Despite never having achieved the success he deserved in his all-too-brief Formula 1 career, Allan McNish has forged a very successful path in sports car racing that has seen him a three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and American Le Mans Series champion. After claiming the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship, McNish opted to hang up his helmet.

Allan began competing in motorcycle events, but switched to karting when he was 11 years old. Quickly winning Scottish and later British titles, he switch to cars in 1987 and competed in the Formula Ford 1600 championship with the Ecurie Ecosse team and impressed and to be chosen by Marlboro for its annual driver selection event. McNish and Mika Häkkinen were selected as Marlboro drivers in Formula Vauxhall Lotus, teaming up in the new Dragon Motorsport team. It was a great success with Häkkinen winning the Opel Euroseries and McNish winning the GM Lotus series in Britain.

The duo then progressed to the British Formula 3 championship with McNish joining West Surrey Racing and Hakkinen staying with Dragon. McNish made the wiser choice and was soon winning races and battling for the championship title with David Brabham – it would later go to the Australian.

In 1990, McNish signed a three-year contract to be McLaren’s test driver. He partnered Érik Comas in the Marlboro-funded DAMS Formula 3000 team, but tragedy would strike. In the first race of the year at Donington, McNish locked wheels with Emanuele Naspetti and had a massive accident, with a spectator being killed by the engine which was torn off his car. He was unconscious for three days but recovered and bounced back to win two races and finished fourth overall in the standings. He stayed with DAMS in 1991 but had a disappointing year, and while his rivals moved into F1, Allan remained a test driver until the end of 1992. He switched to Benetton to fulfil a similar role in 1993 and helped to develop systems which were used on the World Championship-winning Benetton B194. He continued to work with Benetton until 1996 but then briefly tested for what became the shambolic Lola F1 programme.

Allan McNish, 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours

McNish earned considerable success in endurance racing with Audi

A switch to sports car racing paid dividends and in 1998 he shared a Porsche will Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aïello to win the Le Mans 24 Hours.

In 1999 he joined Toyota to race the GT-1 sports car and consequently was signed to be Toyota’s F1 development driver in 2000 and 2001. He still dabbled in sports cars with Audi but in 2002 made his F1 debut with Toyota. Despite much promise, the luck didn’t fall his way and he was dropped at the end of year, to the disappointment of many and no doubt himself, most of all. Allan was lucky to have escaped uninjured from a massive crash at Suzuka at the end of the season.

He was signed to be a Friday test driver for Renault Sport in 2003 but then drifted back to sports cars with Audi and in 2005 moved to the DTM.

He moved back to the Le Mans series, winning the ALMS title twice more and the 24 Hour race for a second time in 2008, followed by a third outright win in 2013.

Allan kindly accepted our interview request and provides us with a great insight into the highs and lows of his motorsport career and his all-too-brief foray into Formula 1 racing. We thank him for his time and support with this interview.

Headshot (140px wide x 200px high) Race Action (400px wide by 200px tall) Helmet (140px wide)

Full Name: Allan McNish
Nationality: British
Born: 29 December 1969, Dumfries, Scotland (GBR)

First GP: 2002 Australian Grand Prix
Last GP: 2002 United States Grand Prix

Entries: 17 Grands Prix: 16 Non-starts: 1
Wins: 0 Best Finish: 7th Best Qualifying: 10th
Fastest Laps: 0 Points: 0 Retirements: 9

1981-1986 Karting, Three British and six Scottish championship titles
1987 British Formula Ford 1600cc Championship, Ecurie Ecosse, 2nd overall
1988 European Opel Lotus Championship, Dragon Motorsport, 1 win, 3rd overall
1989 British Formula 3 Championship, Dragon Motorsport, 5 wins, 2nd overall
1990 International F3000, DAMS, 11 races, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 26 points, 4th overall
1991 International F3000, DAMS, 8 races, 2 points, 16th overall
1992 International F3000, 3001 International, 7 races, 1 podium, 8 points, 11th overall
1993 Formula 1, Benetton Ford B193, Test Driver
1994 Formula 1, Benetton Ford B194, Test Driver
1995 International F3000, Paul Stewart Racing, 8 races, 2 podiums, 11 points, 7th overall
Formula 1, Benetton Renault B195, Test Driver
1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche AG 911 GT1-98, 1st overall with L. Aïello & S. Ortelli
1999 24 Hours of Daytona, Doyle-Risi Ferrari 333, 2nd overall
2000 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport Joest R8 LMP, 2nd overall with L. Aïello & S. Ortelli
American Le Mans Series, Audi Sport R8 / R8R LMP, 12 races, 6 wins, 10 podiums, 1st overall
2001 Formula 1, Toyota TF101, Test Driver
2002 Formula 1, Toyota TF102, 16 races, 0 points, Not Classified
2003 Formula 1, Renault R23 / R23B, Test Driver
2004 12 Hours of Sebring, Audi Sport UK R8 LMP1, 1st overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport UK R8 LMP1, 5th overall with B. Biela & P. Kaffer
2005 12 Hours of Sebring, ADT Champion Racing Audi R8 LMP1, 2nd overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, ADT Champion Racing Audi R8 LMP1, 3rd overall with F. Biela and E. Pirro
DTM, Abt Sportsline Audi A4 DTM 2005, 11 races, 13 points, 10th overall
2006 American Le Mans Series, Audi Sport R8 / R10 TDI LMP1, 10 races, 8 wins, 1st overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport R10 TDI LMP1, 3rd overall with R. Capello & T. Kristensen
2007 American Le Mans Series, Audi Sport R10 TDI LMP1, 12 races, 9 wins, 12 podiums, 1st overall
2008 12 Hours of Sebring, Audi Sport R10 TDI, 1st overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport R10 TDI LMP1, 1st overall with R. Capello & T. Kristensen
2009 12 Hours of Sebring, Audi Sport R15 TDI LMP1, 1st overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport R15 TDI LMP1, 3rd overall with R. Capello & T. Kristensen
2010 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport R15 TDI+ LMP1, 3rd overall with R. Capello & T. Kristensen
2012 FIA WEC, Audi Sport R18 e-tron LMP1, 8 races, 1 win, 8 podiums, 2nd overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport e-tron LMP1, 2nd overall with R. Capello & T. Kristensen
2013 FIA WEC, Audi Sport R18 e-tron LMP1, 8 races, 3 wins, 7 podiums, 1st overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi Sport R18 e-tron LMP1, 1st overall with L. Duval & T. Kristensen

You were a keen footballer in your childhood. Was motorsport always an ambition as well, or was it something that came about at a later stage?

I would say motorsport was an ambition, it was something that came out of a successful karting career. That came about purely because I was quite good at it.

I enjoyed football, but I enjoyed it more than I was necessarily good at it! If you were to go back to when I was about 14 or 15 years old, and if I was asked, ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’, I wouldn’t have said, ‘A racing driver’. I would have said ‘A footballer or something else’.

However, talent led me down the racing line and certainly not the football line.

Did you have any motorsport idols as your interest in motorsport began to grow?

David Leslie, who was from Dumfries as well. When I was very young – maybe five, six or seven years old – he was racing successfully in the junior formulae in the UK, and I knew the family. My father knew the Leslie very well and he was a mechanic for David when he was racing in Formula Ford. I think David was very pivotal in creating my interest in motorsport at an early age.

Your climb up the motorsport ladder via championships such as the Formula Vauxhall Lotus and British Formula 3 series was spent competing against the likes of David Coulthard, David Brabham, Mika Salo and Mika Häkkinen. How tough was the competition against these guys?

There were some great driver in that era going through Formula Ford, Vauxhall Lotus, Formula 3. I knew DC [Coulthard] from when we were kids because we were from the same area. I raced him in karts, but it was a while before I raced him again.

Allan McNish, 1988 European Opel Lotus Championship

Allan McNish, 1988.

With Brabs [Brabham], Salo and Häkkinen, we kind of fought out pretty much every championship in that period. I would have to say that it wasn’t just those three – there were quite a few more drivers who came in at different times, such as Karl Wendlinger, Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who I competed against in Macau.

Formula 3 in 1989 through the different countries in the world was probably one of the toughest periods, and I don’t say that looking through rose-tinted glasses.

You and Mika Häkkinen were house mates when you were team-mates. What was he like to live with? Did he have any habits that drove you up the wall?

Mika rented a house in the UK – he didn’t speak much English – and it was quite close to the team we were racing for in Formula Vauxhall Lotus in 1988. I came down and stayed there when I was away from Scotland.

In terms of bad habits? There wasn’t very much about him, to be honest. In that sense, he was quite easygoing and everything else, but we once had an on-track incident at Brands Hatch and I remember the discussion on the Sunday night being a little bit terse to say the least (laughs) when we got back!

You spent several seasons in Formula 3000 as part of your attempts to break into Formula 1, but your outright pace was often thwarted by some terrible accidents and unreliability. How challenging was this time for you?

Formula 3000 was a fantastic breeding ground for drivers. It was a very difficult, but competitive, arena. At that time, it was an open rule-book policy, so teams were developing the cars every single week: aerodynamically, mechanically, engine-wise. The only thing that was fixed were the tyres.

It was quite interesting from that perspective and it was a good development site for a driver, but it wasn’t necessarily that would leapfrog you into Formula 1, especially in the latter stages of that era in which I competed there.

It was very good. I won races, I had some very strong seasons there, but [on the flipside] it didn’t actually help me into Formula 1. But there were a lot of Formula 3000 champions who didn’t manage that either. It was frustrating, I would say more than anything else.

You were involved for several years in test driver roles with the McLaren and Benetton teams. Can you tell me about your first F1 test?

My first F1 test was with McLaren in 1989 at Estoril, in Portugal. A world-championship-winning team, and sitting in the car opposite me was the World Champion, Ayrton Senna! I don’t think I could have had a better teacher on the day.

Allan McNish, McLaren test driver 1989

McNish was McLaren’s test driver for three years.

It as an eye-opener for me. He was talking about engine friction and things like that, which I just thought the bloody engine had loads of power! “Friction! Are you joking?” I thought to myself. It never had any friction at all, as far as I was concerned. It powered me through to the next corner quicker than my brain could catch up! But I was just driving fast and it was quite cool to see Senna in a different light to what you would on television.

On the other side, it was also quite good to be blasting around the circuit pretty close to his times on your first crack in a Formula 1 car.

You were also briefly involved with the Mastercard Lola outfit and its aborted F1 foray in 1997. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I was actually more involved with Lola prior to them ever getting to F1 because they built the F3000 car. Because I knew them very well from F3000, they basically asked if I would do a couple of tests with them.

So they paid me to do a couple of tests with them. Once it went on to become a fully-fledged F1 program, then in reality they were looking for drivers with budgets, and that certainly wasn’t my area at all.

It is perhaps ironic that in your years spent devoting yourself towards an F1 berth, you made headlines and gained enormous recognition as a sports car driver. Was this career switch by design or by accident?

It was an accidental design switch, if you like, from single seaters to sports cars! I did the Porsche VIP Cup race at the 1996 British Grand Prix. Purely, in my mind, I was just doing a VIP race for entertainment, but at the same time Porsche were looking to revamp their driver line-up. It sort of came from there when they asked if I was interested in getting involved with their program. And having tested the car, I said yes.

Prior to that, I certainly had no thoughts of sports car racing. I think it was an accident on my side, but probably a bit more by design on Porsche’s!

Endurance racing relies so much upon the collaboration and teamwork not only between the drivers and mechanics, but between the drivers themselves. What are the dynamics like between the co-drivers in this kind of environment, and are you able to look after your collective interests in a group of varied individuals?

It’s a totally different dynamic, but the same basic principles. You’ve got to work with all the assets around you to make sure that you’re successful, and that’s the same in Formula 1, it’s the same in touring cars, it’s the same in any business. You can’t just try to do it yourself.

Allan McNish, 1998 Le Mans 24 Hours

McNish’s first taste of endurance racing would come with Porsche in 1997. A year later he would win with Laurent Aïello & Stéphane Ortelli in the GT1-98, but much of his subsequent success would come with Audi.

But with sports car racing, you’ve got to rely on your team-mate. You’ve got to get out of the car [at the end of your stint], walk away from it, and you’ve got to believe that your team-mate has the same abilities as you.

That’s the hard part to get used to at the beginning, because they won’t necessarily do it the same way as you, but they might get exactly the same result as you. To give your team-mate your little trade secrets takes a lot of trust and a little bit of a mindset change.

With Rinaldo Capello and I, for example, we’ve been team-mates forever – the first time was in 2000 – and we know each other intrinsically, on and off the track. To get a relationship to work like that, it does take a bit of time but it’s very, very important.

Allan McNish and Mika Salo, Toyota F1 launch

McNish’s connections with Toyota saw him hired – along with Mika Salo – to headline the Japanese carmaker’s foray into Formula 1.

Your return to F1 came via your connection with Toyota, who rewarded your testing work in 2001 with a race seat in 2002. Can you describe your emotions to finally be competing on the race track in Formula 1 after so many years of trying to get there?

The Toyota program came out of the sports car program, because when I joined them for Le Mans, it was purely for Le Mans. My contract finished on 30 June 1999, and just at the end of the period, they announced that they were going to look into Formula 1.

When I signed with them, it was purely for that [Le Mans]. and then afterwards, they came and said ‘Are you interested [in Formula 1], because we want you to be the driver.’ And obviously, you are interested! If you’re not, then you’re a bit mad!

It all sort of came from there. When I did the original testing contract with them from 2001-2, it was all sort of set there. I knew the program and how it was going to run, and to be the first ever Toyota Formula 1 driver, the first to sign that contract, was quite a proud moment.

Going to the grid in Australia – okay, I was out in the big shunt at the first corner and it wasn’t exactly one of my fondest memories! – your first F1 Grand Prix is still a memory.

A serious opportunity for points went begging at Malaysia with a pit stop bungle by the team. As much as it was a rookie team error, it must have been galling to see the opportunity for a points finish go begging. Did this make you hungrier for more results?

It was frustrating in Malaysia, absolutely no question about it. I was sitting there, I had a really good race after a dreadful qualifying session: we’d had a problem in qualifying and lined up 19th. I came through and was running 6th, came in for the final pit stop – it was a late last stop – and as long as they did a clean stop, I would have emerged ahead of Felipe Massa on new tyres, and that would have been it, done and dusted.

Allan McNish, 2002 Italian Grand Prix

Allan was in line for a potential podium finish at Monza, but for a suspension failure that would cause his retirement. He described it as ‘galling’.

[My team-mate] Mika [Salo] came in before me with a technical problem, and they put my tyres on his car. When I came in, they were a little bit confused, took they tyres off, looked around to find no new tyres. So they stuck the old, knackered ones back on and off I had to go! I was pretty defenceless towards Massa at this point.

It was frustrating because you don’t get these opportunities very often, and I think that they team believed that they would at that point.

I actually think that the hardest one for me was at Monza, because I was sitting right behind [eventual podium finisher] Eddie Irvine with about half the race to run, and the suspension failed.

There was a design fault in the suspension, and Eddie went on to finish in third. I would have easily sat there to finish fourth, and that was galling, I have to say, probably more than Malaysia, in reality.

I’ve read that several journalists described the TF102 as “agricultural” in its design. What was the car like to drive?

The design was basic – yes, no question. It lacked the downforce of the other cars, predominantly. We had very good engine power, but we also lacked downforce. With good engine power and no drag, you would tend to go down the straights quickly, but the corners were an issue! I think at the end we had an easy car to drive, because an easy car with no downforce means it slides around a lot, but it just wasn’t that quick.

The other teams developed their cars constantly, and we just weren’t in that position, with it being our first year. Getting everything together to develop a car, as well as racing it and designing the next one [leads to] new team blues.

The team – wrongly, we very much believe – made the decision to replace you and Mika Salo at season’s end with a fresh line-up, when virtually every commentator (and no doubt, you and Mika!) felt that driver continuity was crucial for a new team entering F1. In many ways, this seemed to be the start of a pattern of ‘management-by-distance’ that Toyota continued with its F1 operation. After 8 seasons in F1 and a fortune invested in it, the team withdrew from F1 having never won a race. What was your reaction to the news of Toyota’s pull-out from F1 at the end of the 2009 season?

Obviously it wasn’t ideal when they decided they were going to switch Mika and I. I don’t think any other driver line-up would have done much better with what we had. Certainly, [driver] continuity was a logical thing to do, but it was their decision.

It was obviously quite a tough time for them. I think they had a higher expectation of results at the beginning of the year that would continue until the end of the year.

The easiest thing – like it is in football – is to look at the driver or the manager. It’s easier to change one person that it is to change one thousand. So that’s the way the world is, and when you sign the contract you know these are the risks.

I wasn’t surprised that they pulled out of Formula 1 at the end of 2009, but not because of the results, but because of the global financial crisis. How many cars they were selling, they way the crisis was going in the world, the fact that they had huge losses the previous, and the losses that will have for 2009/10.

Even prior to that, they were budgeting for big, big losses. In that side of things, the economics of how much you spend in Formula 1, the lack of results, and the financial losses of the parent company, it just doesn’t stack up. So it really didn’t surprise me, to be honest.

Your F1 season ended terribly with a massive accident at the 130R corner during qualifying at Suzuka. Do you remember much of the accident?

I remember everything about the shunt at 130R until the impact. I was my last run of qualifying, I was about eight-tenths up coming into 130R, and this was going to be the lap and where you think, ‘Sharp turn-in, take a breath, and take it flat’.

Unfortunately, as i said earlier, we didn’t have downforce of the other cars (laughs), it snapped on the bump, I got up onto the kerb and I held that but it came around the other way. I went backwards to the barrier – well, through the barrier, as it turned out – which created a few shark intakes of breath afterwards because the car landed nose-first and I went into the seatbelts. You can imagine the pain from thereon in…

Since Formula 1, you’ve returned to your roots and back into Le Mans racing and have achieved considerable success, with three ALMS titles and two 24 Hours of Le Mans victories in your career. How does the discipline of endurance racing compare with the shorter ‘sprints’ of Grand Prix racing?

Since Formula 1, it was very clear after Toyota and going to Renault that if I wanted to go racing, it was to win races. If I stayed in Formula 1, I wasn’t going to get the opportunity at a McLaren, a Ferrari or Renault, and it was just going to be something mid-grid to further back on the grid. Was that going to tickle my fancy? Bluntly, no it wasn’t.

I think now because of the reliability of our cars and because of the competition that we’ve got, there’s very little difference in the mentality between the way I attack a sports car race – even if it’s a 12-hour or 24-hour race – than I would do a Grand Prix. You just get in there and you just go for it from the first corner onwards. There’s no gain or loss.

Take Petit Le Mans in 2007. Capello and I won that by nine-tenths of a second – a ten-hour race by nine-tenths of a second! The following year, we won it by six seconds. And then you look at how much Jenson Button won the 2010 Australian Grand Prix by – what was it, 14 seconds? So if after 10 hours of racing, you win it by that limited amount, then you’ve got to be on it all of the time.

Allan McNish, 2006 24 Hours of Le Mans

McNish returned to the endurance racing scene full-time in 2006, winning back-to-back American Le Mans Series titles and claiming his second 24 Hours of Le Mans win in 2008, followed by his third and final victory in 2013. Here he is in qualifying at La Sarthe in 2006

How satisfying has it been to achieve such success in the Le Mans races?

It is absolutely satisfying to win one of the three biggest races in the world – Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix being the other two. When you’re spraying champagne up there – even in the big ones like the Sebring 12 Hours or Petit Le Mans – the most satisfying ones are the ones against the big competition.

What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career?

I think probably the most important moment, is the better way to put it, would be my first karting win in 1982 in Morecombe. If I hadn’t have won a race, I would never have ventured on this voyage of discovery through motor racing.

The worst moments are the missed opportunities. The ones where you don’t do everything you could have done to get the deal, or win the race, or whatever it may be. Situations like Malaysia or Monza 2002, that type of thing is for me, the worst one, because stupid things that could have been avoided lost you the chance for points, or victories, or whatever.

You’ve raced on many incredible motorsport circuits all over the world. What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?

Easily Suzuka. It’s natural, fast and fllowing, it’s very tricky and demanding. When you’ve done a qualifying lap there and it’s a fast one, then you have had to work for it.

In my last [Friday test driver] run in the Renault, I went around there quickest on Friday, and going up through the Esses towards Degners 1 and 2, I was absolutely on the limit. Flying through Degner 1, I was just getting it stopped for Degner 2, and then onto Spoon and then 130R, and then coming across the line with a 1:30-whatever-it-was, it was a nice lap.

Do you still follow F1 today? If so, what is your opinion on the current state of F1?

It’s as it is every year, where they’re talking about trying to make it a better show. It’s not been a show for 25 years. It’s not about necessarily being a show – this isn’t necessarily a circus – it’s about people being the best at what they do. If someone is the best, then they deserve to get the plaudits for that. It’s not NASCAR, it’s Formula 1, and that’s the way it is.

I think they’ve got a good driver program in there now, in terms of there being a lot of young blood at the front [of the field]. There’s some new teams, and it’s mixing things up a bit. I don’t think we’re ever going to see the days of big power-slides coming out of corners, and we’re not going to see the Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux battle at Dijon ever again. You’re only going to see those in a book or on Youtube or something like that. But right now, Formula has still got me up at 6:30AM to watch the Australian Grand Prix.

Images via Allan McNish, Corbis Images

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.