Article features images courtesy of F1-Photo.com & Octane Photographic
A three-time Le Mans winner with Audi, a former F1 race driver with Toyota, and test driver at McLaren during the Prost and Senna years. Allan McNish has experienced a lot in motorsport, and has a lot to say about the current era of Formula One. He shares some of those views with Badger’s Rob Watts, and explains how Toyota got it wrong when they entered F1 back in 2002.
Rob Watts: Allan, as someone who drove F1 cars from three different generations, I’m interested to understand the challenges you faced in reaching Formula One. How does that compare to young drivers today?
Allan McNish: Well, there were a few challenges. Physically it was much more difficult, and that wasn’t for your forearms, your back or your core strength, it was your neck, because back then there was no head support – no HANS system. Your head was bobbing around in the cockpit, so there was nothing to physically stop your head requiring your neck muscles.
The two circuits which were always the hardest were Sao Paulo, which was at the beginning of the year, and Suzuka because they were left-handed tracks. You remember Senna, for example, struggling in Brazil at the end of the race because it was physically very very tough, purely on neck muscles and nowadays that is significantly easier for very many reasons.
The second thing was that data was only just starting. I was testing with McLaren Honda, and they were the World Championship winning team at the time and even they just had limited data. It was down to experience and driver feel and then the driver translating that back to the engineer. The engineer would then have to try and work that out, as opposed to looking at a computer screen and saying ‘I know what it is’.
To build up the level of experience where you could jump into a race seat was a longer development time than now because the driver had to learn what he needed out of a car, what the car was doing and there had to be a much longer process. I was nineteen when I first drove an F1 car, these days you could be finished by nineteen.
Fast forward to 2002, and the cars were significantly faster, and g-forces were much much higher. This sort of period 2002-2004 – that’s when there were a lot of fastest laps being done but it wasn’t the top speed [that had increased], it was cornering speed, and it was basically flat out sprints all the time.
So, you knew you had to be on it; you had to be mentally on it much more and physically on it much more because of that.
The other thing that happened then was if you were in a back of the grid team, it was like ten seconds off the pace, whereas I would say there has been a much more concertinaed grid really since around 2000.
There has not been any back of the grid Charlie teams that are just making it – they’ve been competitive and have been able to get into the top ten. If you watch the YouTube video of ’88, the fourth place car in the Belgian Grand Prix was two seconds off the pace. That’s a fourth place car! So spread out!
So hence it’s come down to little details, probably because of data to some extent and that’s where we are today. I think now looking into 2017 it will be quite a shock to some of the drivers because they will have to mentally and physically be on it all of the time, every lap of every Grand Prix. Not to say that they are not now, but they will be at a much higher level.
RW: What do you think of the new boy Lance Stroll? He’s been racing in Euro F3, and he’s driven a 2014 Williams, but that’s going to be wildly different from next year’s cars. What’s the main challenge going to be for him?
AM: I don’t think the challenge is driving the car because if you’re a quick peddler, you’re a quick peddler. There is an element of a drivers’ natural style suiting certain types of car and some suit certain others. You can see that with Kimi this year – the Ferrari of last year really didn’t suit him, and I was surprised how much this year’s car did, but it didn’t suit Sebastian.
I would say regarding Lance it’s going to be the intensity, the pressure, the constant media questions, the twenty races and the fact that at the end of the season you just feel like you’re never off an aeroplane. Emotionally, at that age, you’ve got to be pretty robust. If the first few races don’t go according to plan and people dismiss you, keeping the confidence in these times will be harder than just necessarily driving the car. I am a very big believer that it doesn’t matter your age – if you’re good enough, you should be there.
RW: It’s a very different age today. We have social media and digital media, you see some of these kids coming through now they are very polished in talking to the media. Some of the drivers at 17 seem so comfortable in front of the camera. When you were that age would you have been able to have done the same?
AM: No, not at all. I was racing in Formula Ford, and I think I had only done one interview in my life. That was Clay Pigeon Kart Club; it was on the circuit speakers. When I spoke, after about half a second I realised that I was on the circuit speaker, I remember I stopped.
I was absolutely shocking at these sorts of things because we had no training but now my son is 11, and he is being trained at school in presentations. He had to stand and do a presentation to the class at 11. At 11 I was learning how to throw stones through telephone boxes, it was a completely different time and era.
Now they are educated better, earlier, in terms of racing. They’ve got the data to be able to help them; they’ve got better physical training, mental training, sports psychologists.
If I had fronted up to Flavio Briatore and said ‘Flav, I’ve got this great idea. I’ve got this guy, he is a sports psychologist, and he’s going to help us’, Flav would have said, ‘There’s the door, get out.’
He would have sent you on your way, but now this is part of it, and it is allowing them to develop earlier, and they are becoming much more robust. Now the question is, and this is a big question I think – they start at 17 but when do they end?
RW: We’ve seen this in the past with Red Bull, they’ve brought a lot of young guys in at Toro Rosso. By 22 or 23, their F1 careers are over. They either go to Red Bull, or they go nowhere.
AM: Even if they go on and have a long career in Formula One – if you look at a long career in Formula One, it’s maybe 12 years? So if they start at 18, they finish at 30. Whereas if you start at 25, you finish at 37. It’s a very big difference. I think you’re going to see drivers start earlier and they’ll finish earlier. Nico Rosberg finishing his Formula One career at 31 isn’t going to be such a big shock – it will become more of the norm.
RW: Could Jenson’s career be the last of its kind? We might not see a driver come in so early and stay in one series so long.
AM: That is very possible, and I think it’s difficult when they add races in, and you get 20, 21 races. I tell you what, I did 15 Grands Prix [last year], and I also did WEC races, and you spend – and I counted because I was bored – over two weeks of your life flying in the air.
It’s intense, and if you’ve got a family, it’s doubly intense.
RW: We’ve had Haas come in this year with a slightly different model to some of the teams that came in back in 2010, and it’s worked quite well. What was different about Toyota’s approach compared to what Haas are doing, and how did Toyota manage to get it so wrong?
AM: Culture. I think a lot has been made of setting the team up in Germany, but the fact is they had 300 people already working on a rally and sports car program. They had all of the dyno facilities, the auto claves, everything else was there anyway, so it was logical and correct to build it there. It’s not always the case that manufacturers have got the mental processes and ability to put the people in place and allow them to do their job in racing because manufacturers look at seven-year time cycles to build cars and develop cars and make it the best. Whereas racing teams look at seven days.
It became very top heavy, and when you’ve got too many chiefs and not enough Indians, you don’t win when the competition is ruthless. In the first season, we had no development at all so the car we turned up in Melbourne with effectively was the car we turned up with at the last race of the season in Japan while everybody else had moved forward. The one advantage we had at the beginning of the year was that we had been out since November and no one else did, so they were three months behind us in terms of running. We got the maximum out of our car basically at race one and two – just as Haas did.
For them to move forward and go from having the desire to be respectful, which was their initial thought, to wanting to finish over half way up in the constructor’s championship after four or five races, was dreaming of the stars and that sort of sent them on their time spiral. To design a car, race a car, test a car, develop the next car all at the same time is bloody tough.
RW: Toyota did something unique by starting a year before they entered with a test car, and you did a lot of mileage. The rules on that were very different then.
AM: We tested very often – we’d go to the circuit a couple of days after the race. For the development of a car, that was a bit of a waste of time, but from the development of a team from nothing, that was quite ok as it kept people together.
It kept them all working together and instead of pulling people in at the last minute, we’d done a year of getting to know each other. The honeymoon was over, and we were into the full marriage. That was not too bad, but the fact is it shows you money doesn’t equal success. It is a factor, a huge factor but it’s got to be spent correctly, and it comes down to people, and that’s the thing I like about it – it’s the spirit of people that will determine whether you’re successful or not.
RW: You’ve been retired from racing for a little while now, but you’re as busy as ever. Where can we expect to see you this year?
AM: What I do now is I co-ordinate group motorsport within Audi. Audi owns Ducati and Lamborghini, so the Ducati programmes, the Lamborghini programmes and the Audi programmes, I co-ordinate all of that into the board of Audi, which then goes into the board of Volkswagen.
I’m also heading up the Formula E programme at the moment so that will be passed over in house when we get closer to the time of action and I’m very busy with that.
I manage a couple of young drivers as well because that’s a bit of fun, to be honest; it’s like looking in the mirror.
The BBC F1 commentary side is the third part, I just need to put it all together, and that’s the tough part – juggling all these different things.
Travelling to Australia at the beginning of the year, I tell you what is a fair old punch in the nose because I would have already done Buenos Aries, Daytona in the US and one other Trans-Atlantic by then.
I find that you end up at the end of the year you don’t have jet lag as you are just constantly living in it and you’re just not sure where you are.
RW: Regarding your work in Formula E; there’s a lot of development there right now, and it looks as though we are going to see that series grow massively in the coming years.
AM: It’s an interesting series in terms of their approach to racing in cities. I quite like that as a principle, as I did a lot of city racing, street racing in the states in the American Le Mans series, and I think that’s very good.
Electric racing is something which is very relevant to the car manufacturers now, and they’re all working in that development way. The other thing is that it’s different, and being honest; I don’t think being so different is a bad thing as it makes everybody, myself included, someone that’s been involved in the sport for a long time, to maybe reassess a few things.
The world’s changing so quickly, you’re talking about social media, there was no social media when I was a kid – we never even had mobile phones, I was 17 the first time I saw a mobile phone!
So you’ve got such a change in an environment that it shakes things up. It’s in a transient stage at the moment, it’s not the finished article, and it has got some things to improve and develop on, but it’s in a position where it can maybe adapt a bit without too many problems right now.
RW: I think Formula E have been very brave in introducing some aspects to the sport which maybe aren’t the traditional way you do things in single seater racing. It seems to be working very well for them.
AM: Just as an example; Graham Carroll (who competed in Formula E’s inaugural eRace event in Las Vegas). He’s not a sim racer; he won the Formula Ford Festival. He is probably one of the most gifted young Scottish drivers of the last ten years that nobody has ever heard of because he had no money. He is one of those unique people that can see both sides of the fence, and that’s a talent that I don’t have. I could drive racing cars bloody fast, but when I got in a sim, I felt sick. I struggled, I threw up 20 seconds into my first sim session. We did so many days in the sim, but I never made the mental jump because I am too trained in other ways.
RW: I suppose it can be difficult to unlearn things.
AM: I was much better at sitting and looking at a circuit, getting down and looking at the corner and understanding it, then thinking ‘right ok, I am going to need my braking recuperation into here, and it will be there, there and there’, as opposed to doing it in the sim.
[Graham] is one of I would say probably two or three people that can do both. The interesting thing is you’ve got these guys out there who can blow away drivers that have won so many other things, have been in Formula 1, won Le Mans, that sort of thing; nailed them no questions, that is quite cool!
Many thanks to Allan for being generous with his time.