Q+A with Allan McNish

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This was an interview with Toyota F1 Driver Allan McNish In August at the Spa Francorchamps circuit where Toyota were running their test car. The team were on the second day of their test with Mika Salo doing tyre work and Allan McNish doing Aero tests.

The previous day Mika suffered engine problems and both had some power steering related problems. At the time Allan was taking a break while and engine change was carried out. Meaningful testing was scuppered when heavy rain fell in the late part of the afternoon.

Allan is a true Scottish driver and uses the words “Wee” and “Wee bitty” meaning small or small bit through out. The interview starts after a brief chat about the Scottish cricket team being beaten by Canada for the World cup and Scottish driver patriotism in F1 with Scottish flags on the drivers helmets where as English drivers, James Hunt for example wear the Union Jack which is a British flag.

How has it been going over the past few days?

I think actually better than expected around here, We had some problems at Silverstone with the power steering and basically when you’re at Silverstone there a lot of corners where you brake and turn in and when the power is inconsistent, not strong enough you lack confidence. We stopped the test, a day early and went back to Cologne to revise quite a lot of the stuff, through the suspension, to the power steering and stuff like that. We came here and its a lot better. Also the circuit characteristics probably suit us a wee bit more than some of the places we’ve been to before, because at the moment its all fast and flowing and we haven’t perfected out traction control system so its not actively.

I heard it out of La Source you cant hear anything so you either got a great one or its not there?

So when we at for example Magny Cours where its sort of tight and twisty stuff I think we losing quite a wee bit, overall I think we achieved we achieved pretty much all we want to achieve so far and its been a bit closer and working a bit better than we have in previous tests.

I noticed you got quite a lot of runs in this morning?

Yes we did, we since we ran two cars we’ve had similar stuff to test and what we’ve is transferred across things that work, so I’ve worked in one area and then when we’ve got something that’s good we sent it across and vice versa and that’s worked really well. Michelin have got a tyre programme so Mika worked on that and I’ve been working on some aero stuff its not major aero not complete revisions but clarification of some stuff front wings and also other bits and pieces.

I noticed you swapped between the two front wings quite heavily?

Yes we did that yesterday as well, we had some front wing stuff we tried them before and its just to find out where we are on all the balance and feel on this kind of track.

How is the new spoon wing?

We have got two that are very close and they have very similar characteristics however at different set ups and we lost the balance when we went away from that wing but it was purely because it was set up for the right level, but we talking about just little bits between them at the end of the day because both are very close on feeling and lap time their within a tenth on lap time so with degradation of tyres and things like that you know we having to dig a bit deeper into the data.

The engine change was that problem or mileage?

No we were up on mileage, we didn’t do that many laps yesterday, we did about 35 laps in total in my car yesterday, so we ran it out on mileage which is a bit unfortunate as its right in the middle of the day but that’s the way it is.

At what stage did you come to the project was the car already built by the time you were signed?

No I signed before the car was released, with the le mans program.

At the start of the design stage when I guess everyone sits around a table and says what do we want from a car, do you give input at that stage?

No not really at that stage because there a lot of things in there, basically at the time Andre De Cortanze and his group obviously the majority of which are still here of course Andres moved on and some other people as well basically they sit down they’ve got a concept and they go form there with things like production and all these areas I haven’t got a clue about. Then once they’ve got the basic idea of what they want to do, they’ve their little wind tunnel model and bits and pieces then the stage I’ve got involved in first of all was when we got a mock up chassis because then we had to have seating positions and the way effectively you sat n the car seat belt all the really dull and boring bits.

Which are fairly crucial?

Well they are crucial, their crucial because I’m one of the shorter drivers, so form my point of view I could have said yes this is perfect for me and anybody who is three inches taller could have been struggling, we always tried to think what happens if six foot here had to drive the car, now with the regulation having wider areas (cockpits) its lot easier and we come up with something that works for Mika and myself, that was the first got effectively involved in it. The areas I got involved beforehand which didn’t relate directly to the formula one car as such but it was the testing of the GT1 car, because we had already started testing that back in march April 2000, so the were some things, Ideas we were trying, also gearbox, electronics and we actually tried tyres, so there were areas I had direct input there.

So there wasn’t any stage where you said I would really like a car that suits this particular type of corner or has kind of handling characteristic?

No because you’ve got to have a that suits everything now, they know that circuits are generally getting slower they know the way that engines are now running and also they historically know my driving style which is I do like a car the turns in I like a pointy car, I just don’t like understeer I don’t like a very lazy front so that’s something that rolled over any way and it was I already knew that was going to be reasonably close because of the GT1 and that’s the way those have been designed but its also the way I think cars have to go, especially with this front wing up in the air somewhere.

Going back to the mock up stage how can you can you play about with positions steering wheel or what ever?

You’ve got your regulations so you cant go too far forward but I was never going to be on that position any way, my feet were never going to be though the nose you also got the maximums in the direction the steering wheel can come back towards the driver and you got maximumminimum heights, so its trying to create something, well Mika and I have the same steering wheel position and its only the pedal positions that are different obviously our seats are different but the pedal are the main difference in the way we sit in the car. We felt that was the easiest way to do it for the beginning. Next years car will change a wee bitty.

Do you find the raised noses create any problems?

No, the raised nose doesn’t. The feet being high in itself doesn’t create a problem, what I think creates a problem is the steering wheel to shoulder ratio, because if you think of a touring car, the drivers really close to the steering wheel and the hand where it grabs the steering wheel is below the shoulder, while in modern formula one cars because of the raised noses, because of regulations they’re higher. If put your hands here and turn or put your hands right up here and turn, even holding nothing you feel the difference. So yes there is an effect for drivers.

The amount of space in the cockpits is larger now, I recall going back to the early nineties the Leyton House Marches where the cockpit was really just a moulded seat. You were testing at McLaren at the time, weren’t you ?


Is it more comfortable that little bit of extra space or is it just dead space and might as well be full of something?

It is a wee bitty more comfortable, I think the March you spoke of was the extreme were it got the stage were the drivers couldn’t drive it, that was a case of performance first and think about the driver later. Now the regulations have definitely allowed more flexibility for different sizes of driver, its safer too, you can put the padding around the helmet of the driver, the hands don’t have the possibility to hit many things in there, its all padded around your knees. The bigger, the more safety aspects you can fit in. I find them a wee bitty more comfortable as well, because just don’t have to wear elbow pads all the time and bash you arms off the side of the cockpit. They’re bloody hard these things, you’re wee elbow gets a bit of a beating if you hit the side of the cockpit every lap over the bumps. So yes ultimately it is better in every way, the only thing its worse for is the Aerodynamics but its the same for everybody.

When you reach the first test when the cars reached production and you’re ready for the first roll out, has the car ever moved under its own power before ? I always get the vision of the car running up and down the Cologne trading estate to make sure the wheels don’t fall off.

The cologne trading estate…? I would call the TMG the cologne trading estate..! It’s a bit more than that.

So is it roll out of the garages and bang out on lap?

Yes it is, you cant run a formula car where ever you want.

No you can't drive it around the block.

It's not like you can drive a pukka race car where you want it has to be in controlled environments, certainly with our first it was the first time a Toyota F1 car had ever run which was one big moment. Obviously it was the first time the car had actually turned a wheel obviously we had un the engine up and gear checks and all that, its nice to see and know it does work and its not all theory, it was build up probably not for the next car but certainly for the AM01 it was a year so if you were involved from the start it was a year of building, building, building and then getting closer, closer and closer, you saw the development, then suddenly you had the car. The first time I saw the car complete was two days beforehand, because we were still waiting on parts coming and things happening, so two days before hand the car was basically complete and I stood there with the mechanics and just looking at it and thought “Yes, its along time coming but it looks good” everything fitted very well it was a release in some respects that the roll out went pretty well and the first tests, apart from Mikas accident the first test was very successful.

At that first test how much time do you get to establish how the car feels and how you’re comfortable in the car?

Well firstly feeling how comfortable you are you get that in the first couple of laps, sometimes you make a seat in the garage it feels fantastic you get it onto the circuit and you do a handful of laps and it feels awful because on the circuits its just wrong despite it being ok in the garage, we didn’t actually have that with this car, we trimmed a little bit of the seat here and a touch there. The initial tests of the car were getting thing set. Verifying settings making sure when we changed some parameters that they all worked made sure the rev limiter worked, all very basic fundamentals and you get a small insight in to the car after about a day of doing that. That’s when you start to build a bit of speed and then you start to get a feel the characteristic of the car, then you start to change things, for the first two tests we changed things not because we thought we have understeer so we’ll attack understeer. Yes, we had understeer, but we went through a series of changes to see what they did, not necessarily to fix our problems but to see what they did the fact that it responded straightaway was quite satisfying, because then you can build on it.

From there for a team in your situation the first runs on a circuit must be for data gathering, but you’ve also got the performance testing and durability testing what’s the split between the types?

Its always ongoing, when we say data gathering we‘ve got a program that we want to go through, we want to know what we need for wing levels, we want to know the different performances we need for different tracks and we need to know the physical data of the circuit as well. I would say that initially we tried the basic things, then after we tried find a bit of a balance with the car and work with the car a little bit to fix imbalances and then after that did some longer runs. so pretty soon we tried to establish a bit reliability about the car. This was by the third or fourth test. From there we took stock and then started to move forward on the performance of it.

I do a lot of road driving and if I do the same route I find my mind wanders. Is there a stage on the long runs that you find your mind does go off a bit or are you constantly 100% on it.

Its funny there are times when fleeting little things go through your mind very bizarre things, there are times in races or test but it doesn’t lose your concentration, but generally your concentration is on driving as fast as you can but also what is happening at the same time on what is happening on the car and movement of the tyres, and degradation and how the cars reacting if you have a problem in lap 15 in turn 2 you need to log that you cant omit it form your memory, you’ve got to log it and remember and be able at the end of the run be able to tell them what happened at turn 2 lap 15.

When you come back into the pits what’s the process where start to unload this information?

I try to go trough it in a logical way different drivers have different ways, I try to do it from the start to the end it depends what were doing whether its tyre or engine I always talk about the biggest thing first then go through a process what the change was from lap one to the end or first feeling of the engine brakes then break them down, then there is information the engineer has to ask to spark a memory.

It seems easier to understand performance t4esating you go through a corner and you either like or don’t like something on the car, how do you put across to the engineer what the car is doing we see the drivers moving their hands a lot?

We translate the feel, it’s the hard bit, because you hear about drivers and engineers not working well, may be a misunderstanding of the feel or not communicating 100%. Basically its summarised as turn in, mid corner and exit. You describe how the car feels to you, “going in I feel like I’ve got oversteer”, “I feel as though the car is lifting under braking”, “I feel like when I turn the steering wheel it just doesn’t react it feels solid” then that might spark something in the engineers mind, OK then we look at some data and go back a little look at this point here that’s just after I turned the wheel, that’s where the problem is, then you’ve got your first bit then it sorts of splits off from there, that’s where the data guys are very good because they can get more numbers related to my feeling.

Does it happen that the engineers come to you saying we noticed this lifting of the rear or is it you feel it they locate it?

A bit of both, what happened here, I don’t feel it creates a problem but it is a little bit unstable however it doesn’t lose lap time, then may be we look at other areas as well to build up a pattern, it’s building a whole pattern of it.

At any stage do the telemetry guys pick up anything saying that “this should be doing this”, that you would say “no it feels fine..”?

There’s time when the telemetry says something and I actually say no or times where its not picked up on the telemetry and they have to look deeper and deeper into it. but it is a two way thing however, the one thing is now with telemetry and the data available it makes your job a little easier as it allows you look more deeply into the problems and may be find ways around it you wouldn’t have thought of before, but at the end of the day if the engineer or telemetry say in reality you can go flat through eau rouge, it isn’t going to make you go flat if you’re frightened the rear going to swap ends on you. You’ve got to create a situation where the driver feels confident, because once you’re confident there no problem until he’s confident it’s a problem.

One of the things with telemetry is that arguably it suggests there’s a fastest set up for a corner, but doesn’t make the car the way you like to feel it?

Yes, but there’s also the input you put into the car as well, different drivers drive slightly differently, so the inputs are different. its like a race horse if you pull on the reins on a race horse it will react differently if you let it run It’s the same with a car reacting to the inputs.

I read an article about damping rates linear versus rising rate, where linear rates better prop the car up under braking but lack the feel so drivers who can work around it can get an advantage are there time you have to modify your driving style?

All the time you have to modify your driving style for the circuit, the changing conditions, tyre wear and sometimes because some one else is going quicker through a corner than you driving in a different way, you have to look into and say Ok its not ideal buts lets fix it.

When you talking about the behaviour are you saying this is problem or this is the cure, give me more rear roll stiffness for example, is it symptom or remedy?

Sometimes symptom, sometimes remedy, some time a bit of both. This morning as we speaking about wing changes we did some rear wing stuff I came in after the first run and said we need more rear downforce I’ve got too much oversteer through the fast stuff and we need x amount of downforce, I gave the symptom and the remedy.

Can you actually state percentages or figures for changes?

Yes because you’ve got experience of what they are before, if you know roughly then it is not necessarily figures, but you know the sensation. You how much difference one hole of front flap makes and you know the feeling of that and you what happens when you change the front roll bar to a slightly stiffer one. So you build a library of sensations and then you’ll pick from that.. Sometimes we sit there talk about it, if we’ve got particular problem Dieter my Race engineer will come to me and say “what if we do that”, I’ll say “yes fine but I prefer to go in this direction”. I might want to change the damping and he might want to change the Antiroll bar or the ride height, there’s not always one way of fixing the problem, there’s quite often more than one way.

With formula one cars these days, there’s so much you can change, we spoke about James Hunt earlier, I remember in Autosport reading the reviews from those times, the teams would sit in the pits playing with gear rations and springs and not much else, its quite the opposite now you very rarely hear about changing gear rations during a GP week end.

A lot of the work is done before you get there. Now they got such good simulations they can work out roughly were they should be before they get there it takes out a lot of questions before you arrive at the circuit and now you’ve such limited running time. There are a lot more parameters that you can adjust now, so they adjusted a lot of basic things, where as there’s now the finer things to adjust, its still as changeable just not as much on the fundamentals.

We don’t here so much about tuning the engine, aside form the adjustments from the steering wheel, how much does the engine specification and set up change from circuit to circuit, is it very much a set of set mapping?

You’ve got your basics and then it runs off from there, you optimise everything then you optimise other certain parts to each circuit. So here (Spa) we’ll need something different to Budapest for example. There are things we can adjust while we’re driving, which makes it a lot easier as we within three laps we can try three or four different settings. But, yes we do optimise the engine characteristics the delivery, the whole way it works to maximise your potential circuit to circuit, but is also depends on your chassis balance because the engine characteristics can influence your chassis balance quite a lot. Traction control is an example of that.

How many chassis are there?

Two, the third is coming along.

Do you swap between chassis as there appears to be some difference between the chassis

No both chassis are exactly the same.

I noticed Mikas car had a single aperture in the scuttle where as yours had two?

That’s purely as its easier to get your hands in, not a technical reason. The one difference is the mirrors are in a different position.

By Craig Scarborough