We all know racing drivers are a different breed, able to drive flat-out without raising their pulse and shake off massive accidents in moments, but few have the eloquence to put into words just what makes them tick.
That accusation can’t be levelled at Audi’s Allan McNish, who is renowned not just as one of the fastest drivers in endurance racing, but also as the most able to put into words the extraordinary life he leads.
This week he heads to Le Mans driving an e-tron Audi Quattro, looking to be the first driver of a hybrid car to win the event, and in the build up we’ll bring you a series of candid insights from him. Today’s topic is retirement – not something he’s considering, but something he has an insight into.
Last year, while fighting for the lead of the Le Mans 24 Hours, McNish clipped a backmarker and was fired across a gravel trap, into a tyre barrier and then through the air. “It was like being in a tumble dryer,” he smiles, recalling the dizzying series of pirouettes before he thumped back down to the ground, car destroyed.
It’s mark of the man that his first instinct was to try to fire the engine of his smashed car – and that, even aged 42 and with two Le Mans wins, three American Le Mans Series wins, a wife, kids and enough years in top teams and Monaco living to have earned well, that he never thought of giving up driving.
“I’m not in any way ready to stop yet,” he affirms. “But I have talked to various people in very general terms about what makes drivers stop, and the message I always hear is that drivers tend to be the last ones to know when the time is right, because they are just doing what they always have been.
“I mean, what the hell else are racing drivers going to do when they stop? Sit at home and twiddle their thumbs until they’re 65? We all started racing so young that none of us have got any university degrees or anything – there’s no second career waiting for most of us, so there is a risk of hanging on a bit.”
Surely having nothing better to do is no reason to risk life and limb at 200mph, though? McNish is clear that different drivers have different motivations, but is pretty clear what keeps him going.
"I still get a real buzz from being fast – sticking it on pole at Spa earlier this year, for example – and a real low from not getting a result we deserve,” he says. “It’s as consuming today for me as it always has been, and I can’t help but spend all my free time thinking about racing, and ways to improve. So long as that’s the case, and I’m still fast, there’s absolutely no reason to stop.
“I can rationalise last year’s accident – I understand why it happened and, although I don’t consider it my fault, I can learn from it. But since that moment I’ve been looking ahead – to the next race, to the new season, to the new car. If you’ve got the motivation to do that, then you’ve got the motivation to race.”