Allan McNish, Scotland’s most recent world champion and acknowledged as the world’s fastest sportscar racer, has stunned the motorsport world by announcing his immediate retirement.
The Monaco-based Dumfries racer, who will celebrate his 44th birthday four days after Christmas, has drawn the curtain on a 32-year racing career which was crowned last month with the FIA World Endurance Championship.
And the chirpy, cheeky, ever-smiling diminutive Scot has, as usual, got his timing right. With three Le Mans 24 Hours wins tucked under his belt, the most recent being in June, McNish has made the brave decision to go out at the very top.
“I could never beat a year like this,” McNish, ever the professional, explained yesterday as he sat in a departure lounge waiting to catch a flight to Munich to attend a series of debriefing meetings with his Audi crew, before the team’s Christmas party this evening.
“My third Le Mans win, and my first world championship? It’s just been fantastic.
“Of course, you have to get out at some point and everything is lined up to make this an extremely good time to do it. Everything’s just sort of fallen into place, and the time felt — feels — right.
“Bluntly, this year ticked all the boxes. It’s not been an overnight decision; I’ve had a bit of time to think about it.”
McNish allowed the first seeds of retirement to enter his head after the World Endurance Championship race at Spa in May.
With hindsight, that goes a long way to explaining the emotional reactions he has had following his win at Le Mans, and in WEC races at Silverstone and Texas, plus clinching the world title in China.
McNish acknowledged that the arrival of the all-new Audi R18 e-tron quattro hybrid — which he has also helped develop — which the team will use next year, had contributed to his decision.
“Another reason why it’s good to do it now,” he continued, “is that it coincides with the changeover to the new car and new rules, which would have required a big commitment.”
Deeper analysis behind the timing of McNish’s decision draws natural comparisons with Sir Jackie Stewart, who walked away from Formula 1 having just clinched his third world title, and in the wake of the death of his young team-mate, Frenchman Francois Cevert.
By McNish’s own admission, and despite his obvious success, this has not been a good year for motorsport. In June, just ten minutes into the Le Mans 24 Hours, Dane Allan Simonsen died when his Aston Martin crashed head-on into the armco at the Tetre Rouge corner.
The death hit the whole paddock hard, but with fellow Dane Tom Kristensen also partnering Frenchman Loic Duval in the McNish car, the trio were close to Simonsen. Podium celebrations were, naturally, muted.
Then, just over four weeks ago, McNish’s close friend, IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti, announced he had to retire on medical advice following his high-speed crash in Houston in October.
“Le Mans was definitely tough this year: it’s not been a good year in terms of motorsport with Allan in June, and then Dario more recently. But none of these were defining moments in me making my decision,” reflected McNish.
“But it is something, without doubt, that I’m very pleased I can now do: step away from racing, having had a very strong career, an ultra-successful time at Audi, and having made some fantastic friends along the way.
“Now I’m able to take a hop-skip-and-a-jump off to the next thing, which not everybody in racing can do.”
Though the next stage of his career won’t be announced until early January, it’s expected McNish — one of motorsport’s most articulate and open drivers (a result of the Jackie Stewart media training) — will develop further his TV career: he has already worked successfully on Sky F1 as an analyst.
It is also likely he will expand his role in driver management: he already looks after F3 racer Harry Tincknell.
McNish’s retirement brings to an end a generation of Scottish racing success at world level. Since Colin McRae’s world rally success in the Nineties, the Saltire has been flown around the world by 13-time F1 grand prix winner David Coulthard, three-times Indy500 winner and four-times IndyCar champ Franchitti, and McNish.
Having started in karting and sealed six Scottish and three British titles, the young McNish progressed, under the watchful eyes of David Leslie Snr & Jnr, into single-seaters at Knockhill.
He won the 1988 Formula Vauxhall Lotus Championship and finished second in the 1989 British F3 Championship by three points.
McNish also gained F1 experience, with testing contracts for McLaren and Benetton (1990-96), Toyota (2000-02) – including a full F1 World Championship race season in 2002 – and Renault (2003).
But it was in sportscars where he proved to be a world-beater. Having first won at the world’s greatest endurance race with Porsche in 1998, McNish — with his tartan band round his race helmet — made his Le Mans debut with Audi in 2000.
I can still see the fury and disappointment in his eyes when he explained how team orders had ensured it was the Audi driven by a German, Frank Biela, which won, despite McNish’s car being clearly faster over the closing stages.
It was another eight years before he stood on the top step at Le Mans with Audi, but three years later, in 2011, the Scot somehow miraculously walked away from one of the most
explosive crashes ever seen at the La Sarthe circuit.
Twelve months later, McNish was again left devastated when he and his Audi were nudged at high speed into the barrier in the closing stages when he was leading.
McNish’s career has also racked up three American Le Mans Series titles, plus four wins in both the Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans races. He also finished second in the Daytona 24 Hours on three occasions.
McNish, though, will always be associated with Le Mans. Hours after this year’s race finished, I was privileged to be one of a group of nine people who shared McNish’s celebrations: a quiet pizza in a restaurant in Le Mans town centre.
At home, back in Monaco, were his young family, son and daughter Finlay and Charlotte.
“That’s the job done now,” McNish, watched by wife Kelly, said as he casually examined his winner’s Rolex. “The 2008 watch was for Finlay: this one’s for Charlotte.”
Perhaps, when all the other facts are stripped away, those are his two perfect young reasons for walking away from a life racing on the limit.