Monarch of the Glen
Not so many years ago, women were unwelcome at the Royal Automobile
Club in Pall Mall, London, unless as a guest of a member…male of
course…for functions in the ballroom. Well, men dancing with men was
frowned upon in those days, and the august body had to bend the rules in
order to present the Segrave Trophy to Amy Johnson in 1932 for her flight
from England to Cape Town, and back, and four years later to Jean Batten for
her solo flight from England to New Zealand.
Scotland was well represented at the RAC in July when the Segrave Trophy
was presented to Allan McNish for his outstanding contribution to motor
sport. In fact the trophy is not just awarded for deeds on land, but “to those
individuals who give the most outstanding demonstration of transport by land,
air or water and in doing so show skill, courage and initiative – the spirit of
Sir Jackie Stewart was there to applaud McNish, and so was Duns garage
owner Louise Aitken-Walker, MBE, world ladies rally champion in 1990.
Other guests included Wing Commander Andy Green, world land speed
record holder and the only man to have broken the sound barrier on earth (his
next aim is to exceed 1,000 mph on land!), and, sitting next to me, Brian
Milton, who flew a microlight around the world in 80 days, in 1998.
Allan, a real pro in front of an audience, made a warm speech in praise of
Sir Henry Segrave, who in his 33-year lifetime was a fighter pilot, a Grand
Prix winner, and world speed record holder on both land and water. He was
also the first man to exceed 200 mph, and was knighted in 1929 after firing
his Golden Arrow up the Daytona Beach at 231.45 mph.
Segrave’s luck ran out when his craft, Miss England II, went out of control
and capsized on Lake Windermere in June 1930. Sir Henry apparently
regained consciousness for a moment to be told by his wife that he had
indeed broken the water record before passing away a few moments later.
Allan has no ambitions at all to break records on land, sea or in the air,
except in terms of race victories, but his career in sports cars puts him right
at the top of the ladder of fame. Twice a Le Mans winner, four times winner of
the Petit Le Mans, three times winner of the Sebring 12-Hours, three times
American Le Mans Series champion, nine-times a winner in ALMS in 2007,
eight-times a winner in ALMS in 2008, marks him clearly as the sports car
driver of the 21st century.
His first victory at Le Mans was in 1998, at the wheel of the Porsche GT1-
98. Allan arrived at the Porsche Sport Awards in November, joined by his
mate David Brabham, expecting to lead Porsche’s sports car programme in
1999. Instead, they had a bombshell dropped in their laps, the announcement
that Porsche would suspend their endurance programme for a year. “We will
be back” said r&d director Horst Marchart, meaning with the V10 engined
prototype that Allan, and Bob Wollek, tested in secret at Weissach. It never
Instead, Allan signed up with Toyota for a one-off bid to win the 24-Hours of
Le Mans in the outrageously bodied GT-One, no more a Grand Touring car
than a two-seater Grand Prix car. Thierry Boutsen crashed out, Ukyo
Katayama was denied victory by a cut tyre on Sunday afternoon, so the race
was won by the BMW V12 LMR.
In third place was the Audi R8R run by Joest Racing on behalf of the
factory, crewed by Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Didier Theys, and it was
to Audi Sport Team Joest that Allan went in 2000. Straight away he
established himself as the unofficial team leader, winning the American Le
Mans Series at his first bid, including the PLM and five more events besides,
with four pole positions and seven fastest laps, six of them at record speeds.
His most memorable success, perhaps, was winning the Adelaide Race of
1,000 Years on New Year’s eve, in the crocodile liveried Audi R8.
All the while he was Toyota’s Formula One test driver – it must have been a
very lucrative time in his career! – but his elevation to the Japanese
company’s Grand Prix team in 2002 ended with a terrifying crash in qualifying
at Suzuka, from which he miraculously stepped out unhurt. It was not quite
the end of Allan’s career in single-seaters, as he was appointed Renault’s F1
test driver in 2003, but his career in Audi sports cars was well and truly
Unhappily, Le Mans kept getting away. Emanuele Pirro,Tom Kristensen and
Frank Biela notched up three consecutive Le Mans victories between 2000
and 2002, more in succeeding years, and just when it seemed that Allan was
destined for victory in 2007, with TK and Dindo Capello, the left-rear wheel fell
off the car on Sunday morning. Again, it was the old firm of Biela and Pirro
that took the big trophy, with Marco Werner.
Le Mans 2008 was one of the all-time classics as Allan, Dindo and TK
slugged it out with the Peugeot 908 team throughout the 24-Hours. Peugeot
had the faster car but were slightly under-prepared in two or three
departments. The Audi number 1 crew had a perfect race, something that
only happens once in a decade, with the average of all pit stops working out
at a fraction below 60 seconds.
I said goodbye to some friends at Le Mans in June 2008, after a 40-year
span, grateful to have witnessed the greatest event since, well, Jacky Ickx
and Jackie Oliver won in 1969, their Gulf Ford GT40 beating the Porsche 908
of Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larrousse by some 70 metres.
My first Le Mans for Motoring News was in 1968, and the next three
seasons produced some epic contests between Porsche and Ferrari, with
their 5-litre cars, and their drivers became legendary. I include of course
Pedro Rodriguez and Jacky Ickx (I would find it difficult to say who was the
better of those two), Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Vic Elford and Derek Bell.
There were more, in fact, but these were the men who could find something
from nothing, could achieve or retrieve a victory simply by being great sports
car drivers, undaunted by rain or night mist at the Sarthe.
My heroes, the drivers that really captured the hearts and minds of
spectators, later included Hans Stuck and JJ Lehto, and that brings me to
Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen in what we will regard as the Audi era in
the 21st century. Allan may be five behind Tom in terms of Le Mans victories,
but he has more than compensated for his disappointments in nine extremely
productive seasons, on three continents.
Recalling the citation showing “skill, courage and initiative – the spirit of
adventure” the Royal Automobile Club could not have made a better choice
than Allan McNish.