Allan McNish on Audi vs. Toyota at Le Mans 2013

With the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours just days away excitement has reached a fever pitch; very soon we’ll be eagerly watching the greatest race in the world play out in front of us, and there are only two teams who’ll likely be in contention. The big question is who, after a whole day’s worth of frantic action will emerge, grimy and bug splattered, as the winner?

McNish portrait

Allan McNish has just got off the phone to the Glasgow Sunday Post, he says it’ll keep his mum happy. It’s a tribute to his professionalism that even during the Le Mans firestorm of PR appearances and media calls he’s still eager to chat away, answering questions from the ultra-technical to the ultra-stupid without missing a beat; somebody has already asked him how they fit all three drivers in the car at the same time... right.

He might be a familiar face with his Formula 1 coverage and instantly recognisable Scottish drawl but foremost he’s a world class racing driver, and his Audi R18 E-tron Quattro is the car that everybody wants to be in. Audi have won 11 of the last 13 Le Mans 24 Hours, were victorious in the 2012 World Endurance Championship and have already made their mark on the 2013 season with a 100% success rate.

They’ve got three cars this year; the #1 double-winning team of Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer, the #2 of McNish, Duval and ‘Mr Le Mans’ Tom Kristensen and the #3 of Lucas di Grassi, Marc Gene and Oli Jarvis. In the test day McNish’s car, driven by Frenchman Duval, was quickest by a margin of some five seconds from the nearest non-Audi competitor; as unreliable as the test day is as an indicator of true performance that’s significant. McNish describes the car as “stunning” and it’s not PR speaking: he sounds as though he’s in awe of what the team have offered up for this year.

But despite all of the history, experience and current performance he remains pragmatic about his chances for this year: “I think it would be completely stupid of me to tell you that Audi isn't the one to beat going to Le Mans, when you look at the history that would be insane. But that's not to say that it's a given that Audi will win when they get to Le Mans; we won in 2008 and then in 2009 Peugeot stepped up and showed us the way to go, so it can happen without question.”

That Peugeot vs. Audi battle entertained us for five years (remember that 13 second gap?) but when the French manufacturer made a surprise withdrawal in 2012 it was left up to somebody else to challenge the German endurance behemoths. Luckily Toyota was up to the challenge, and though the Japanese outfit were roundly beaten at Le Mans they managed wins in three rounds of the World Endurance Championship and looked as though they could be a real force this year.

But so far the challenge hasn’t really materialised. They were roundly thrashed at Silverstone and plagued by hybrid system reliability at Spa, and we’ve already mentioned the five second gap at test day. But McNish suspects that they haven’t shown their hand:

“I know for a fact, an absolute fact, that that wasn't all they could do. It can go quicker than that, they had traffic, they weren't necessarily set up. Loic had a really clean run with new tires and everything else so I don't think the gap is anywhere near what it looked like on paper”.

“After the weekend I haven't got a clue. All the performance figures that we have suggest that they should be right there but I really don't know; in Spa we had a quicker car in qualifying and then, come the race, they were more competitive. I would say that if they got into a race situation then I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be right up there.”

McNish Spa car shot

There’s something else that’s been thrown into the mix since Spa as well. The latest round of BoPs (regulation changes aimed at balancing performance) gave Toyota an extra five litres in their fuel tanks; a big difference when you’re filling up more than 30 times over the course of the race. Considering that Toyota were very much in contention before their issues at Spa this has the potential to tip the balance in their favour, and McNish knows it:

“I don't think we'll actually know how many laps they're going to do until we actually get into the race itself. Now, does it worry me... yes it does because you don't have to be a mathematician to work out that if they go one lap longer then we need to be 0.5, 0.6 quicker per lap to balance it out. If they do two laps longer which is very possible then we need to be over a second faster to balance it out and that's our job through the course of the race. I think having an effect in Le Mans is one thing but I think it'll have a huge effect in the WEC races.”

But it’s not just Toyota that could get in the way of Audi’s twelfth win. All together they and the Toyotas total five out of the 56 cars that will roar past the start/finish line at 3 o’clock next Saturday, and as the fastest cars of all they’ll be the ones doing the majority of the overtaking.

Eight passes on every lap over the course of a whole day is a lot of hard work. The R18 is four metres long, and as McNish points out that means that once somebody’s disappeared past your side window there’s still a long way to go; these kinds of visibility issues are being addressed in next year’s rules but for now they’re having to deal with it.

The speed difference is another factor: “We now do a lot more of our overtaking in corners as opposed to the straights purely because the speed difference is bigger in the corners. But once we've committed, and that could be 50 metres behind them, we can’t just get out of it. You can't just change direction at 170 mph through the Porsche Curves.”

But it’s good to see that the biggest problem is the possibility of losing pace: “If we sit behind a GT car through the Porsche Curves we lose five seconds, if you do that twice you lose ten seconds, if you do it three times you've lost the race. Ultimately it's gonna be won or lost by seconds so you can't afford to do it.”

It’s a real quirk of Le Mans that after 24 hours there can be mere seconds between a brilliant win and a hard fought loss. There have been some close ones in the past (Jacky Ickx won by 120 metres in 1969) so it stands to reason that of all the headaches that the engineers have to deal with, reliability is one of the biggest. It’s here that McNish believes Audi are, perhaps, strongest:

“Audi's reliability and serviceability has been one of the reasons for the continued success. The faster the race gets, the harder it gets, the more competition you've got, the less there is between first and second. Therefore if you're doing an average of 140 mph and somebody else has got to make one pit stop for one minute then that's a lot of distance you've covered. Chances are that you will have a problem through Le Mans, just pure law of averages suggests that, and if you do it's how quickly you repair it and how quickly you come back from it that matters.”

But the overriding sense is that there’s quiet confidence beneath the practical layers of ifs and buts. There’s a reason he’s known as the ‘Scottish Terrier’, a name he admittedly doesn’t mind (apparently he’s been called a lot worse in drivers’ briefings and parc ferme), and he sees the similarities with the short, shaggy haired that keeps on yapping and biting at heels. The reality is that Audi’s history, expertise and stellar driver line up put them in strong contention for this year’s vingt-quatre heures, and they all know it:

“I don't think pure speed has got the defining meaning whether you're gonna win or lose round here, there are so many other things that can kick you up the backside if you think that way. It's such a weird track and it's a high speed circuit so it requires a lot of confidence, and if you come to a race with the quickest car, generally it gives you an element of belief that the race is gonna go your way.”

That element of belief will be filtering through the Audi garages at Le Mans. It’s one of their biggest assets but could also conceivably be their one weakness, and only 24 hours around the Circuit de Sarthe will tell us which it’s going to be.

Jamie Snelling is a freelance motor sport journalist and 6-time Speed Chills veteran. Follow him at @SpeedChillsView