Allan McNish may quip that 'three is definitely a nicer number than two' and that a third Le Mans 24 Hours trophy 'would look much better on the mantelpiece', but there is no doubting that when the proverbial flag drops and the bullsh*t stops on Saturday afternoon, the Audi star will be serious indeed about glory in this year's edition of the race that he admits 'kind of defines your year'.
McNish has made eleven previous starts in the round-the-clock La Sarthe classic, and in two of them – in 1998 and 2008 – he triumphed. Audi has turned up at the 2011 event with its brand spanking new R18 TDi, and the Scot – one of the Ingolstadt manufacturer's true stalwarts, having been on-board as an integral part of the team now since 2000 – is palpably fired-up.
“I think every time you walk in, or drive in underneath the big sign saying Le Mans by the museum, there's a little bit of a tingle,” he told Crash.net ahead of the second qualifying session. “That's partly because it's Le Mans, it's partly because it's the big one.
“There are the memories and the history, but there's also the knowledge that the history is exactly that – and it's what's going to happen over the next few days that's the important stuff. It kind of defines your year – whether it's been a successful year or not. The 2011 edition of Le Mans sets itself up to be probably the hardest-fought that I've been involved in – and I've been in a few hard-fought ones – but I think that makes it quite mouth-watering for the people involved and the fans alike.”
Indeed, if the opening qualifying session is anything to go by – with little to truly choose between the three works Audis and three factory Peugeots – this year's Le Mans 24 hours is set to be a thriller, and McNish concedes that at present, it is far, far too close to call. Peugeot may have learned lessons from its past mistakes and worked hard on its consistency, but the former Toyota F1 star is confident that Audi has more than done its own homework with the potent R18 TDi, too.
“The R18 certainly gives us a better chance of success,” he mused. “That factor's clear. It has been designed around the new regulations with a smaller engine capacity. We've got a V6 now instead of a V10, much-improved aerodynamics and the big front tyre we've developed with Michelin has been a good benefit as well. I think it's certainly a faster car. It's also the first time that us and our opposition have all been on a level playing field with the new regulation base – and I think that has made things a little bit more exciting.
“I don't know if you can say their (Peugeot's) new car is reliable, because we haven't seen that. What we saw at Sebring was they had some technical problems, and at Spa as well, they seemed to have a couple of issues. It's not to say that we haven't had anything either, but I think what you can realistically say is that with the completely new cars being pushed faster than they've ever been before, the chances of all six factory cars running without problems is very, very low.
“To be honest, I would expect one of us to have some sort of technical issue within Audi, but even then, if you have [one car from each team] having a technical issue, you've still got four cars fighting for victory, plus the Oreca [Peugeot]. I think our cars, teams and drivers have probably got closer together in terms of pure performance levels – we can see that by the test day, we can see that from Wednesday night's qualifying.
“In terms of consistency, yes, for sure, they (Peugeot) are improving. They're not silly, and they learn very quickly. They stand outside our 'box every time we're doing driver change practice, and they video things, so they're definitely aware of what we're doing and what we're improving and like I say, they do learn, but that's part of the game. You've just got to make sure you're one step ahead of the opposition every single time.”
McNish was certainly one step ahead of the opposition in 1998 and 2008, and in company with faithful driving partners 'Mr. Le Mans' Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello, he will endeavour to be so again in 2011 – but what would a hat-trick of triumphs really mean to him?
“Three is a better number than two, much nicer – it would look much better on the mantelpiece!” the 41-year-old jokes. “Seriously, though, I don't think it would change my career now. The first victory certainly did; it opened up so many doors – F1 and things – that I'd been knocking on, and the second victory was a very different scenario. It established and reconfirmed everything. A third one would be a personal thing, I would say, more than anything else – and like I say, three is definitely a nicer number than two...”