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“I hated gear levers!” – Three-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish

“I hated gear levers!” – Three-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish

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In Barcelona at Audi’s launch of the new fourth-generation Audi A8 we got through our journalistic duties after the car was revealed, and then spotted a short figure hovering around the German manufacturer’s modest Formula E display who turned out to be racing legend Allan McNish…

The Ingolstadt brand famously ditched Le Mans after 18 years at endurance racing’s top level and 13 wins in the famous 24 hour race in favour of the all-electric Formula E series heading into its fourth season next year.

The engaging Scotsman (and three-time Le Mans winner) gave us his insights into the driverless future, the Abu Dhabi to Dubai commute, motoring in the Middle East, and his hatred of manual gearboxes…

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The Scotsman’s first Le Mans victory came in 1998 with the Porsche squad sharing the podium top spot with co-drivers Laurent Aïello and Stéphane Ortelli

Motormouth: People in the Middle East are huge petrolheads and enthusiasts – so are you. What do you make of all this autonomy and electrification of the automobile, and the rise of artificial intelligence?

Allan McNish: I think it’s part of the future. I don’t think the future is only defined in one area. Take Formula E for example – it’s part of the future. Urbanisation is coming, and it’ll come to the Middle East too. Maybe not necessarily at the same speed that it’s coming to countries like the US, but it will come.

However that doesn’t mean that other parts of the future maybe won’t remain a little bit more traditional. If I take AI [Artificial Intelligence]… We kind of have AI in the car today anyway. We’ve got technology that improves our safety and that’s an extension of that.

If I look at autonomous vehicles, there are times when I do want to sit between Dubai and Abu Dhabi without even thinking, but there are also times when I want to be in Dubai, and, you know, drive myself.

So it gives us more options, and more opportunities.

I would never go back to a manual gearbox in a road car now. 

M: So you’re definitely not all doom and gloom – “Oh, they’re taking away our cars!” – about it?

AM: Things are changing. Life, is changing. We can’t stop change, and we shouldn’t. We’ve got to embrace it, and we can try to direct change in the right way.

It’s the same in racing – I look at it with the mentality of a racing driver. You know, you can always look back and say, “Well, that era was the best.” And you hear that all the time from old drivers, old farts like me. We say, “Ay, but back in my day… I had a gear lever, and I double-declutched!”

I hated gear levers! You know the best thing that ever happened for me was when they came in with semi-automatic gearboxes. I would never go back to a manual gearbox in a road car now. It was a definite improvement.

So there has to be change. The world can’t stop evolving, and you can’t stop us as human beings evolving with technology. We’ve just got to decide, which is a human conscious decision, what we want to use technology for.

We’ve got to use what’s going to improve our life. Like I said, there can be cars for different occasions and different uses. Some of them will still be powered by a petrol engine. Some of them will be electric. Some will be hydrogen powered, some synthetic gas-powered… There’ll be different vehicles for different regions and different requirements.

I think in the Middle East you’ve obviously got a strong relationship with the oil industry, and so, you know, petrol-driven cars…. I don’t see why people should start crying about it, because you’ll still be running petrol cars in the future.

McNish has given the Formula E a go and came away from the drive pleasantly surprised…

M: Let’s talk about Formula E – is motor sport in good hands, because electrified racing seems to lack the emotion we associate with motor sport?

AM: You know, I just drove the new Formula E car recently…

M: And what was your impression?

AM: Surprised…

M: Good surprised, or bad surprised?

AM: Actually good surprised, that it had more grip and more feel, and made me smile more than I expected.

It’s, at the moment, still very early. Season three… So it’s very early in the technical development of Formula E, and the development of the championship.

You know Formula 1 has been around since 1950, so it’s been around a little bit longer than Formula E in that way. So it’s been a positive surprise.

When I think about the development of mobile phones, when we had the first Nokia that was like a house brick, and the batter life was five minutes, and you couldn’t really call anyone. And you think how we use cell phones now… If you look at it that way you can expect in 10 years time electric vehicles to be very different.

I still remember the McLaren-Honda V10 going around Silverstone when I went to meet Senna and Prost for the first time in 1989… The shivers up my spine…

M: Can you touch up on the ‘emotion’ bit?

AM: Lacking emotion… Now that’s a phrase that comes out quite a lot, and I think to some extent that’s a little bit about perception as well.

I’ve got a 12-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, and I took them to the Formula E race in Monaco. To see whether it lacked emotion. Or whether it just lacked emotion for me…

One very interesting thing – when we go to a normal race the first thing I do is I put ear defenders on them. This time I didn’t have to do that, so the noise pollution side is, for me, very different.

But, they weren’t taken away by the reduction in noise at all. It didn’t bother them too much. They looked at different things about the event, which then made me think whether we’re looking at it purely as a sport, or are we looking at it as entertainment. Maybe we should try to look at it through their eyes because they’re going to be watching motor sport longer than we are.

But again, I come back… I still remember the McLaren-Honda V10 going around Silverstone when I went to meet Senna and Prost for the first time in 1989. It was screaming around as I was driving to the track, and I remember the shivers up my spine. So, it was a bit of an era… But I suppose Formula E and electric technology will find its place in motor sport.

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In 2013 with Tom Kristensen and Loïc Duval, McNish scored his third and final overall Le Mans victory

M: Now we know you don’t miss the manual gearbox – but do you miss Le Mans?

AM: Ah, I still go back to Le Mans. I was there this year. I love Le Mans for many reasons, and one of them is the romanticism of the place.

I think it’s not just a race, it’s a festival, and people come back year after year after year. It’s so difficult to win the race and this year was a perfect example – you think you’ve prepared the best way possible and Le Mans comes along and crushes you and kicks you and takes you down, and you have to fight back.

All of those stories through the years are what makes Le Mans special. I’m not there as a racing driver any longer, but I’m still there as a racing fan.

M: Thanks for the chat Allan, and we hope to bump into you again!

AM: I’m coming over because we’ve got the 6 Hours of Bahrain race in November, and then I’ll be out in Abu Dhabi for the final Grand Prix, so I’ll see you in the Middle East for sure. I have some very good friends in Dubai so I’ll hop over to them too.

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