Might have been Hamilton: Allan McNish

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In the first of a two-part series F1 Fanatic columnist Ben Evans looks at two previous young McLaren drivers and asks why they never scaled the heights Lewis Hamiton has.

Watching Lewis Hamilton drive the race of his life on Sunday storming to victory in the Monaco Grand Prix, my mind couldn’t help wandering to the careers of two other McLaren development drivers, both arguably more talented than Hamilton, but equally neither anywhere near as successful.

Those two drivers were Allan McNish and Jan Magnussen.

In Formula Ford and Formula Three both McNish and Magnussen were once-in-a-generation fast. But after stunning debut seasons in F3, 1990 and 1994 respectively, neither’s career hit the heights they should have.

By the end of his debut season of Formula Ford in 1987 Allan McNish was a name hot on the lips of every self-respecting race fan. The cherubic looking young Scot looked devastatingly fast. This continued on into 1988 when, backed by Marlboro and teamed with Mika Hakkinen, the Dragon Motorsport team swept all before it in the British and European Formula Opel Championships.

It was no surprise when McNish moved on to F3 for 1989, again heavily backed by Marlboro and attracting serious McLaren interest. Although he ultimately finished runner-up and made several mistakes throughout the season, McNish was the star of the Championship. No mean feat in a year starring Hakkinen, David Brabham, Rickard Rydell, Derek Higgins, Otto Rensing and Paul Stewart.

By 1990 the McLaren link was firm, but the year started on the worst possible note when McNish was involved in an horrific accident at Donington Park where his car vaulted a barrier. He escaped uninjured, but a spectator was killed.

Although he won at Silverstone a few weeks later the momentum was lost and McNish did not have the year of success many had predicted. By this stage he was in possession of a McLaren test contract but thanks to the Ayrton Senna-Gerhard Berger partnership in the team had no immediate F1 openings. Several more seasons of F3000 saw mixed fortunes, the occasional win tempered with budget shortfalls and uncompetitive machinery.

A move to sportscars finally began to deliver the success he deserved, winning Le Mans for the first time in 1998. The ever-cheerful Scotsman finally got to F1 in 2002 with Toyota in their debut season of F1 and was unlucky to be dropped, together with Mika Salo, at the season’s end, a move which arguably set Toyota’s development back several years.

McNish spent a year as Renault’s third driver before returning to sports cars with Audi for whom he has been American Le Mans Series champion. He also drove for them in the DTM in 2005.

Tomorrow I’ll look at another driver whose pre-F1 career and ties with McLaren shared similarities with Hamilton – Jan Magnussen.

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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12 comments on “Might have been Hamilton: Allan McNish”

  1. yeah it was sad to see him and Salo being dropped by Toyota, they helped the team with everything and get dumped after one season… did they think their car was so good and the drivers so bad?? weird acting by toyota there.
    But McNish is doing a good job with audi now!

    I think we can also put Heidfeld in the Mclaren funded kids row…but he did make something out of it in f1, but not as far as it could have been..

  2. It may have been a loss – and we will never know now for F1 when he left toyota but he has certainly found his niche(ouch) with Audi in the le mans series and always comes over as still glad and happy he is racing

  3. I think the difference between McNish and Magnussen is that McNish was never given a chance in F1 straight after F3000 whereas Magnussen was given the chance and spectaculalry blew it. Ron Dennis called Magnussen the most disorganised GP driver he ever met.

    Marlboro had Hakkinen and McNish in 1988 as you say and chose to drop Hakkinen for F3 in 89. Mika ended up driving for a team that wasn’t one of the best so gained a year’s experience and was able to win the championship the next year. McNish because he had a good drive finished second in the championship with more wins than anyone in his only year in the championship. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Marlboro made the other choice.

    In F3000 still with Marlboro backing he had a great first season after that horror start. He was clear favourite to win the championship the following season but that season Lola built a dog of a car and DAMS were effectively the Lola factory team. Had Lola built a decent car things may have been very different and had DAMS not been so close to Lola they may have quickly dropped the Lola for a Reynard.

    I think he also suffered by being the first high profile young test driver in F1. Until then drivers would have the occasional test with one or more teams and then either be signed to race or not but he was the first to have a contract as a full time test driver while in the junior formulae. I think this worked against him getting a full time drive. McLaren were happy with Senna and Berger and other teams saw McNish as a McLaren man who may drive for them short term but as soon as Ron came calling he would disappear off to Woking.

    I am still surprised Jackie Stewart never signed him. I still don’t understand that.

  4. Let’s not forget he is a multiple Le Mans winner and multiple ALMS champion.

    It has always surprised me that we don’t hear his name (or Frachitti’s for that matter) more often in the British media.

    The cynic in me says that’s because he is Scottish not English.

  5. Throttle – I’ve lived in England and Scotland and I don’t think this has anything to do with McNish being Scottish at all.

    David Coulthard has never been short of attention in F1, certainly not in the late nineties when he was in a top team. The fact of the matter is as far as the mainstream media is concerned F1 is the only type of motorsport and anything else is of barely secondary interest. So however many races McNish wins this year Coulthard will still get more column inches than him just for swearing at Massa on ITV a few months ago.

  6. Steven Roy – I suspect there were two reasons Stewart didn’t sign McNish. Firstly, as a new F1 team, Stewart needed a quick, experienced pair of hands as their number one driver – Rubens Barrichello, which took care of one seat.

    Secondly, Paul Stewart Racing (predecessor of Stewart GP) had pursued a “ladder of talent” policy in nurturing young drivers, taking them up through Formula Vauxhall, F3 and F3000. David Coulthard was one of the earliest products of this system, but was already a McLaren driver. The obvious candidate to pick was Jan Magnussen – who dominated F3 in 1994 and had made a promising GP debut in his one off drive for McLaren in 1995, filling in for an unwell Mika Hakkinen. McNish’s career wasn’t in a good place by this point and, although still quick, he didn’t look quite as world class as in 1989. At this point, Magnussen looked set to be a future world champion and it seemed like the best option.

    What better than an experienced driver to help guide the team through its first year, then unleash the by-then mature talent of the Dane who won more F3 races than Ayrton Senna? It didn’t work, but everything is easier in hindsight.

  7. I really did consider Magnussen a hot prospect for F1. Unfortunately he was there at the wrong time.
    As for Alan, he might be good, and his foray with Toyota can’t be used as a judge of his talent, I do have my doubts if he was really top quality F1 material. Winning in Le Mans is a world apart from winning in F1.

  8. Robert McKay
    30th May 2008, 12:12

    “The cynic in me says that’s because he is Scottish not English.”

    As a Scot myself, I don’t think that’s relevant. Keith’s absolutely right: it’s because the mainstream media here (UK as a whole) struggle to see anything past F1. Franchitti barely got a mention when he won the Indy 500 and IRL championship, and gets even less attention in NASCAR. Over the past few years only really McRae carved a name for himself as a major player in motorsport outside of F1, and that was really because he either won or crashed big time so there was always a story.

    You’d be hard-pressed to find a sports editor in this country for a major TV channel/newspaper that could tell you anything about ALMS, I suspect.

  9. I was thinking of McNish instead of Verstappen rather than Magnussen. I think Jan’s big problem is that he was born 20 years too late. Had he been around in the 70s when he could just have turned up and jumped in a car without all the training and pre-planning you need now he would have been a legend.

    I think the fact that Marlboro chose McNish over Hakkinen shows how good he could have been. His first year performances in F3 and F3000 also showed he was a rare talent. At that time if anyone had said that Hakkinen and Damon Hill would be world champions and McNish would not start a GP until after his thirtieth birthday they would have been laughed at. The idea that Damon Hill would achieve massively more than McNish would have seemed utterly ridiculous.

    It’s interesting that the best two Scottish prospects in F1 since Jackie Stewart foundered at McLaren and to think I have always liked Ron.

  10. Well come back tomorrow and you can read about Jan Magnussen, and my comparisons of both to Lewis Hamilton

  11. I always respected and admired McNish. He is one tough bugger. I remember well his 2002 crash in a Toyota in which the car speared through an armco barrier at high speed backwards.
    The car was in pieces, and Allan obviously was in shock, but it never fazed him. I just remember thinking, you’ve got more balls than me mate!
    One tough, tough, determined driver.

  12. Keith & Robert, I’m sure you are both right, next time I’ll tell the cynic in me to shut up.

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