Allan McNish is in confident spirits heading into his tenth Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend – confident in his team, in his car and in his team-mates, as Audi bids to defend its glory in what the former Toyota Formula 1 star refers to as 'one complete year's racing in a day'.
The Audi R15 TDi of the Scot, Tom Kristensen and Rinado 'Dindo' Capello is incontrovertibly the combo to beat when the starting lights go out at 3pm local time this afternoon, having seen off the challenge of arch-rival Peugeot in the legendary round-the-clock classic this time twelve months ago. The Ingolstadt manufacturer has been defeated just once in the last nine years at la Sarthe – and McNish reckons that is no coincidence.
“I think continuity is important,” he stressed, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio
ahead of the big race, “but that's not just in the driver line-up – I think it goes for the engineering line-up as well. I've had the same engineer since 2006, I was with him in 2004 too and he was at Bentley as well, so he is now sitting there with a tremendous amount of Le Mans experience and a tremendous amount of experience of working with Tom, Dindo and I at Audi.
“That 'knowing it like your own living room' situation I think is critical, because there are things that are going to be thrown at you at Le Mans that you're not aware of and not prepared for 100 per cent – and you've got to adapt to them very quickly. Right throughout our Audi group, I think we've got a lot of strength-in-depth and experience-in-depth.
“I don't go there to finish second, and I certainly don't go to Le Mans with hope – I go with the clear aim of trying to win the race, and we'll do everything we can to do that. I don't go there with the total confidence that I would maybe have going into a 2h45m American Le Mans Series race, but what I can say is that we've prepared in the best way we can with the R15.
“We've got a good group and a driving group that is obviously not too bad – they won last year and they won Sebring – we've got an engineering group that I would rank up there with the best and we've got a design group behind it led by Dr Ullrich that have won quite a few Le Mans' in their time, so if anyone beats us, they have to be very good...but
we know the competition is very good.
“Le Mans is called the hardest race in the world for one simple reason – it's one complete year's racing in a day. If you take the complete Formula 1 season of 2008 and put it all together, that's what Le Mans is – the same number of miles, the same average speed, the same top speed. You cannot imagine a Formula 1 season without an accident, a technical problem, a team mistake, a driver mistake – but that is what we have to achieve to try and win Le Mans.”
Indeed, as McNish well knows the race can be the cruellest of mistresses, with the Dumfries-born ace triumphing in only his second appearance there with Porsche back in 1998, and then having to wait an entire decade before tasting victory champagne again. Along the way he had to deal with the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and chances gone begging – but it is only the winning that counts, he makes clear, and that is precisely what he intends to do again in 2009.
“Winning, quite clearly,” the 39-year-old fired back, when asked what he would rank as his favourite Le Mans memories. “It's certainly not the races where we were leading and didn't win, like in 2007. Regarding memories from a personal point-of-view, obviously your first victory is an amazing thing, and then some of the things that have gone on in-between times when we've been so close but yet so far – when Dindo went off in '07 when we had a three-and-a-half lap lead out of pure performance, my stomach hit the floor. It was a horrible sight, though thankfully Dindo jumped out and he was okay.
“I think we've also got to remember that Le Mans is different for different people. For us it's about winning, for some people it's about a podium and for some people it's just about finishing. In the first year that I did it, there were three Portuguese lawyers, I think they were, racing in a GT car, and they were semi-professional, part-time racers. By an amazing set of circumstances they finished on the podium, and I was standing by two of them as their brother crossed the line. To see two grown men crying as their brother crossed the line to achieve something that they did not believe they could achieve was a reminder that Le Mans is sometimes a bit more than just a race to win, as it is for us at factory teams. It's about different things for different people.
“For us, the best is yet to come. I don't look back; I look forward, because looking back is talking about history whilst looking forward is trying to make history – and with the R15 we want to try to make another little bit of history. Three [wins] is a nicer number than two, isn't it? I think for anybody that has stood on the podium at Le Mans it's a fantastic achievement, no question, and if you win it then it's even more so. If you win it twice then you become part of a very select bracket, and if you win it three times even more so. I go there just to try and add another victory to that tally. Right now I don't think of it as anything bar just trying to win another race.”
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