, more focussed and also in a slightly calmer way – and now we're going to find out whether that was the right way to do it.”