McNish gears up to give Peugeot and France the fight of their life

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The Independent Online

Allan McNish admits that his Audi team will need something other than raw speed to maintain their phenomenal record of success in the Le Mans 24 Hours race this weekend.

Peugeot have produced pace that would render a sprint race a formality and with a squad of former Formula One drivers, including the 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, the talent to get the maximum performance from their three cars. All of France is ready to crank up the atmosphere, send the foreigners packing and acclaim a long-awaited home victory.

Peugeot have secured the first three places on the grid. The Frenchman Stéphane Sarrazin took poll with a stunning time of three minutes, 18.513 seconds, a record for the circuit since chicanes were introduced on the Mulsanne Straight in 1990. McNish was fastest of the Audi drivers, in fourth, over five seconds adrift.

But this is no sprint. Le Mans is motor racing's ultimate test of endurance and Audi have demonstrated that they have the savvy to get the job done better than anybody. The German team have won seven times in eight years.

McNish has led at Le Mans in each of the four years since he joined Audi, only for the fates to conspire against him. Twelve months ago he gave perhaps his greatest drive, leading his crew to a seemingly unassailable lead. He then watched in disbelief, over breakfast, as a wheel broke loose from his R10, which was being driven by Rinaldo Capello.

It would be just his luck now, a decade on from his only win, at the wheel of a Porsche, if his best efforts for Audi were rendered impotent by the fleet-footed French. McNish accepts that possibility, yet his faith in the team is unshaken.

"We know it's going to be tougher than ever to win this year," he said. "If one of their cars runs as fast as we know they can and is reliable throughout they should, in theory, win. Eight of their nine drivers have Formula One experience. But it rarely happens that you get a totally trouble free run and they're going to have to be really good to beat us.

"We are better and quicker at pit stops and we know how to win this race – they've got to prove they can. They've won the three Le Mans series races this season but those are relative sprints of six hours. This is four of those races in one go. When things go wrong, which they invariably do at Le Mans, we'll be able to rectify it as quickly as possible. We'll have the strategy, I believe, to come through it again."

Team work, preparation and organisation are as important as a quick car and a gifted driver at Le Mans and McNish, who has worked with McLaren, Benetton, Renault and Toyota in Formula One, knows how to measure Audi's expertise. The 38-year-old Scotsman said: "I've been with some pretty good Formula One teams and the way that Audi goes about Le Mans is exactly the way a top Formula One team goes about it; the personnel, the operation, the systems they use.

"Over the 24 hours we cover roughly the same distance as a grand prix season and at the same speed, and we do it with no engine or gearbox change. That tells you something of the level of the technology and personnel."

Audi's three cars and nine drivers are backed up by 120 team members. Each driver can expect to be at the wheel for stints of more than three hours. They try to catch some sleep during their off-duty periods.

McNish said: "I'm too much of a livewire to adapt my sleep pattern ahead of the race. I struggle to relax, so I don't do anything different in preparation. We are in the car for the equivalent of two grands prix at a time and I try to get away from the garage when I finish a stint, so that I'm not mentally and emotionally dragged into how the car's working. I can't do anything about that anyway.

"Engineers take care of everything in the car, doctors and physios take care of everything physically, out of the car. That's when they take over. I get away, have a shower, something to eat and a bit of physio. I may have some press and marketing to do and I have to be on standby at least an hour before I'm due back in the car. So the period of relaxation is only a couple of hours.

"We have cabins kitted out with a couple of beds and a toilet. I've learnt to sleep at Le Mans but not a deep sleep. The cabins are soundproofed, but not totally. You never get rid of the sound of cars going by. I have a radio in case they need me quickly. Mentally, you are always on alert."

Up to 70,000 British fans among the 300,000 expected over the weekend will catnap along with McNish, hoping to wake up and find national pride honoured in other categories of the race, notably GT1, where Aston Martin resume their duel with the Chevrolet Corvettes. McNish, however, is Britain's only realistic contender for the main crown. He could be forgiven for feeling it is payback time after the angst of recent races, especially after what happened last year.

He said: "I don't think we will ever produce a more perfect Le Mans than we did in 2007, so it was doubly frustrating for it to end like that. Then I think of the drivers, such as Mario Andretti, who never won Le Mans. He came back year after year to try and get that trophy and there's one sitting in my living room that he will never have.

"I want it probably more this year because last year we were so close, but no one is entitled to a Le Mans victory. You have to earn it. You've got to sweat blood and tears, and I've done both. You have to be philosophical, but it's the hardest place in the world to be philosophical."

The Audi numbers game

*Cars 3

*Drivers 9

*Team members 120

*Medical staff 2 doctors, 2 physios

*Catering staff 60

*Engines 9

*Wheels 12

*Front sections 9