A racing driver’s glare is intense. Unsettlingly intense. Milliseconds feel like hours. You begin to question the very values your life is based on. TG can vouch for this because Allan McNish is glaring at us. Not because he’s angry, but because he’s serious.
“I live in the south of France, and as a company they were making French workers redundant and were in financial strife. The decision wasn’t a sporting decision. I don’t like it, but I can understand.
“It was like a bereavement in a way.”
He is of course, talking about the highly publicised and almost tragic exit of Peugeot from the 2012 Le Mans endurance race. The announcement was met with surprise from all quarters, especially Audi, who has now lost its key sparring partner for this year’s annual battle at La Sarthe.
“Without a doubt, the competition was fantastic and we had some great fights and great runs. They were fantastic competitors.” He is smiling now, which has alleviated TG’s need to go home and rethink its life.
His fellow works driver and office colleague, Tom Kristensen, agrees. The eight-time winner of Le Mans – that’s right, eight times – speaks with a sincerity that transcends the on-track rivalry. “There’s nobody who benefits from them leaving. Porsche and Toyota are coming so racing is always developing, but our good competitive fights with our friends from France will be missed.”
Ah yes, Toyota. Anybody familiar with TopGear.com’s corner of the Internet will no doubt be familiar with the sound of its TS030 prototype and hybrid drive. Part V8, part world’s biggest light sabre being switched on, the TS030 is a petrol hybrid that unfortunately met with a bit of an ‘incident’ just last month that has set back Toyota’s development.
Not that this will deter them, reckons Tom. “I think they will be very fast,” he says. “They have a lot of know-how within the team and group.” He takes on a serious tone, as he implicates the horrific and devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami that struck last year.
“I’ve been living in Japan for five years, and I can tell you their aim is to win Le Mans. Everyone knows the only Japanese manufacturer that has won Le Mans was Mazda in 1991, so they want to do something for the entire country.”
Allan agrees, and dismisses the assertion that Audi will be free from any real competition this year. “We’re taking them very seriously,” he says. “When it’s a trophy they haven’t got in their cabinet, you can bet they’ll be hungry for it. When I raced for them in Formula One, a lot of the talk in Japan was still about Le Mans and how they hadn’t won it. It’s one of their holy grails.”
Though not many people outside of Toyota actually know anything about the TS030. “They’ve got the capability, but we haven’t even seen the car yet, so we don’t know where it will be. All we’ve seen are some pictures and some YouTube clips. We’ve studied those greatly.”
So what do we know about the TS030? It runs a 3.4-litre petrol V8 connected to a hybrid system with a capacitor storage that recuperates energy under braking, which is then released to improve acceleration out of a corner.
“Toyota are going to have to be good to beat us,” Allan says with a wry smile, “but they’re very worthy competition.” Very worthy, in fact, because the TS030 is a hybrid – like the brand new Audi R18 e-tron quattro.
“I drove it for the first time in December,” Allan recalls. Audi’s crack team of engineers worked on the front suspension geometry and power steering system, and helped the rear by using a carbon gearbox that aids weight distribution.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure what the e-tron system would feel like,” he says. “I braked going into the corner and you can feel the load as it regenerates. It’s nothing startling, just an extra friction in the braking phase. When you come out of the corner, it’s just like having extra horsepower. It just sort of pulls.”
Tom explains it somewhat more mechanically. “It’s a bit like a differential. On some corners, you can rotate the car a little bit better and use it almost as a balancing tool. When the boost stops though, it feels like you’re running into a little bit of headwind.”
Headwind, fine. But rain? Allan notes some concern. “I’m interested, personally, in what the R18 e-tron is like in the wet. I haven’t driven it in the wet yet.”
Not that either of them ever really feel fear. As Tom tells us. “I don’t get scared. You’re always alert. And you’re always having moments where its ‘oomph’ or ‘oomph’ [makes oversteery gestures]. Afterwards you can say ‘phew that was close’, but while you’re racing and you’re going around? It’s a fast place that takes all your energy and focus.”
Still, even if it does rain, he’ll take some comfort from the R18’s wide front track. And we only mention this because there is a car on the grid that has attracted many headlines – a few from TG – ahead of its Le Mans debut, that has a tiny front track. The Nissan DeltaWing.
Allan smiles broadly. “When I first heard about it, I thought ‘pah, a bit of PR’. Then Marino Franchitti signed up as one of the drivers, who is a very good friend of mine, and I sent him a note saying ‘seriously’?
“He replied back: ‘Seriously’.”
The DeltaWing is that Batmobile-esque racer that uses a 1.6-litre turbo engine like the one in the Juke. And though it only produces 300bhp, it weighs just 500kg and is expected to consume half as much fuel and half as many tyres of a full fat Le Mans Prototype. And those tyres? The fronts measure just 10cm wide each.
“I saw it run at Sebring,” says Allan, “and its lap times weren’t too bad. It didn’t understeer like we all expected, and it was a lot more alive and real than I thought it was.”
Tom chirrups with interest at the highly-anticipated concept. “I spoke to both the drivers who said it has a massive response turning in and it has less drag on the straights. I like the risk of going in with new technology – that’s the idea of Le Mans, isn’t it?”
Quite. Not that Allan wants it to be too good a technology. “I hope it has a good run, and I hope it finishes just behind the Audis so I can spray champagne on them” he notes with a smile.
And with that, the stage is set. TG.com is at the six hours of Spa this weekend, so we’ll report back on the race debut of the new R18 e-tron quattro, and any other surprises we might find…