Together with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval, McNish will take on the other Audi teams and the rest of the P1 field to chase victory once again at this year's race. We'll be in attendance, covering it as best we can from the environs surrounding the Circuit de la Sarthe. For now, here's a look at what's going through McNish's mind as he gets ready for the big event.
This is the 15th anniversary of your first 24 Hours of Le Mans win, and the 5th anniversary of your first win with Audi--does the race carry any special significance for you, or will it be just another day of (monumental) work in the cockpit?
Can I tell you, I never realized it was my 15th anniversary from my first win and the 5th from the first one with Audi. So I've got to say, probably, no it doesn't have any special significance given the fact I wasn't aware of it until now. [Laughs].
It's also the 90th anniversary of the first running of the race, which somebody told me today. I'm not really one for those type of numbers, you know, at the end of it, the 5th anniversary or the 7th, if we win the race, it will be a pretty special podium celebration.
I suppose when I look back in time after I hang up my helmet, then I might think more about it, but certainly not right at this moment in time. As a race this is pretty special in its own right, it's the Le Mans 24 Hours, and it's all of the things you can imagine and more. But also, it's part of the World Endurance Championship, and so therefore we've got sort of two eyes, really, one is obviously on the prize of Le Mans, and one is on what it means for the World Endurance Championship.
Your past two trips to Le Mans with the Audi prototype have seen crash damage (and specifically Ferraris) play a role in the outcome. Will that affect your approach behind the wheel for this race?
No, it hasn't really affected the way we approach the race. If you just look at the statistics, there are more Ferraris in the GT category than anything else, and so therefore with the way that the LMP prototypes situation is, and also with the Ferraris as well, you saw it last year with the Toyota of Anthony Davidson, there is a certain law of averages. The chances are it's going to be one of those.
But it's a tricky balance, because there's the risk and reward. If you, say, for example, through the Porsche curves or down through the esses, lift off and don't push the situation and lose 3 or 4 seconds, if you do that three times, you wouldn't have won the race in 2011.
It's a very finite balance nowadays about trying to push the limits of where you are with the car, with the setup, with the traffic, because ultimately, the difference between winning and losing is just so finite nowadays that you can't afford not to push the envelope. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. That's just kind of, unfortunately, the way it is.
Definitely, the crash in 2011, if you don't see the guy and he doesn't see you, and the two collide, then, you know, there's very little you can do about it. It's obviously quite catastrophic, there was no question about it. Tested the safety cell of the R18 very well, but it certainly wasn't the way we like it. But, that's sometimes happening in motor racing, just purely and simply because that's what it is, that's part of the animal, that's part of the beast, and it's part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Does it look like the Toyota, Lola, or Honda will offer serious competition for the overall win? Test day times so far seem to show the Audi is quite a bit quicker than the rest of the P1 field.
Yeah, I personally wouldn't read too much into the test day times, for a couple of reasons. One, for us, we didn't get all of the information we wanted to get out of it, we wanted to do a lot of long runs with tires, because we believe that strategy will play a big part of the race result. We weren't able to do that because it was wet at the beginning of Sunday and only the last hour that it dried up, which meant it was a bit of a free-for-all, it was like a qualifying session, where you only had actually the five minutes of the hour to be able to do your job. Everybody was out in traffic at once, and it depended whether you got a clean lap or not--too many variables for my liking to be able to read it very well.
I know that Toyota didn't get a clean lap, and I know that they didn't maybe necessarily push the boundaries as much as what we did. What I do know is that looking at the previous races so far, they've been in a position to run longer on a tank of fuel than we have, because they've got 76 liters of gas now in comparison to our 58.
That means that they're able to do, at Le Mans, probably one, maybe two laps longer on a tank. That will effectively mean that, if it's one lap, we'll have to be between 5 and 6 tenths of a second faster per lap, just to equal them, and if it's two laps, then it's up to 1.2 seconds a lap to equal them. So therefore, pure pace isn't necessarily the only key point in this; we need pace, and we need efficiency, we need reliability, we need to have clean, consistent pit stops--all of those put into the mix, and then we'll be in a position to fight to win.
The R18 e-tron has seen some upgrades and tweaks since last year--has it required any adjustments on your part to get the most from it? How different is it driving an all-wheel-drive hybrid compared to a more conventional prototype?
Yes, we had to make some adjustments, because moving to the e-tron quattro, you've got a slightly different characteristic of driving style, because when you're braking and coming in, the hybrid system is still recuperating, and so therefore, it has an effect on the brake balance and the car balance as well. And then when you boost, when you disperse that energy as well, it changes the characteristics again. And so, there was a learning procedure from us as drivers, but also from the engineers as well. Last year, Tom and I jumped back and forward a few times between the R18 ultra, which was the non-hybrid, and the e-tron quattro. To be honest, it took a little acclimatizing.
Over the course of the winter, there have been developments--there's been a little bit more hybrid power, it's been a little bit more of an adaption to the specific circuits that we go to. The engine guys have done a very good job of trying to regain the losses that the regulations dictated on the diesels, and the aerodynamics guys, I think, have probably done the outstanding job by what I felt at the weekend, because the aerodynamics of the car in Le Mans-spec, which is a low-downforce spec, were hugely impressive. It's like driving on rails through the Porsche curves. It was unbelievably fast through there. Hopefully we're able to hit that same sweet spot in the race.
The chassis guys have done a good job of trying to integrate all of the systems, because we've got a hugely complex car, probably the most complex racing car in the world. We've got a diesel engine, a small little V-6 diesel engine with a single turbo, that's pushing the power output through the rear wheels, with massive torque. We've got a traction control system that's working with the rear. We've got a hybrid system with a flywheel that's recuperating and boosting through the front, creating the quattro. And we've got all of the other suspension and aero working with all of that as well.
Trying to make all of those components of performance work together, I think it's been a very hard job, and I think, over the winter, that was probably one of the biggest gains--and games--of understanding what were the key performance factors, and how do we make them all work together. I think that's really where we are right now, with a year of experience under our belts, that we're now starting to unlock all of the potential of it.
Allan McNish and the Audi team prepare for the 2013 24 Hours of Le MansEnlarge Photo
What would you, as a driver, like to see as the next technological innovation in endurance race cars?
I think you have to say, it has been quite innovative up till now, it's not as if it's just been a sort of tickle, and a small change and a rub here. Where we've gone to with the performance and the fuel economy benefits from when I joined Audi, it's huge, absolutely huge, back then we had a 100-liter fuel cell, now we're down to 58, and we're doing roughly the same number of laps, with 40 percent less capacity.
We're doing faster lap times. Back then a qualifying lap time was 3:35. [During the test day this year] we were on intermediate tires in damp conditions and doing 3:35, and the lap time was down in the 3:22s when it was dry. So we've gotten 13 seconds a lap faster, with better fuel economy and, if anything, slightly lower top speeds. Therefore I do think it's been quite the innovation to achieve that through the things like the diesel, things like going to the single turbo, and now the integration of the e-tron quattro into that.