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

RML Fights Back from the Brink

Thomas Erdos was first out onto the grid for the start of the Istanbul 1000 Kilometers. The car was in perfect shape, and he would have been justified in feeling mildly confident of a good race ahead. Morning warm-up had gone well. In typically relaxed RML fashion, Erdos had done nothing more than reassure everyone that the set-up was still spot-on, and then practiced a few driver-changes with Mike Newton. As it had been on Saturday, Sunday’s weather was dull and grey, but the Brazilian had proven already that the MG, shod with Michelins, was a match for the conditions. The organisers, however, were in two minds. When the teams started to take up their positions in front of the echoing vastness of the main grandstand, the official verdict still insisted that this was to be a “dry” race. A cursory glance revealed a track distinctly mottled by damp patches, a reminder of earlier showers, and with the clouds threatening more of the same, the concept of a “dry” race was starting to take on a new perspective. Undaunted, Thomas Erdos sheltered under an umbrella and concentrated his mind.

Tyre trolleys were much in evidence as the cars jostled for position on the tarmac, many drivers not quite clear as to where they were expected to stop. The grid girls were even more confused, being directed hither and yon by officials who didn’t appear to have paced out the grid before the cars arrived. It was, for a time, chaotic. One car was seen to be three rows out of position, two other pairs had been switched to the wrong sides of the track, and at least one row appeared to accommodate three cars in line abreast. While all this was being sorted, and with less than ten minutes to go until the start, the not unexpected announcement filtered down the grid that the race would, after all, be officially “wet”.

There was a flurry of activity as tyre compounds and treads were exchanged, with time running close to the wire as the grid was cleared of girls, non-essential personnel and hangers-on. At just before half eleven, perhaps a little later than scheduled, the pace car set off to begin its lap of the 5.338 kilometer circuit. It was immediately apparent that those who’d stayed on slicks would face a challenging time, but it wasn’t exactly raining, so everyone settled down to an orderly formation lap behind the pace car.

It was still pretty orderly as the leading cars rounded the final bend and began to take up their formation for the rolling start. Tommy had moved over to the right, but as soon as the pack was clear of the bend, he pulled back over onto the pit wall side and tucked in behind Nic Minassian in the Creation. At least a hundred yards remained before they’d cross the line, and the lights were still red. Marc Gounon was line-astern, directly behind the MG, followed by the Swiss Spirit Courage. With fifty yards to go the lights turned green, but Thomas Erdos never reached the line. It was only the lightest of knocks, but it was enough to send the MG spinning out of control. The Brazilian didn’t stand a chance. Cool tyres on the dirty side of a slippery track combined mercilessly with hard acceleration and that unsettling tap from behind to send the car headlong into the pit wall. The nose hit first, smacking the front left wheel hard into the concrete. The arch above the left wheel split away from the main body, flying high into the air, as the rear of the car pivoted round to smash equally hard into the wall behind, ripping the rear wing free of its mountings. Trailing splintered carbon fibre, the front wing continued its climb, arcing maybe twenty feet above the stricken car before landing in the middle of the track.

Amid the deafening noise of the remaining thirty-five cars as they roared across the line there was a strange silence as all eyes continued to stare at the MG. Thankfully, Thomas was unhurt, and scrambled out of the cockpit as marshals and RML mechanics rushed to the scene. Within seconds an access panel in the pit wall had been opened, and all efforts were being made to retrieve the car before the race came round to complete its first lap. Out at the front, Marc Gounon’s charge had continued, and he was challenging for the overall lead as Emmanuel Collard took the pole-setting Pescarolo through Turns One and Two. From the third row, the works Courage had crossed the line in third place.

With yellow flags throughout the section, it took two laps of the race to clear away the remains of the MG and sweep the track clean of debris. The car itself was back in the garage almost as quickly as its driver – both were devastated. In Tommy’s case, it was as much with bewilderment as anything else, but the MG had sustained extensive damage all the way down the left hand side. The entire front and rear suspension assemblies had been twisted and bent; all the exterior bodywork down the same side was beyond repair; the rear wing and uprights had been ripped from the chassis, and countless other ancillaries and components lay in heaps around the floor. It was a disheartening sight, but nothing that the resolute and determined team at RML weren’t prepared to fix. After all, these were the same guys who’d rebuilt the car last year at Le Mans to secure victory, and here it was again, less than five minutes into a six-hour race, with valuable Championship points in the balance.

In a scene that could best be described as “controlled chaos”, they set-to, dismantling what was broken, seeking out the spares to fix it, and checking for the extent of the damage. Luckily, the central tub itself appeared to have survived intact, but just about everything attached to it would need removing and replacing.

Thomas remained suited and ready, shaking his head in disbelief. “I just can’t understand it,” he said. “The race hadn’t even started! I was driving forward for the line, getting ready for the lights to change, and this guy came out of nowhere and hit me – straight into the wall. I mean, that was truly ridiculous! It’s a six hour race, for Heaven’s sake!” There would be more choice language before the day was over, but for now all efforts were being concentrated on getting the car back into the race, although there was a parting shot from the Brazilian. “He’s a quick driver, but it takes more than that to be a good driver.”

Half an hour after the accident the MG was starting to take shape once more. At a little after quarter-past twelve, while various body panels were still being fitted around him, Erdos climbed back into the car. At 12:21 the engine fired up, on the button, first time. Three minutes later, with a roar and a squeal of tyres, the #25 RML MG Lola EX264 sped off down the pitlane – not to resume its race, but to start it. Where others might have given up, RML’s engineers had worked under incredible pressure and at astonishing speed to have the car repaired. What was more, everything worked perfectly. A quick pitstop after an exploratory first lap confirmed that the car was performing just as it should, and less than an hour after everyone else had taken the start, Thomas Erdos was playing catch-up.

His lap-times were instantly on the pace, and a succession of times in the low one-forty-threes confirmed that the team still had a very quick car – one that might otherwise have been challenging for the overall lead, and certainly heading for a class win. Sadly, thre was to be no repeat of last year’s Istanbul 1000 kilometers victory for RML, and Erdos and Newton were now merely seeking points – and from last place the task looked enormous.

Within minutes the red, white and blue MG was picking up its first position, moving ahead of Harald Primat’s Swiss Spirit Courage at just gone one o’clock. Ten minutes later and Tommy passed the stricken #85 GT2 Ferrari to move into 34th. By quarter-past he was 33rd, the Lucchini having fallen by the wayside, and then soon afterwards he moved onto the second timing screen – a huge psychological boost for the team watching in the garage, but merely indicative of 32nd place. Tommy made a first scheduled pitstop at twenty-past one, but stayed aboard to continue the charge. He was now chasing active runners, so moving ahead of the #80 GT2 Porsche was a genuine on-track pass, and came just ten minutes before he pitted for the second time, this time to hand over to Mike Newton.

Despite an hour and a half at the wheel, Erdos was still steaming when he got out of the MG. If anything, the Brazilian was probably even more furious about the start-line incident than he had been before. He had good reason. He’d just spent all that time driving a car he now knew for certain had the potential to win, and that opportunity had been taken away from them by a rash and completely pointless move. “We have a really quick car,” he shrugged. “It’s so frustrating, knowing that we’re not going to be allowed to fulfil the potential today. The tyres were beautiful, absolutely perfect, and the car was handling like a dream. The effort these guys put in to get the car back into the race was phenomenal. They deserve some success, but they’ve lost any chance of that through the recklessness of one man. It’s ridiculous.” To rub salt into the wound, news then filtered down the pitlane that the race had been shortened from six hours to four, due to a shortage of fuel. “With six hours we could have made some sort of a recovery,” added the increasingly distraught Erdos, “but now, with the race reduced to just four hours, it will be far more difficult. We’ve got to salvage something from this weekend, but it’s not proving easy!”

Meanwhile, out on a track he’s starting to enjoy as much as any other, Mike Newton was laying down a succession of fast and consistent laps. Not only was there a need to make up places, but having lost an hour, there was also the question of whether or not the MG would complete enough laps – as a proportion of the winner’s – to qualify as a finisher. Losing another two hours was going to make it touch and go. Newton’s first pitstop came just before three o’clock, and went like clockwork. By quarter-past he’d eased up into 27th place, and was happily ticking off lap after lap in the one-forty-nines.

Then, with only ten minutes remaining, the Rollcentre Radical pulled off, Tim Greaves leaping from the smoke-filled cockpit. An electrical fire had put paid to the debutants excellent run, but as much as they might feel sympathy for the unfortunate Martin Short, those at RML knew that this was also a lifeline for their championship hopes. Despite being fresh out of the box, the Radical has already thrown down the challenge for the season, and with the Chamberlain LMP2 Lola yet to race this year, the playing field was suddenly level once again.

The chequered flag fell at half-past three, victory going to Collard and Bouillion in the Pescarolo, out to defend the title they’d won in 2005, with the Barazi Epsilon Courage an unexpected second overall, winner in LMP2. With 134 laps completed by the Pescarolo, the 70% breakpoint on classification fell on 93 laps, and the MG had successfully completed 102 in a little over three hours. It doesn’t take an Einstein to work out that the MG could, in theory, have clocked up 136 laps if given free rein and a clean start. Now that would have been a finish!

Mike Newton looked fresh and eager as he bounced up into the truck for the post-race de-brief. He’d hardly even broken into a sweat. “Top man!” came the welcome from Erdos, moving forward to congratulate his team-mate on another solid drive. “Excellent lap times.” It had been good, and Newton had clearly enjoyed himself. “I’ve overtaken people today and in places I’d never have dreamed of passing them before,” he admitted. “The engine was brilliant, and the car just felt so good. Considering the mess it was in when we got it back to the garage at the beginning, that’s amazing. There’s no doubt about it, we could have been P2 overall, and we’ve proven that we have the pace now against all the other teams. Maybe this result is the best we could have hoped for today, but we’ve put down a marker that the others will have to match. To be honest, I believe we have the measure of anyone out there.”

Ray Mallock, team owner at RML, was resigned, but positive. “We’re hugely disappointed to have something so totally out of our control ruin the first race,” he said. “We’d have had LMP2 sewn up, and perhaps had a good position overall as well. Mike and Tommy did an excellent job, and they were the pace of the class. It was a great effort by the whole team to get the car back on track in under an hour, and to pick up three points may prove crucial at the end of the year.” Adam Wiseberg was also keen to emphasis the positive aspects of a race that, at first glance, had little to commend it. “We’re obviously very disappointed with what happened, but I can’t heap enough praise on the guys for what they did in putting the car back together again. I doubt anyone could have done better. There are so many positives to take away to the next round at Spa. We had a comfortable class pole and ran a pace that would have given us the class win without question. Both drivers were exceptional, and everything about the car was spot on.”

The team manager, Phil Barker, was all too aware of an opportunity missed. “We were totally gutted to see the car going into the wall even before the race had started. The impact nearly destroyed the car, but we were relieved to see that the central tub had not been punctured, and the pick-up points for the suspension were all in place. That allowed us to contemplate a rebuild, but I’m so impressed with the way the team pulled together, and to have the car fixed in under an hour is a credit to them all. In fact, I’m chuffed to bits. They did us proud today – not just the pilots, but the whole crew. Fantastic job.” Indeed, his view of the drivers was glowing. “They were simply mega. Tommy was the fastest on track when he was out there – and that’s fastest overall. It takes something special to do that after your car’s been all but destroyed.” As for Martin Short and the Radical, Barker couldn’t – and wouldn’t – hide his sympathy. “Martin was so very unlucky. To have come here with a new car, to have got so far, and then to fail just ten minutes from the end, that’s cruel. I know they’re obviously competitors of ours, but I felt very sorry when I saw Tim Greaves leaping out. I have to be grateful for the points, but I would have preferred to beat them fair and square. As this season develops I can see the Radical being one of our main rivals, so we’ll be keeping an eye on them.” That’s not the only eye Phil Barker will be keeping peeled. “We won’t be lodging an official complaint about Gounon’s driving, as such, not at this stage,” he said, “but we’ll be watching him very closely from now on.”

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