His Audi R15 TDi may have a '100 per cent win record' in its fledgling career to-date, but Allan McNish insists that he is taking absolutely nothing for granted approaching the 2009 edition of the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend – an event in which the Scot will be bidding to defend his laurels after recording one of the most popular victories last year in recent memory.
Having first entered the legendary round-the-clock French classic – frequently referred to as the toughest race in the world to win – back in 1997, McNish defied convention to triumph in only his second appearance a year later, partnering home-grown favourites Laurent Aïello and Stéphane Ortelli in the Porsche factory effort behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 GT1-98.
Following a subsequent outing for Toyota, since then the 39-year-old has competed exclusively for Audi, and after several agonising near-misses, he finally regained the top step of the rostrum this time twelve months ago, helping to successfully see off Peugeot's challenge to uphold the Ingolstadt manufacturer's unbeaten run stretching back more than five years.
The German marque maintained the upper hand over its French rival when the two leading protagonists met again for the first time in 2009 in the Sebring 12 Hours in March, but if it was ultimately another success for Audi, McNish and long-time team-mates Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello were made to work hard for it – and the Dumfries native confessed that he had been somewhat taken aback by Peugeot's turn of speed under the Florida sun...
“It's got a 100 per cent win record so far!” he pointed out of the R15's form to-date, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio
. “The R10 TDi was quite groundbreaking because it was the first-ever purpose-built diesel, so I think it pushed a lot of the boundaries. The R15 does exactly the same in typical Audi fashion, but it's been able to combine the V10 engine – which is shorter and lighter than the V12 – with new aerodynamics and packaging and better driveability to make what I would say is a much more raceable car. You can throw this thing around and you can really give it everything you've got and it responds very well.
“When we turned up at Sebring, it was the first time that we had really run the car in hot conditions; every test we'd had in Europe had either been very cold or very wet, which hadn't been ideal preparations, but we've got a lot of simulations and we kind of know where we should be before we get anywhere anyway, so it wasn't a case when we arrived there that we were completely out of the ballpark and had to re-learn the world. We knew within a few per cent where we needed to go.
“I was confident that we could have the performance in terms of lap time, and I was a bit disappointed to be honest that the Peugeot was a bit quicker than us in the race. The area that I had question marks over – and I think we all did – was the reliability, because it was such a brand new car, and when you get to a race like Sebring, you always find problems that you don't encounter in testing because there's rubber build-up and things like that. You just get into situations, like wheel-to-wheel touches with other cars, that you don't get in testing. There was a pleasant satisfaction, I think, for the engineering group that we got to the end of the race with two cars that were intact and ran without any real dramas.
“Peugeot came out with a very clear statement that they were going there to test, so I asked two of their drivers and they looked at me as though I was completely insane! They went there to win the race, and their faces on the podium and the disappointment of finishing second proved that it wasn't for them a test session. From that point-of-view, the battle continued as it was from last year, and it was a very, very good battle fought by two very strong competitors with one goal in mind – to win. That goal is exactly the same for both of us at Le Mans.”
Indeed, former McLaren Formula 1 team principal Ron Dennis once famously quipped that second place is just 'the first of the losers', and with a great deal of pride and prestige at stake, neither Peugeot nor Audi will be content with anything but victory at La Sarthe this weekend.