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Le Mans Series 2006
Round 1. Istanbul 1000 Kilometers. April 7th-9th 2006

Pole for RML in Le Mans Series opener

The opening round of the 2006 Le Mans Series season took everyone back to the fabulous Grand Prix circuit of Istanbul Park in Turkey, where the previous year had been wrapped up by a win for Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos in LMP2. After a winter of further development, an engine swap from Judd back to AER, and a succession of very encouraging tests (including an exhaustive 455 laps at Paul Ricard in late March) RML had every right to feel optimistic.

The MG Lola chassis is now well-proven, and a win at Le Mans in 2005 followed by such a narrow miss on the LMES title - a single point depriving Newton and Erdos of shared honours – suggests that RML’s challenge this year should see the Wellingborough-based outfit setting the pace in LMP2. The category has matured considerably over the last two seasons, and the long-standing accusation of fast but fragile machinery seems to have been swept aside by a series of impressive results on both sides of the Atlantic. The competition has also intensified, with new cars entering the fray, and strength in depth making LMP2 one of the most competitive categories in endurance motorsport.

During that Paul Ricard test RML’s MG Lola covered almost 3000 kilometers, amply demonstrating the reliability of the car and its newly-installed AER turbocharged engine. Last year RML elected to power the EX264 using Judd’s normally aspirated V8, but reverting to the smaller four-cylinder unit for 2006 reunites the chassis with the lighter engine around which the original EX257 was created. This “return to roots” was one of the main reasons behind the change, as Thomas Erdos explained. “Judd were fantastic to work with. The car went round and round all last year and hardly missed a beat. Their backup and support was phenomenal, and they gave us the unit that won Le Mans for us, so I wouldn’t want anyone to think we weren’t happy with their engine or the service we received from them. Far from it! Even so, the change to AER makes sense this year. For one thing, Mike [Newton] already had two AER engines (from the EX257), and for another, the MG was originally developed around that unit.” And how has this change effected the car? “The power delivery from the AER is very different from the normally-aspirated V8, where you had to wait a moment for the toque to wind up. With the turbo you get an almost immediate response to the throttle. That makes the car very different to drive, and it feels more nimble than before, if that’s the right word. It is already apparent that having the lighter engine, and where it’s mounted in the car, suits the balance better. That may stem from the fact that this car was originally developed around the AER engine, and we are just getting back to the purity of the original concept.”

Another consideration must have been the improved reliability of the AER unit, as demonstrated in 2005 by those other teams that had retained the turbocharged four-cylinder. “The engine seemed very competitive in the 1000 kilometer races last year,” continued Erdos, remembering perhaps how Chamberlain’s similar Lola chassis, powered by the AER unit, had secured the championship title in LMP2. “Teams were getting great fuel economy as well as improved reliability, and that finally swayed the decision.” Paul Barker, team manager at RML, also cited this as having been a significant factor in the change. “Over the winter we looked at all aspects of the car’s performance, and saw that AER had moved on a great deal since we worked with them in 2004. They were significantly better on fuel economy over race distances, and that was allowing other teams using AER units to take a full pitstop away from us. To give our drivers a fairer chance it was critical that we addressed that issue.”

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Istanbul Free Practice

Three sessions of free practice were scheduled for the run-up to the Istanbul 1000 kilometers. The first of these was staged on the Friday afternoon, under what was to prove perhaps the best weather conditions of the weekend. Times, however, were generally much slower than they’d been at the end of last season, thanks largely to the track itself. “The surface has very low grip at the moment,” said Erdos. “It’s very dusty, and we need to lay down some fresh rubber. It’s all very green.” This was actually a recurrent criticism of the circuit last year, and wisdom has it that it will actually take another full season for the surface to mature. Erdos managed a best of 1:48.416 to stand eighth quickest overall, but surprise of the session turned out to be Rollcentre’s all-new Radical SR9. Having retired his class-one Dallaras at the end of 2005, Martin Short’s entry into LMP2 was being made with some aplomb. “We weren’t really all that surprised to see him going quickly here,” conceded Erdos. “I think we’d had our first taste of surprise from Martin at Paul Ricard, when the SR9 had also been very quick.” The Radical’s 1.46.135 was still well short of last year’s pole of 1:40.860, but certainly represented an impressive opening gambit from the black and green car.

The following morning, early, the track was open for business once again, although grey clouds had replaced the previous day’s sunshine and the surrounding hillsides were swathed in a thin blanket of mist. Thomas Erdos was back out in the MG, setting a best of 1:45.148, but this session was not about pace. “We’ve been unable to run at full speed here yet,” explained the Brazilian. “There are some minor set-up issues relating to the engine management software and the fuel, but we’re getting there.” Phil Barker also explained that the team had been very busy with the MG since Paul Ricard. “We’ve fitted a new engine, of course,” he said. “In fact, the car’s had a complete rebuild – engine, suspension, the works – and we’re still dialling that in. We’re also working with new fuel here in Istanbul, and so we’re slowly creeping back up to full power, but not there yet.” On the question of the fuel, Barker continued: “The fuel is new to the Le Mans Series this season, and it’s a different fuel to the one being used in America [where the Garrett turbochargers are built and developed]. The turbo is particularly susceptible to detonation on the boost, so we had to make sure that wasn’t going to happen before we gave the drivers full power. Mike and Tommy have been as good as gold, but I know it must be frustrating for them!” To those unaware of RML’s cautious approach, the sight of Joao Barbosa setting a time of 1:43.195 in the Radical certainly set the tongues wagging, although the more astute recognised that this was still three seconds shy of last season’s pole.

Of more significance within the RML garage was the broad smile on Mike Newton’s face. He was finding it hard to disguise his personal satisfaction, not only at going faster round the Park than he’d ever gone before, and getting to within a second of his team-mate’s pace, but also from the simple joy of being back at the wheel of the MG once again. Here was a man clearly enjoying himself. “That was a personal best, and I’m very happy with that,” he beamed. “I went the fastest I’ve ever gone through Turn Eight, and yet I felt I could still have used more throttle.” Hopefully, with the mapping finally settled, he’ll be able to. “That was another personal best for Mike,” said Barker as he congratulated Newton. “He’s just going quicker and quicker all the while!”

By the time the second session came around the track was being glistened by an intermittent light drizzle. More irritating than anything else, the damp failed to disguise the fact that RML had found the set-up they liked and were now looking forward to the afternoon’s qualifying period with some confidence. Despite the slippery track, Erdos set the fastest time so far for LMP2, topping the screen with a best of 1:43.032 and ending free practice as third quickest overall. “We’re getting there at last,” acknowledged Phil Barker, “but I’d have liked to have arrived a bit sooner!” By contrast the Radical was ten seconds adrift after starter-motor problems, but there was still a fair-sized gap between Barbosa’s earlier 1:43 and the third-quickest LMP2 prototype; Paul Belmondo’s Courage on 1:46.164. “Today has been a bit frustrating, to be honest,” shrugged Thomas Erdos. “We’ve been working on set-up for the race, and not too concerned about qualifying. If there are any signs of matters we need to address, we’ve been bringing the car in straight away and stopping. If you adopt that kind of a strategy, you have to be prepared to compromise outright speed in practice in favour of race preparation. We’ll probably push a little harder in qualifying this afternoon, but not to the detriment of the car, of course. As always, we’re here for the race, so you won’t see us trying anything unnecessary in the days before.”

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A great deal can depend on just twenty short minutes of qualifying, although facing the prospect of a six-hour race can also mean that the difference between one row and the next on the grid can become pretty inconsequential. Even so, there’s kudos and a certain degree of pride that comes with claiming pole position, and Thomas Erdos was out to do just that when he steered the RML MG Lola away from the team’s garage at 3:26, just before the pitlane opened. With the sky still overcast and the track accepted as unforgiving after the on-going drizzle, Guy Smith’s LMP2 pole of 1:40.860 from 2005 looked unbeatable, but Barbosa was still promising much from the Radical.

The early pace in LMP2 set by Michael Vergers in the #32, who was first to top the charts with his opening flyer of 1:45.579. Next through was Didier André in the #37 Belmondo, who moved through to provisional pole with a new best of 1:44.336. Erdos, yet to complete a flying lap, came through next, and leapfrogged both with the fastest time anyone had yet seen from LMP2, staking his claim to pole with an impressive 1:42.961, fourth fastest overall and just ahead of Jan Lammers in the Racing for Holland Dome. “Gounon spun just in front of me at Turn 9,” explained Erdos afterwards, accounting for his late arrival at the finishing line. “We were on our first flying lap. I think he was surprised by the lack of grip, and I was surprised by his spin. I ended up doing exactly the same thing! We were both keen to get going, but the rain was drizzly and the track was greasy.”

Back in the garage Ray Mallock, Mike Newton and Adam Wiseberg were clustered around the timing screen, following the car’s progress intently, sector by sector, while Mike also followed Tommy’s progress on a mini laptop linked to the car’s telemetry. The tyres normally reach their peak on the third qualifying lap, so it was no surprise when Tommy’s next beacon-breaking time was marginally quicker at 1:42.828, moving him into 3rd overall and within half a second of Nic Minassian, at that stage narrowly holding outright pole from Emanuel Collard. The Radical had yet to show its hand, with Barbosa trailing André on 1:46.721.

Erdos hit traffic – not literally – on his fourth lap – but his fifth flyer was the one that counted; 1:42.336 looking sufficiently well clear of anyone else that the Brazilian was coasting back down the pitlane next time around to sit out the remainder of the session, six minutes still to go. Collard, meanwhile, had set 1:40.266 to establish a firm grasp on outright pole, with Minassian second and Erdos third. “There’s a light drizzle and the temperature is down a bit today,” said Mike Newton. “We know the track has the capability to be quicker, but not today.”

With the wheels removed, Erdos sat impassive in the cockpit, watched by the ever-attentive crew, each poised to grab fresh tyres should they be needed. They weren’t. When fresh wheels were brought forward, they were cold, and only there to enable the car to be brought back into the garage. In the dying moments, Jan Lammers nabbed third overall by a tenth or so, but the MG was comfortably topping LMP2, still on the second row overall, and heading the class by almost exactly a second from the late-flying Barbosa, with Vergers rising to third in the final minutes, and André fourth.

“It’s good to be on pole for the first race,” smiled a relaxed Erdos afterwards. “It’s the perfect way to begin the season, and our relationship with AER. I found enough clear track to do a quick time, without the GT cars of course, but the track is still very slow compared to last year.” Asked what goes through a driver’s mind when he’s sitting out the end of qualifying, he replies with typical candour. “I’m just praying nobody goes any quicker! I don’t want to do any more than I have to, for the car’s sake. I may not be moving much, but I’m talking to Phil on the radio most of the time. We have a strategy of always doing as little as we need to. There’s no point in pounding round and round for no reason. The bigger picture is the race, and that’s where we’re looking.”

At the time the loss of third overall was deemed of little consequence. “It doesn’t matter,” insisted Phil Barker. “We’re still on the second row . . . just on the other side of the track.” Time would tell, perhaps, but for the time being the team manager was very satisfied. “We were steadily tuning-in the package every session. The engine guys were also sorting out the fuel issues, and we got on top of everything at just the right moment. That gave Tommy a nice stable car for qualifying, and he did the business.” Adam Wiseberg was elated. “I think that’s the first time we’ve been on the second row,” he said. “We’re very pleased with that, very pleased indeed. It’s a fantastic performance.” Mike Newton agreed. “Absolutely delighted,” he grinned. “The track is a lot slower than the ultimate pace, but having only three LMP1 cars ahead of us is the perfect way to start the race. It’s going to be tough all the way through the field, and there are several cars here this season with a chance, but we’re in a strong position.”

Ray Mallock, team owner at RML, is not usually a man to demonstrate his emotions in public, but he was clearly pleased. “This is clearly a very good start to the ’06 campaign,” he said. “It’s a continuation of the very positive results we’ve seen in testing, and we already appear to have the makings of a very quick and consistent car. It was a real pleasure to see Tommy putting in a lap time a full second clear of P2. We’ve done all we can to prepare well for this season, and this race in particular, so we hope this performance carries through to the 1000 kilometers tomorrow.”

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