In episode 19, Katy chats to Audi Formula E boss Allan McNish about his successful switch from racing driver to team boss, why he and Lucas di Grassi ended up in Lake Zürich following their 2018 E-Prix win, and what Audi’s DTM exit means for their Formula E plans.
It’s worth noting that this interview took place at the end of April, prior to Daniel Abt’s departure from the team.
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Artwork: © Rebecca Jodgalweit / Inside Electric
Intro Music: © BananaStudio2013
Content: © Inside Electric
Featuring: Katy Fairman and Allan McNish
Produced and edited by Rob Watts
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Episode preview transcript
Katy Fairman: How are you Allan, how has lockdown been treating you?
Allan McNish: “Very good, thank you very much. It’s been as good as expected, it’s the longest I’ve ever spent in one space for thirty-odd years, and that can, as you will rightly know, it can grate on a few parts of the family I’m sure. But, all in all, just trying to keep focus and see what we’re gonna be up to for the remainder of season six.”
Katy Fairman: Were there any plans in place with Audi for if the season got disrupted due to something like this?
Allan McNish: “No, to a great extent, I don’t think anybody expected the season… especially when we were in Marrakesh or flew to Geneva for the meetings and potentially the Geneva Motorshow, I don’t think we thought there was going to be such an upheaval. So to some extent, we are in uncharted territory, and we’re trying to sort of walk through what will come. You can make all of these plans, and we’ve made so many different plans between Marrakesh and now that have been sort of ripped up and put in the bin because circumstances are changing, and that’s for us all, as humans, as a team, as a manufacturer.
“The reality is, we have got I think to take it step-by-step and we’ve got to also take a very balanced approach to season six and the rest of 2020, but at the same time, we’re trying to prepare for season seven, we’re trying to prepare for the races that are coming up, but the sort of tricky point is we don’t actually know when we’re gonna see those green lights again, and that’s to get out of lockdown to get back to actually doing what we’re doing as well as going racing.”
Katy Fairman: As a team principal, do you think it’s realistic that we’ll finish the season?
Allan McNish: “That’s a bit of a tricky one to say how that will run out. I’m not keen to get my crystal balls out at the moment to start looking into the future with this, because I didn’t think we would’ve been here. I think it’s part of the focus to try and do some racing in season six and to finish it off; when that will be, where that will be, I don’t know. Formula E themselves have got much more of a wider view than necessarily us as competitors. I do believe there’ll be, as soon as the world returns to a more sort of normal format, even though it won’t be the same and there won’t be the same environment, I do believe that sport and motorsport will be something people will want to get back to, they’ll want to and there’ll be a fresh impetus towards that. Right now, where and when it’s going to be, I’m not really sure.”
Katy Fairman: Given the economic downturn that’s happened due to coronavirus, and also this week the news of DTM’s exit, what is Audi’s commitment like to Formula E in the future? Is it a championship you guys are prioritising?
Allan McNish: “Electrification is a very big part, it’s part of the foundation of what Audi’s doing in the marketplace for the future. We’re looking at 40% of Audi’s cars being electrified by 2025, that’s not long away, and motorsport’s always been at the front leading edge of that. If you think back in time with all the technical developments we’ve had to our racing programmes that have filtered through on to the road cars, then racing’s been a real part of the DNA of Audi, and it’s certain we got into Formula E because of this strategic change in technical direction towards electrification, so that story is exactly the same as it was. It’s certainly… everybody is under pressure at the moment and that’s one of the factors that all the car manufacturers are under.
“At the same time, the FIA and the manufacturers have got together and they’ve made some very clear decisions with regard to the freezing of homologation for two years, with regard to the delay of the Gen2 EVO bodywork kits coming in, which are real tangible ways to try to ensure the sustainability of the championship, so for us, it’s important for us that we’re racing in Formula E. It’s important that we’re part of the way that the car industry is going and Audi specifically is going in that direction, but it’s also very important that we as a paddock, we as a community within the sport, understand the difficulties that we’re in at the moment and as the Scots would say, ‘we cut our cloth accordingly’.”
Katy Fairman: You said there about the things the FIA have put in place, like freezing homologation. I assume that’s something you’re happy with and welcoming of?
Allan McNish: “Yes, we were very proactive in the discussions around that. We understood the requirement from our side, but also we understood the requirement from other manufacturers, but I think the word here is ‘flexibility’. We need to have flexibility because no two situations are the same, and there’s where I would say I have to applaud the FIA, and Fred Bertrand in this one leading it, and the technical departments, that they have created the flexibility that allows everybody to still be part of the game and accommodate what has to be a unique situation that we’re in right now.”
Katy Fairman: What are your thoughts on this DTM news? It’s something you’ve had an involvement in yourself previously.
Allan McNish: “Yeah, I’ve been involved in motorsport a long time and DTM has been a big part of that time period as well. Audi was one of the sort of founding members of the latest generation of it, never mind having been involved in it so many times in the past and were there all the way through including latterly when Mercedes pulled out to increase the number of cars that they were putting on the grid to sustain the championship. Unfortunately, with the current situation, with the strategic alignment of where we’re going as a company and also where we are today, it’s not possible to continue with that in the future which is certainly sad for us all that’s been part of the DTM programme, but I’ve got to say, coming out now early is giving the championship and the other competitors time to reevaluate on how to progress forward from here.
“But like it is in all motorsports and I think it probably harder because Audi’s been involved in DTM for such a long period of time, so much longer than most manufacturers in the same way with LMP. It is a change of the chapter, but because of that they’re seen as a stalwart of it and correctly so because Audi has shaped DTM, and DTM has shaped Audi to a great extent as well.”
Katy Fairman: Going back to Formula E, when did it occur to you that being involved with Audi in Formula E was something you could do and that there was an opportunity there?
Allan McNish: “It didn’t really occur to me in that respect. I was asked by Dr Ullrich, who was the head of Audi Motorsport at the time, to actually go and have a look at Formula E to see if it was something we should get into, how we could do it, and just have a bit of an overview. That was during the beginning of season three, and then through season three. So, it was more of an evolution than necessarily something like a light went on in my head. Certainly, I didn’t ever envisage that I would be involved in the role of team principal, and never ever actually considered it. It was when we were sitting down talking about the structure of the team, how we could enhance the already strong ABT organisation, how we could improve there and how it would all integrate.
“It was actually Dieter Gass and Dr Ullrich, Dieter obviously took over from Dr Ullrich as head of the motorsport, and pencilled my name at the top as team principal, but before that particular meeting, I’ve got to say it never, ever occurred to me. Partly because having been a racing driver, I knew how difficult racing drivers are and were. I was one, and I was quite difficult, I’m sure I was. I sort of said to myself ‘I’d never want to have to deal with those guys’, but as it’s turned out, it’s been not too bad. Daniel and Lucas probably broke me in quite gently.”