Allan McNish is someone who knows motorsport like the back of his hand. An ex-Formula One driver, 2013 FIA World Endurance Champion, and three-time 24hs Le Mans winner, McNish is not only one of the most talented individuals in motorsport, he is also one of the most-liked and respected.
These days he can be found offering expert opinions and analysis for the WEC ‘Super Season’ as a broadcaster or in his newly-appointed role of Team Principal for the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Formula E Team. Having been linked with Audi Sport since 1999 and proving his worth as a truly fantastic ambassador for the German car manufacturer, it was no surprise that since announcing his retirement in 2013 he has stayed within the motorsport community in a more managerial role.
“I had a lot of success on the circuit but we [myself and Audi] also had success off it and so when I stopped racing, I knew I wanted to continue in the sport because it is my life and also because I knew that I wanted to continue with the people I had built my life with,” McNish states when I ask him about life after professional racing.
“If I go back, my first time at Audi Sport was 1999,” he starts before stopping mid-conversation: “wait, where you even born then?
“In 1999 I signed with Audi to race in the R8 Blancpain and there was one thing that was very clear: it is black or it is white, you win or you lose, there is no grey. If you win you get back in and push to win the next one and if you lose you go home and sort it out. That mentality worked for me because it was exactly the way I looked at things and it was very straight down the line. Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, who was the motorsport boss then, gave me the handshake and said “that is how it is” and I appreciated that.”
As well as being an ambassador for Audi, McNish helped organise and coordinate Audi Group Motorsport which included brands such as Lamborghini and Ducati. With Audi having a role within the ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport Formula E Team since the debut Formula E race in Beijing in 2014, it was once again Dr Ullrich that influenced his journey into the all-electric world of Formula E.
“Dr Ullrich asked me to go to Donington Park to the season three Formula E test, so I went to see if it was something of interest and whether it was something that could be integrated into Audi’s racing programmes. [It] did and then it developed through the course of last year.”
As you would presume, the transition from being a successful racing driver to the Team Principal of a racing team would likely prove to have its fair share of tests and trials, however, I was keen to learn of the challenges that were expected and those that came as a surprise to McNish in his new role.
“Expected? I expected that we would have some transition processes, coming from supporting act, to actually directly controlling. That’s more a case of… it’s like integrating one company into another one. I also expected that wouldn’t be totally harmonious and smooth, because naturally, you do have that. It has been a lot easier probably than most places because Abt, like myself, had a good long-established involvement with Audi, and so the personalities weren’t a surprise, but in that way, we had one or two bumps in the road, but nothing too dramatic.
“The ones that I didn’t expect on a positive side… I didn’t expect the Team Principals in Formula E to look for the common view as much as they do.” Giving an example of a meeting with “another party” that was held just moments before our interview, McNish continued “one area which we needed to resolve, we said Saturday, right, we’ll try to do it Tuesday – it’s now resolved. Not everybody has got one hundred per cent agreement, but we’re 98 percent, and that’s something you would never see in most other forms of motorsport. So that’s been one that I didn’t expect, but positively.”
However, the biggest difficulty for Audi in Formula E this season had to be the slow-start for current drivers’ champion Lucas di Grassi. It took him until the fifth race of the year to score a single championship point, meanwhile, a disqualification for Daniel Abt’s first Formula E win at Hong Kong meant that Audi’s first year as a manufacturer in the series got off to a rocky start.
“In all honesty, I didn’t expect us to have quite such a bumpy ride in the beginning of the year. I have raced for 32 years and had seasons where you just had to dip your head down and keep fighting, and keep pushing, and keep running, and it was like running against the wind, and the wind was getting stronger… but then suddenly the wind stops, and you’re running as fast as you can. That is where the beginning of the season felt for everybody, and that’s why the win [for Abt in Mexico City] was so important.
“Our expectation is that we go, and we deliver and that should be good enough to challenge for victory. You can never take victories as guaranteed – never. But you want to be challenging for them, and then the best person wins from there. But there were definitely expectations. It was funny, there was a thing in AUTOSPORT Magazine after the test in Valencia saying that we were massive favourites, a second quicker than anybody else, and we knew that wasn’t real. We knew our analysis, we knew where we were, and we knew we were good, but we didn’t expect the headwind to be quite so strong as it was. But that’s what racing throws at you, and you’ve just got to keep the motivation, keep fighting, keep pushing.”
Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler Formula E Team currently sit third in the teams’ standings with the next round of the Formula E Championship being held around the streets of Berlin on the 19th May 2018.
Images courtesy of FIA Formula E and Audi Media Centre.