The last time I sat down for an interview with Allan McNish was at the Geneva International Motor Show earlier this year. Months before our meeting at the world-famous exhibition, McNish was confirmed as the Team Principal at the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Formula E Team – arguably a big jump for the hugely successful racing driver into managing a Formula E team. It is fair to say the start of the season for the team didn’t quite go to plan: disqualification, disappointment and disaster for then-series Champion Lucas di Grassi. Odds of winning the Constructors’ title seemed near impossible mid-way through the season, with McNish telling me that “the chances of winning the championship is a bit like a train that had already departed the station.” Fast forward just a little over seven months later and Allan and I reunited for another 1-to-1 interview. This time we are sat in the Audi Motorhome in Valencia as pre-season testing gets underway behind us. It is a very chilled environment, drivers Daniel Abt and Lucas di Grassi continue to soak up laps during the three day test in a car that looks to be pretty competitive for season five, oh and Audi did the impossible and are the current Constructors’ champions.
“That sounds like a good analogy, doesn’t it?”, McNish begins with when I tell him of his ever-so slightly pessimistic attitude the last time we managed to sit down for an interview. “There was a few times when I look back and think, there is no way that that could ever happen,” he continued. “If you look at the points and where we were and the performance we had and the performance everybody else had, then normally, it wasn’t possible. I think it was partly due to, I would say, a reasonable car, because I do think the car was good. No, we knew the car was always good. We knew we could be competitive.
“Us taking advantage of every situation that came, I think that was one key factor. Another key factor was having two drivers that were competitive all the time. And that wasn’t the case with everybody in the pit lane. And the final one was, when it came down to it, we held our nerve, and not everybody did.”
With career highlights including three Le Mans wins, racing in Formula 1 and being crowned the 2013 World Endurance Champion, McNish started his journey into motorsport not through racing, but through the automotive industry. “My family is from car dealership backgrounds, I grew up with that. So, to be honest, I’ve been involved with it all my life, even aside from motorsport. To some extent, I’m as interested in what’s going on out there as to what’s actually going on in the pack. When I say “out there,” I mean from a manufacture perspective, where it’s going, what are we going to be doing, technologies, how does it affect the dealer networks, how is it affecting the dealers themselves. That gives you a wider view of what’s happening in the sport, because to some extent, the sport’s got to be a reflection of what the car industry is going to do. But, we as a sport have got to be on the front edge of it. We can’t be behind it.
“In 2006 when I was racing, we went away from petrol for the first time and from 2006 backwards, I had only ever seen petrol. Then in the last 12 years, we have had the switch to full battery electric vehicles. Would I have ever believed in 2006 that in 2018, Point A, I would be running the thing? Nope. Point B, it would be with a full-battery electric vehicle racing all nine cities? No. I would never have believed all of that, but, that’s the pace of development and the pace of change. It also makes it very difficult to predict what the next 12 years is going to be.”
Having worked with Audi Sport since 1999, McNish is someone who not only knows motor racing like the back of his hand but also has total respect and trust from the manufacturer. When stepping into the role of Team Principal for Audi’s Formula E efforts, one could expect a large amount of pressure especially with a troublesome first half of the season, however this wasn’t the case for McNish. “In terms of pressure from Audi, it was obviously the questions of “where are we?” and “what’s going on?”, but there was no pressure from the board in any way whatsoever. They were with us in that respect. They understand it. They are an engineering-led company, so they understand that motorsport can be fantastic when you win, but also it can go the other way. We have been through many racing programs together to know that’s the case. I’ve seen it as a driver, and I saw it this year.
“But to be honest, I was very proud. I was proud of the championship. I was proud to pick up the trophy on behalf of Audi, because it’s people I know and been with for such a long time. But I was proud of the way we did it, because, like you say, in Geneva, there was no chance. We had written in off in our minds as a frustration. I’ve been racing long enough to know that those sort of recoveries are not something that happen very often. So when they do happen, you’ve got to take advantage of them, but also, you have got to enjoy them at the end.”
As well as several departments within the team improving throughout last season, both technical and strategical, there were high points for the team that “was just down to [a] human, being the ones in the car or in the pits getting it right on the day – that’s mechanics, engineers, everybody.” It is also clear that McNish wants there to be no defined ‘number one’ or ‘number two’ driver within the team. “My view is very simple, we need to give both drivers the capability to get the job done. That is the way that they will push each other on, because I think Daniel stepping up pushed Lucas on and vice versa. We can benefit from that. That is the way I view it, as opposed to having a number one driver. We need to basically give both drivers, whoever they are at any time, that equal chance. The reason I come from that point of view is that, having raced, knowing that being in a number one situation, is good for you, but it ultimately isn’t the most healthy scenario. And at the same time, if you know that you haven’t got a chance because you are the number two before you get into the race, you can’t give your best.”
The Audi Formula E Team, previously know as ABT Schaeffler, have retained their same driver line up since the start of the all-electric championship in 2014. Despite two talented drivers representing the team in both Daniel Abt and Lucas di Grassi, it was di Grassi that found himself racking up the victories and was crowned the Formula E drivers’ title for the third season of the championship. However, last season it was Daniel Abt that emerged a real shining star of the season taking his maiden win and a string of podiums and high-point finishes. “In season three, I saw Daniel was somebody that actually had a lot more than his results gave: as a personality, as a driver, everything else. He was able to get a lot out of the car, but it wasn’t maybe as consistently as it could have been. So for season four we made quite a few changes around him and that clicked straight away and he and the team stepped up.”
With two drivers currently in the best form of their racing career and a team who achieved what many would deem the impossible last season coming from the bottom of the table to take the constructors’ title, Audi have everything to play for which is exactly what McNish demands for the upcoming season: “I want both the constructor’s and the drivers’ title. That was our objective last year. We didn’t get it. We got one of them in a last-gasp attempt, but clearly, we have to go in with that aim otherwise there’s no point going at all. I think we’re not the only ones too. If you go down the pit lane, pretty much everybody will have that and I think a few of them have got a realistic aim of it as well. It will be a very tough season next year, but we try to win both of the titles.”
As Audi made their full manufacturing debut last season, taking over from the ABT Schaeffler Formula E Team whom they had partnered since the championship began in 2014, the iconic German manufacturer became one of the first big factory teams in the Formula E pitlane. Fast forward another year to season six and we will see four of the biggest names in German automotive have factory teams in the championship: Audi, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes. Is being involved in the all-electric Formula E from an early start going to help Audi and their competitiveness when the other big names come into the championship? McNish certainly believes so, but remains hesitant.
“Every bit of competition is serious. You can definitely say from a German perspective, we jumped in early. Early adopters, if you want to say it like that. It is also good that BMW, Mercedes and Porsche are following because it clearly says our judgment was correct, our sort of smell of where the right place to go was right. But, certainly from a German point of view, it’s like the Bundesliga, you know. There’s four big power players there and that is going to create an intensity about it. I am sure the flights home, because we’re all going to the same destination, flights home after races can be quite fun.
But, on the other side of it, I don’t honestly just link it back to them because if I look at the way the world is right now in the car industry it’s car industry before racing. In the car industry you have got a lot of different manufacturers out there as well. You have new ones, like NIO as an example, ones that you maybe don’t know very much about but clearly on the racing track they have got a capability as well. So, I go and just look at it from the historic manufacturers perspective also and we have got competition from them as well.”
One thing is for certain: Audi are hungry for success. They have had their cake and eaten eat, but now they are after the entire contents of a Great British Bake Off tent. With such a strong driver line up in Abt and di Grassi, as well as top management and a car that could deliver some stellar results for the team in season five, I think it is fair to say that both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships are theirs to lose.