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Dining with the Giants

Allan McNish was awarded the Segrave Trophy at a ceremony at the head quarters of the RAC in Pall Mall, London. It sounds like just another award, but even before we all sat down to lunch, there was a realisation that this was more than just your average gong. Having spotted Sir Jackie Stewart hiding around the corner, and greeted John Hindhaugh’s bright orange tie, attached to the neck of the man himself, things changed somewhat when the table plan revealed Andy Green to be in the room. He was the first man to break the sound barrier on land, and the image, taken from a balloon high above the Balckrock desert in Nevada of the shock waves emanating from the nose of Thrust SSC, is unforgettable.

At my table was Louise Aitken-Walker, the former World Rally Ladies Champion who was one of my childhood heroines, and Brian Milton. I had never heard of Brian Milton before, but he won the Segrave Trophy in 1998 having flown around the world in 80 flying days. His stories of pitching into cold seas made for a highly entertaining lunch. Would I, he asked, like to join 400 microlights crossing the channel in two weeks? The answer was yes, but then the day job got in the way – the Spa 24 hours. Damn.

A flick through the press pack revealed the enormity of what was being bestowed on McNish. Previous winners include holders of world air, land and water speed records, test pilots of direct-lift aircraft, and Richard Branson, who was awarded the trophy having recorded the fastest crossing of the Atlantic in a boat. These were true pioneers of speed and exploration and to know that Donald Campbell once raised the trophy three times, (his fourth award was posthumous), Malcolm Campbell twice was truly humbling. Bruce McLaren was on there, having won every race of the 1969 Can-Am Challenge Cup in cars of his own design and construction. McNish’s achievement was the first since then to recognise endurance racing.

The 1960s and early 1970s are always regarded as the golden age of sports car racing. Michael, my father, remembers it differently, having to write an obituary almost every week, but the cars, the drivers and the events were all in place. Today, we are living through another of those periods, but with safer cars. Last year, we had two manufacturers with top line drivers going hammer and tongs against each other all year. Audi and Peugeot employed the best drivers they could find, gave them the best equipment they could, the best tacticians, and sent them racing.

It was great racing, full of drama with extreme speed, top cars and top drivers. Le Mans 2009 will long be remembered as one of the great races, no doubt embellished over time to be even better than it actually was. Central to Audi’s campaign, over the past ten years or so, has been McNish.

It wasn’t that long ago that a preview for the ALMS race in Sears Point in 2000 highlighted the wee Scot’s record. Not since Le Mans in 1998 had he won a race, and before that, he was back in 1990 that he last took the chequered flag. “Thanks,” he said when the point was raised at the time. He responded by going out and lapping the entire field, including his team-mate, in a breathtaking double stint. Rinaldo Capello had only to step aboard and finish the race. It was their first of six wins that year. Then, Capello was still learning his way around sports car racing, very much the pupil to McNish’s tutelage. It seemed criminal that, at the final race of the season, Capello would be champion if McNish didn’t get over his back problem, caused whilst donning a kilt in Adelaide. McNish climbed aboard, did the necessary, and more, and was champion for the first time since Formula Vauxhall in 1988.

Multiple Sebring winner, multiple ALMS champion, now multiple Le Mans winner. Tom Kristensen has the lion’s share of Le Mans wins, but the Dane has also concentrated on slaying another demon – the DTM, leaving sports car racing to others. McNish has consistently delivered breathtaking race after breathtaking race, able to produce magic where others could not. Le Mans in 2007 was an incredible race, perfect in every way until a wheel fell off. Le Mans in 2008 was even better, because the wheel didn’t fall off.  Petit Le Mans was a stunning recovery after crashing on his way to the grid. His rivals from Peugeot acknowledged that they were beaten by McNish, and he again produced pure magic at Sebring in March to deliver another win. Le Mans in 2009 was a disappointment because Audi’s race wasn’t perfect, and Peugeot’s was, but he still had a ball.

“Now I am happier than I have ever been in racing because the cars are the way they are, the racing, generally it is not work, it is fun,” says the 39-year- old. “Even not winning Le Mans, not even having a chance, was disappointing, but it was a fun race, and that is something that has not always been there in my career. Certainly the last 12 years, is when I found my feet, after my illness, after the point where I stopped searching for something that was not there, Formula One. I got back to who I was when I was 12 years old starting out in karting, you were just racing. My return coincided with the return of sports cars. I came back with the manufacturers and the races, and the car counts.

“When I started there were some good drivers, and excellent names, but they were probably not excellent names at their heights. Now we have…I was going to say a current but as of yesterday he is an ex-F1 driver in Sebastien Bourdais still competing at Formula One level and also doing sports cars and that has not happened for a very long time. The way I have to drive and compete is at a higher level because you cannot out-fox people easily, you have to work at it, and that is what makes it satisfying race, win or lose.

“There is a lot more to sports cars now than people realise, and that is teams and drivers, and not restricted to our group. The cars are like Formula One cars, and it is a very aggressive no holes barred attacking attitude, and that is the way you approach it. If you don’t, you lose. The guys coming through, I think will be from the single seater line-up. They will be seen as the next generation. From a driver development point of view, you get more seat time, in a powerful, heavy car, your brain is always active because you are constantly overtaking, and you have the chance to develop a car with a tyre manufacturer, and develop a tyre. You don’t get to do that in any other formula on the way through. Even F1 is fixed, but that will change at some point.”

It seems that the panel looked for a reason to acknowledge McNish’s achievements, awarding the trophy for “exceptional endeavour in motor sport including two victories at Le Mans” but in fact that is a fitting tribute. The panel does not award it every year if there is no worthy recipient, but this year it was McNish’s turn. “It is very nice, partly because it is not a standardised award, it is not every year that you have to award it, and it does bring up a different element, and it is not against people within your own industry,” he said. “I didn’t know much about it until I received notification of it. Then I looked into it and saw what Segrave had done. The story that got me was when he was injured, and his last croak was “did I beat the record,” that is gutsy stuff.

“It is more than just the results. It is partly the way the results are achieved. That is part of the panel’s judgement. Look who is in the room, Andy Green. He is in a totally different sphere from what we are trying to do, but that is what makes it special and very different. I looked through the list and saw Donald and Malcolm Campbell on there, and you remember the words “she’s going,” and all those words you hear from being a little boy, and Geoff Duke. We all have to start somewhere and have an interest, and my interested started from hearing those stories and now to have my name at the bottom of the trophy with all those people on it, that is quite an honour to sit on your shoulders, and I am proud in a way that is different to those trophies I have lifted in racing.”

Andrew Cotton, August 2009