As published in The Press and Journal on Tuesday, February 11, 2014.
If one was to consider the biggest Scottish international exports, oil, whisky and tartan would make the top of the list, while motor sport would most likely not feature among the obvious answers. But Aleksandra Jurczak finds triple Le Mans champion Allan McNish suggesting one of the best things Scotland has given to the world is its racing experience.
Allan McNish made his first visit to the Granite City in 20 years last week at the Subsea Expo as the guest of honour at the stand for engineering company Maritime Developments.
Apart from more than a decade-long friendship between the owner Derek Smith and last year’s FIA world endurance cham- pionship winner, McNish, from Dumfries, saw a different link between the energy industry and the sport.
He said: “There are a lot of connections. The obvious one is that we use the base product to fuel our cars.
“That’s changing slightly now because new technologies allow us to use what we have more efficiently and we have regenerative technologies as well.
“But that’s also where there is an analogy as well, because this industry is evolving, and both are cutting edge in their own area. Both need to develop very fast, so it’s an ever moving situation.
“But probably the biggest single link is the philosophy of the people: we’re both dynamic in our mentality, we’re both pushing the limits, we’re not accepting what we are today, it’s what we will have tomorrow – and that then produces the goods and the technologies that are here on the stands.
“I have noticed over the years that like-minded people who are maverick in a way always come together because you understand each other from the base product.
“There’s a voice inside saying that you want to win, you want to be top of the best, you want to do something other people can’t and you’re not willing to just sit back at the first hurdle.
“The thing where Derek and I understand each other is that he likes to do things perfectly and at the best of his abilities.
“I am very much of the opinion you do something or you don’t – its like an overtaking manoeuvre, you either do it or you don’t.”
The “do-or-don’t” philosophy shines right through McNish’s 32-year career.
Having followed the beaten track of many motor sport icons before him, he moved from karting into car racing, to become one of the resident names of world endurance series, with six Le Mans wins over two continents to his name.
His lifelong ambition to become a Formula One driver came into fruition midway through his career, in 2002, but, as he claims himself, it was too late for him to keep the dream alive.
“I was 19 and starting with McLaren, had a three-year testing deal with them and then went to Benetton and did it with them and at that point there were some opportunities there but they didn’t go my way,” said McNish.
“When it did come with Toyota it was too late – I was 30 at the time and not 21. At the end of the year with Toyota I went to Renault as their third driver.
“My first lap in the Barcelona testing – my first lap in a new car – was better than my quali- fying lap in Toyota.
“That told me that unless you’re in a car that can win races why are you there, what are you there for – are you there to make up the numbers?
“I race because I want to win, I don’t race be- cause I want to be there, and that told me that unless you’re at the front, there’s no point.
“It could have been dif- ferent if it was 10 years earlier . . . I could have played safe and stayed with Audi and then I would have probably one or two more Le Mans vic- tories on the belt – proba- bly because that’s what happened to the guy who took my place at Audi.
“But it gave me a heck of a lot of experience and allowed me to do a lot of things after that.”
On December 17 last year McNish announced his departure from full- time racing, after securing the 2013 FIA WEC title.
Although he admitted the decision was long coming, the retire- ment was just another chapter in his motor sport journey.
“You can’t switch it off. It’s been 32 years of my life, so you can’t just take it one day at full speed ahead and then stop the next day. Certainly, I can’t and therefore the passion is still there.
“When you’re a racing driver it’s always in your veins and I know that at some point I’ll drive some- thing, whether it’s going up the hill at Goodwood in an old car I’ve raced before or doing something similar.
“But it will be just for fun, so that I can enjoy it like I did right at the beginning of my career, in karting, which was simply enjoying the driving.”
With his retirement Mc- Nish rounded off another generation of successful Scottish racing drivers, with the current one hav- ing a hard time trying to shine in the top categories. The topic is like a thorn in the wound of the Scot’s pride as he believes motor sport had to fend for itself over the years when less successful disci- plines were credited with the “national sport” tagline.
“I think as a country motor sport has certainly been the most successful export product it’s had. It’s better than tennis, def- initely better than football, a lot better than rugby – but it wasn’t even recog- nised as one of the sports.
“Now these things are changing because sportscotland has actually given motor sport a devel- opment officer to look at its grass-roots level.
“But this is just the be- ginning which will bear fruit in about 10 or 15 years – not one or two years.
“There’s talent out there, but they need opportunity and the opportunity is always the hard part.”
McNish added: “What happened is that we’ve actually over-performed because for a decade we had a driver in all of the top categories in the sport, whether that be Indy Car in the states, whether it’s sportscar racing or For- mula One and we were the only country in the world to have that.
“But no stories can con- tinue on their own and we’ve never had the sup- port to take our talent and push it forward – apart from private benefactors.”
■ Born December 29, 1969, at Dumfries ■ Took up karting in 1981 and went on to spend five years competing
■ He received a McLaren-Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year award when he moved to open-wheel in 1987
■ Wins the Formula Vauxhall Lotus championship in 1988 and he finishes as runner-up to David Brabham in 1989 British formula three championship
■ A move to Formula One followed where McNish was named test driver for McLaren and Benetton between 1992- 1996, Toyota between 2000-2001 and Renault F1 in 2003
■ He raced for Toyota F1 in 2012 but scored no points ■ Raced in factory sports cars for Porsche, Toyota and Audi (1997-2000 and 2004-2013)
■ Three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion with Porsche AG (1998) and Audi Sport (2008, 2013)
■ FIA world endurance championship winner 2013 ■ Three-time American Le Mans champion (2000, 2006 and2007)
■ Four-time 12 Hours of Sebring winner (2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012) and Petit Le Mans champion (2000, 2006, 2007 and 2008)