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Allan McNish talks F1, Le Mans and Red Bull

TG exclusive: the three-time Le Mans champion discusses Formula One’s woes, and how to fix them

Bernie Ecclestone himself recently admitted Formula One was suffering a ‘dip’, with fans seemingly disenchanted by - among other things - a perceived lack of competition at the front of the grid.

At the same time, another discipline of motorsport is thriving. The 24 Hours of Le Mans broke its attendance record again this year, with 263,500 spectators watching Porsche claim their first win at Circuit de la Sarthe since 1998.

With genuine competition for wins, plenty of on-track action and the almighty challenge of driving non-stop for a whole day, endurance racing seems to be ticking a lot of boxes that Formula One currently is not.

And if that wasn’t enough, how peculiar that Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg should enjoy the biggest success of his time as an F1 driver… in the victorious Porsche LMP1 car.

Ahead of the Silverstone Grand Prix, we spoke to someone who knows a thing or two motorsport. Some say he’s won Le Mans three times, and that he’s also competed in Formula One. They’re right, because that someone is Allan McNish.

Less than two seasons after winning the World Endurance Championship with Audi, the Scot now works as a commentator and analyst for the BBC. Before the last race in Austria, McNish witnessed first-hand the strange situation at Red Bull, as team boss Christian Horner navigated his way around awkward questions about engine providers Renault and their future in Formula One.

Horner was, along with Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey, involved in a bitter spat with Renault about who was to blame for the lack of performance some months back.

Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz went even further two weeks ago, saying: “There is no driver and no chassis which is able to compensate for this lack of horsepower.”

However accurate that assessment is, it is difficult to see how such public derision will help solve the team’s problems, especially after admitting that there is “no alternative to Renault.” Something appears to be missing from the equation.

McNish has a theory. “They’re trying to achieve a reaction from Renault where they either step up to the plate,” or, alternatively, force “a change in the regulation where they are able to step up to the plate.”

In other words, the suggestion is that Red Bull don’t believe Renault will catch up any time soon without the motivation of bad PR. If accurate, it’s a risky strategy.

“I’m sure they [Red Bull] will turn round and say they exhausted the other way,” says Allan. “But it’s been very critical. And nobody likes being criticised. It’s especially tough for the guys that are actually doing the work on the engines, because they’re working like mad.”

Red Bull could conceivably ditch the sport if the situation doesn’t change. Technically they are contracted to F1 until 2020, although McNish believes this would count for little in reality. “If he [Mateschitz] is going to stop before 2020 he doesn’t have to create any political climate, he just has to say, ‘Right, I’m stopping.’

“And you can’t force someone to stay. There will be a penalty clause in there I’m very sure, and they would pay that and off they would go and things would move on.”

Red Bull’s regression coincides with growing confusion about the identity of F1, with prominent fuel saving, fragile tyres and complicated penalties all contributing factors.

In contrast, an event like Le Mans couples efficiency with entertainment in a way that Formula One can’t seem to replicate. Of course, all forms of motorsport involve some level of economising, but in F1 the perception is different: perishable tyres and coasting seem incompatible with a formula where fans expect drivers to push to the limit.

McNish says equating Le Mans to F1 is like comparing “squash with tennis”, although that doesn’t mean lessons can’t be learned from the success of endurance racing.

“What Le Mans has is a wide variety of options on regulations. And that has allowed a lot of manufacturers to come into the sport, and to come in with their solutions.

“You’ve got all of the major manufacturers represented in one format or another. So I think the rules and the diversity of the rules is allowing manufacturers the opportunity to display their wares.”

With a number of rule changes pencilled in for 2017, Formula One certainly knows that something needs to happen. The much publicised GDPA fan survey published its findings this week, with 80% of respondents in favour of a tyre war and 60% in favour of refuelling.

However, the consensus in the paddock is that both of these measures would lead to less excitement instead of more. Indeed, Formula One’s bosses have officially abandoned a planned return to refuelling on the basis that overtaking would likely diminish.

McNish thinks a little perspective is required. He believes “rose-tinted spectacles” have blinded many to the fact that F1 has had much worse eras than the current one.

“I watched the old YouTube the other day,” he muses. “Gerhard Berger was in the Ferrari and he was something like two-and-a-half seconds off the pace… and he was fourth!

“We have to ask ourselves the question ‘What does Formula One want to be?’ And then you come to an answer and then a decision from there of how to actually achieve that.”

So what would he do if he was in charge?

“Well personally I think you can’t rewind the clock. And so you can’t go back to V8s and V10s,” McNish says. Without the efficiency push, at least two manufacturers wouldn’t be involved, “and then you’d have a worse state than you actually already have.”

“I would go forward with the current format with some tweaking, some tuning, probably allowing different options of hybrids.”

This would make cars stronger at different parts of a track, provided that all the hybrid categories were designed to deliver similar levels of overall performance.

Formula One currently allows engines that recover a maximum of 4 megajoules of energy per lap, although Le Mans has power units that run as high as 8MJ, including this year’s winning Porsche.

And along with making cars faster and “more edgy”, Allan reckons F1’s financial model needs to be tweaked so host circuits can make “a little bit of money out of running grands prix.”

“When that’s a standard, then they can put on a better show for the public,” he says. “You can have [more] things going on.”

With thousands of F1 fans descending on Silverstone every year, it’s hard to believe that the British Grand Prix operates at a loss. The circuit’s managing director admitted in April that they have to use smaller events throughout the year to subsidise its biggest spectacle.

With a Qatari-backed ownership bid on the horizon, and with Mercedes pushing against a rumoured engine ‘freeze’ proposal, Formula One’s problems could feasibly go unaddressed for some time yet.

Criticism of F1’s Strategy Group has been mounting, and former Mercedes boss Ross Brawn has been touted as a potential independent creator of the sport’s next set of regulations.

“I think Ross, for example, could bring something to the party without a shadow of a doubt, no question,” agrees Allan. “But I think there’s enough people there to be able to come to a good conclusion anyway.”

As drivers, teams, pundits and owners fight their own corners, don’t be surprised if the phrase ‘for the good of the sport’ crops up a lot more frequently.

But as McNish says, it all “depends what you classify as good.”

The sooner F1 works that out, the better.

Allan McNish is part of Radio 5 Live’s F1 team. Listen to the British GP live on 5 live, 12.00pm, Sunday 5th July 2015

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