Le Mans 24 Hour: Allan McNish talks tech

Audi driving Scot on Le Mans, the iPad and electric race cars

Ahead of this year's Le Mans 24 Hours, veteran driver Allan McNish will be hoping to cross the finish line in first place for the third time in his career. It's a gruelling challenge but Allan has been there before and driving the new Audi R18, he could be in the right car to finish out on top. Taking time out of his hectic schedule leading up to the race, we talk about what it takes to win Le Mans, in-car technology and the power of Twitter

How exactly do you prepare for a 24 hour race?

Preparing for a 24 hour race is very difficult. Essentially there are two different things. For the cars, we do a performance test but we also do a 30 hours endurance test where we effectively run a car for about 30 hours which is Le Mans 24 plus a bit, and that bit equals the last qualifying night. Then the next part of it is from a physical pont of view, so you are in the gym and that is just something that you can work at. From the mental side of it, that's the trickier part because there's nothing like the emotion running. I've literally looked at my schedule and there's so little time for the whole week that I've got to rest.

The qualifying finishes at midnight, the meetings finish at ten to one in the morning, then we've got the next meeting at 9.30 the next morning. All in all, it's a very very draining trip and that's the thing I find the hardest part about it. The energy you've got to put in. I don't think you can train for something like that, I suppose it's the experience of going through something like that is the only way.

You've won Le Mans 24 twice before, what does it take to win?

Preparation. Thinking about all the scenarios that you think may come up and preparing for the scenarios that are totally unexpected. So it might be a nudge with a slower car, it might be a technical problem, it might be a driver getting cramp at the end of a stint, which certainly changes your pit stop philosophy. It's the ability to manage all that while still ensuring that you have your eye on the competition and you're doing well which is the key.

How much has the car technology changed since you first raced?

The cars have been getting quicker and doing the longer distances. The organizers of the sport have to hold back progress of the lap times a little bit. I think the next change is actually going to be the most influencial. What they've done is reduced the maximum capacity of the engines from 5.5 to 3.7 litres for our diesel. That means that we've got less horsepower but it also means that we don't want to lose the advantage so we've got to create more efficiency from what we have. I think that next step of giving you the amount of energy and you having to use that energy in the best way possible be it diesel, petrol, hybrid, electrical, I think that will create a very interesting dynamic at Le Mans.

Would you say most technological developments have been positive changes?

Definitely, because the manufacturers are not just involved in motorsport to have their name on the side of the car. They want alot more in return, The return is the technology they can get out of it and the relevant technology so then they have that in the roadcars. That's one of the reasons that Audi has been involved for so long because they developed TFSI drive injection in Le Mans and then it arrived on a roadcar within a year. It's the same with the TDI diesel technology, If you can develop something on a very fast test bed and then you can actually sell it to the masses and have it in the roadcars, then it''s excellent marketing on its own.

Off the race track, what do you normally drive?

I've got an Audi RS5 and a Audi Q5 3 litre TDI which covers both ends of the spectrum. The RS5 is the driver aspect of me, so very much when you want something that gets up and goes right at the limits. The Q5 is ideal when I need to have the kids in the back.

Is there any really impressive tech inside the cars?

There's a lot of technology now that's not necessarily just for performance but it's also for safety. For example, there's lane assist which I think is something some of the racing drivers should have, Lane assist gives you the guidance when you start to stray on the white line, it knows where the white lines are. That lane assist is a great thing.

Alternatively there is also another very clever system where you've got a light on your wing mirror and when someone gets into the general line spot of your mirror coming up to overtake you, the light flashes and alerts you to the mirror..Little things like that is using technology for the benefit and not just using technology for technology sake.I think that designers generally have a tendency to stack things that we will never use in our entire lives but they have to be on there.

What would be a good example of this then?

Some of the central control systems are so hard to use. They are so illogical to use all the benefits inside them. On the screen, it probably makes sense to the guy who is designing them, but when you the end user are trying to use it, it's actually a waste of time.

Are you a satnav fan? Have you ever had any satnav disasters?

Satnavs are much better than me and my wife trying to read the map and discussions from that. I''ve been pretty plainsailing with the technology. I've watched Top Gear and I know they have done a few things, but personally they've never been too much of a drama for me thankfully.

Is there any gadget you can't live without?

My phone for sure. Modern business is always done through the phone, I am very much of the philosophy that the spoken word is better than the written word. I use the phone for voice not just for texting and emails and things. I must say that I'm finding the compactness of phones, cameras and video more useful now. For example, if I see something that I think is a pretty good ides, I can take a picture, or take a video of it and then email it off and follow it up with a phone call to dicuss it .

For me a computer has become a necessity. I wouldn't say that everything I do on the computer is a necessity. You've got Excel sheets and you can do so many different things, but you tend to use it for things you never use. That aspect of it I'm a little bit prone to that.

I would say there has been a big push in technology in my era from when I started in the late eighties. In car racing it was very basic, there were no data systems. It's all changed now. The first mobile phone I had had a battery life of about 32 seconds and was about 25 kilos in weight. My family still can't quite believe it when I phone up from the other side of the world and you can send them a little picture. My era has seen the quickest move in technology so far, and I'm really interested to see where it goes next. The important thing for me and technology is the ability to use it, not just to have it.

Do you have an app you can't live without?

There are loads of training apps but I don't really use those. The Twitter app is something that I use most and the weather apps because that is something that tends to help us with forecasting.

Are you a big Twitter fan?

I didn't really know much about it at first, as well as Facebook, but Mark Blundell and Johnny Herbet said you've got to be on Twitter. So I signed up. It is a very good way of keeping in touch and it's very interactive. That is an aspect that I can really apppreciate.

Are there more postitives to Twitter than there are negatives?

It depends. If you're a Twitter addict or a Facebook addict or anything addict, obviously it can take over your life. The important thing is knowing when to start and when to stop. I don't think that changes for anything. For me, you have to be very aware that you're exposing your life. If you don't want to, you don't do it.

Wll the likes of Twitter and Facebook be here to stay?

I think there is irreversible change for people making their life public and the desire to know more about others as well as the interaction. I think that has completely changed. I remember a very famous racing driver saying he could never see magazines finish, because he could never go to the bathroom with a laptop. Now I can see my son with an iPad sitting down and he may never see magazine the same way I did. He will now just see it from being on an iPad. That has only happened in the last six years, and that's what I mean about technology looking forward and the way we use technology to have more interaction with people in a completely different way.

So you spent some time with the iPad then?

Oh yes. I was driving to London in the back of an Audi A8, when we were doing press events in London. There's a website in America which is the biggest Audi-focused fan site. They had a 24 hours with Allan McNish and I could respond to their questions, and I did that all on the iPad through the Wi-Fi of the A8. So I had four or five hours just answering questions on the iPad. I could have been sitting in my office at home. It was absolutely superb. That's why I think the technology today is useful. The iPad is very intutitive. I mentioned about technology that is so technical you don't know how to use it, The opposite with the iPad is that is intuitive. My son calls it the big telephone because it looks like a big iPhone.

Could a Le Mans 24 hour race with electric cars ever happen?

Why not? We trained with diesel in 2006 and in 2004. People scoffed at the idea of diesel. In 2006 we won it with diesel. Three weeks later the boss of FIA Max Mosely at the time, said they had to become more ecologically green, more fuel efficient because the world had changed. People did not look it as an option in 2006 for high performance cars in autosports. Therefore, I have no qualms about jumping into something else whether it be a hybrid or electric. The world is changing very fast and I want to be at the forefront of that.

How far off do you think we could be from it?

It's difficult to say. What I can say is that there is no better place than motorsport to develop the technologies of the future because it has got a defined timeline. You have to stop a race at the same point and if you win you can claim that your prop is the best. If you don't, you've got a few weeks before the next one to sort it out. The development is going forward so quickly, the competition level is so high that you get people coming up with really bright ideas and that's why I think Audi are involved. This particular type of racing as opposed to something else allows their creativity to come out and it enables the engineers to be in an environment where they can be thinking outside the box.

Allan McNish will be driving the Audi R18 TDI at this year's Le Mans 24 Hour race which begins on Saturday 11th June.