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Le Mans Series 2006
Round 3. Nürburgring 1000 Kilometers. July 15th-16th 2006

Practice and Qualifying

A Great Day for RML - Fastest all the way!

Round three of the 2006 Le Mans Series, staged at the Nürburgring amid the Eifel Mountains of Germany, is one of this season’s two-day meetings, with everything packed tightly into the Saturday and Sunday. That meant a busy opening day for Mike, Tommy and the RML crew, with two one-and-a-half hour practice sessions, followed later in the afternoon by the all-important twenty-minutes of qualifying.

Nürburgring Free Practice

Photo: Marcus PottsThe day didn’t exactly start auspiciously, with Tommy spending a fair proportion of the first hour of session one sitting in the cockpit, gently shaking his head from side to side. With only half a dozen laps completed, it was a frustrating time for the whole team. “We’re experiencing a few problems with the turbo,” admitted a forthright Phil Barker, keen to get the difficulty fixed as quickly as possible. “It was very frustrating for everyone,” said Tommy later. “I was just doing a succession of outs and ins, really, and getting nowhere fast.” He then went on to explain a little more about the issue. “The turbo was over-boosting, producing huge spikes and dumping down far too much power. We reset it, and I went out again, and it went fine for a short while, but then just over-boosted again. Whenever that happens the engine goes into “safe” mode, to protect itself, and we can only go back into the pits again. That kept happening for about the first hour, and prevented us from doing any work on the balance and set-up.”

With an hour of the session completed, the MG had yet to set a representative time, but there was no sign of panic in the RML garage. It was early days, and with a crew as experienced as this one, it was only a matter of time before the AER was singing sweetly again. That moment came with about half an hour remaining of the morning period. “We got it working much better,” said a happier-sounding Erdos later. “It was still not perfect, but it was enough for me to be able to lay down two or three semi-decent laps, and then hand over to Mike. At this stage it’s more important to give him time in the car and ensure he works on his knowledge of the track.” Those “semi-decent” times were quick enough to throw the MG straight to the top of the screens in LMP2, and with just one genuine flyer, Erdos had reset the status quo, his best of 1:50.093 was good enough for eighth quickest overall, and one-point-seven seconds faster than the Barazi Epsilon Courage, second in LMP2.

Photo: Marcus Potts

Mike Newton then headed out on track (below) to complete the session. “Those delays at the start of the session will have squeezed the whole day’s programme for us, and I only had five or six laps, but I was encouraged by the way my times have stepped forward since last year.” Indeed, as individual driver times would later reveal, Mike’s best would place him 28th overall out of 112 drivers here this weekend, and tenth in LMP2. In the context of 23 LMP1 drivers being present, and 24 LMP2, that’s no mean achievement.

Photo: Marcus Potts

With the session over, the RML garage became a hive of activity as the team worked to address the turbo issue and prepare for the day’s second free-practice session, just two-and-a-half hours later. “The overall pace was not good this morning,” suggested Erdos. “Times are really pretty irrelevant anyway, but I don’t think anyone went particularly well. It was important that Mike got in a few laps, just to get his eye in, but I’m sure it will go better this afternoon.” Indeed they did, and in no small measure!

Photo: Marcus PottsSoon after lunch the cars were heading back out onto the track. Conditions were significantly hotter than they had been in the morning, but with several hours of track time consumed by the Le Mans Series cars, some historic Formula Fords, and then the local Yaris Cup championship, the track itself was starting to come to the drivers. Nic Minassian in the LMP1 Creation Judd certainly found the track to his liking, and posted 1:46.344 to top the times overall, but the biggest surprise for everyone else – except perhaps its driver - was the sight of the red, white and blue MG in second, a mere tenth adrift. A remarkable 1:46.469 from Thomas Erdos had eyebrows dancing up and down the pitlane, and nowhere higher than in Race Control. In an unprecedented move, the #25 car was hauled into scrutineering as soon as the session was over, and the officials began prodding and poking about to find out how and why an LMP2 car was going quite so quickly. The answer had, perhaps, just stepped out of the cockpit, but it did the team no harm.

Photo: Marcus Potts

“The officials checked everything very thoroughly,” said Mike Newton. “They examined the restrictors, weight, fuel, the lot, and found nothing irregular, of course. It’s pleasing really. It settles any arguments or winges about legality before they arise, and before we get into qualifying.” Ray Mallock merely shrugged. “It’s not exactly usual to take a car into scrutineering after a practice session,” he said, “but we’re quite happy about it. We came here with a chassis that was already very well sorted, but we’ve also made some fresh changes to the suspension, and they’ve clearly worked.” The team has been working hard all season to improve the overall performance of the EX264. “We do that with any project,” added Ray. “We’re moving forwards all the time, constantly developing and improving the package. Some of the work has been in conjunction with Lola, but we’re also heading off on our own too, and trying some non-standard parts that clearly suit the way we’re heading and reinforce the identity of the car as an MG EX264, not just another Lola.”

Photo: David LordAfter the morning’s frustration, the afternoon performances raised spirits in the RML garage, and Thomas Erdos was certainly very satisfied. “On that particular lap, I had a very clear run. I’m sure everyone has been struggling to find space around here today, but I was just fortunate to have a completely traffic-free run. The car is also working really well now, just perfect. We’ve been making a lot of small changes race-by-race, across a wide range of areas, not just one, and improving the car steadily. We’ve just been doing our own thing, and it’s paying off. Now, with Le Mans behind us, we’ve put our “sprint heads” back on again, and also taken on board the fresh challenge that’s now coming from the other teams. The championship is getting very close now, but we’re managing to keep just ahead of the rest, and that’s all credit to the team.” Should people be surpirised to see the MG right up there, at the sharp end of the field? “No, not at all. The way the Porsche Spyder has been running in the States shows that a well-sorted LMP2 car can compete with LMP1, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise when it happens over here either,” he insisted. “Remember, though, that this was only a practice session. The real test will come in qualifying.”

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Nürburgring Qualifying

Four-thirty, and the first opportunity for the prototype drivers to get to grips with the Nurburgring without the hindrance of twenty or so GT cars. Tommy was third out onto the circuit, Barbosa in the Radical just ahead of him and Gounon’s Courage leading the pack, but a significant number of others had elected not to venture out with the green light.

First to cross the line was Gounon, but Erdos was not far behind him, setting an opening flyer of 1:47.180. By the time the rest of the qualifiers had completed their first laps, these were the two names at the top of the screens, Tommy’s final sector had been the quickest overall. Next time around Gounon went a little quicker, but Tommy was held up through the final few corners by a later-starting car, and clocked a 1:49.017, followed by a slower 1:51.041 as he searched for space. Notably, the Pescarolo had still not appeared on track, and neither had the Creation, nor the Zytek.

Photo: Marcus Potts

Other LMP1 cars were out and circulating, however, and some quite quickly. Shinji Nakano in the #13 Courage was one of them, going second quickest overall with five minutes gone, his 1:46.481 demoting the MG to third, with Bob Berridge fourth in the LMP1 Chamberlain Lola.

As Gounon headed for the pitlane, his #12 Courage having offered of its best, Emmanuel Collard was just emerging in the Pescarolo, followed swiftly by Minassian in the Creation. Both could be expected to go quicker than the MG, but with only twelve minutes to go Tommy hadn’t finished yet. His next lap ended with a red arrow on the timing screens, denoting the fastest third sector by any car so far, and concluded with a new improvement of 1:46.672 to re-claim third overall, several seconds clear in LMP2.

Perhaps the track was cleaning up. Following close on the heels of a twenty-five minute Toyota Yaris Cup race – one that had included a huge number of offs and excursions – it’s certainly likely that the surface wasn’t as clean as it had been, but some of the late-starting cars looked to be enjoying better conditions. Minassian’s first flyer when it came, was a 1:45.122, and moved the Creation LMP1 straight to the top of the chart, the domino effect knocking Tommy down to fourth at just the moment he was heading down the pitlane. Seconds later Collard posted a 1:45.744 to go second.

For the last seven or eight minutes of the session, Thomas sat patiently in the cockpit, waiting for the call, should it come, to go out and attempt a quicker time. In the end, it was never necessary. With about five minutes remaining the Zytek Engineering popped in a good final sector to go third overall, and when Fassler set 1:46.133 in the Swiss Spirit Courage, the MG would end the day seventh, but it didn’t matter unduly. What did matter was that LMP2 pole had fallen once again to the Brazilian, his fourth consecutive front-row start of the season, and 1.6 seconds stood between him and Joao Barbosa, second in the Rollcentre Radical.

Tommy’s pole time was two-tenths slower than he’d managed earlier. “The car had a bit of oversteer this afternoon, when compared to the last practice session,” admitted Erdos, “but I think that could have been down to the track. It was much more greasy than it had been in the test, but I’m sure that was because of the Yaris race. We did make a few changes after I came in, but then decided not to go back out again and save the tyres for the race instead. We set that 46.4 during the test with new tyres and a light fuel load, so it was close to our qualifying trim. We got near to that time again this afternoon, and perhaps we could have found a bit more time, but looking after the tyres was probably more important.” The cars must start the race on the same tyres they use in qualifying, so having a good set with optimum grip for the opening laps of the race can be critical. “Perhaps the track did come a little better at the end, but we did what we needed to do; pole in LMP2, and it’s great to achieve that here at the Nurburgring. It will be a tough race, though. There are so many cars here on very similar times, but we’re only a second or so behind the Pescarolo, and nobody should be disappointed with that.”

Photo: Marcus PottsRay Mallock certainly wasn’t. “We’re very pleased with that result,” he said smiling broadly. “We’ve been able to make some significant steps forward in the car’s performance this weekend, largely as a result of the suspension changes we’ve made. They’ve allowed us to gain more grip from the tyres, and enabled us to maintain our record of claiming pole in each round of the championship. I’m delighted!” He too was conscious of how difficult Sunday’s race could be. “Tomorrow’s race will be very hard on the brakes, and average speeds here are relatively slow compared to some other circuits. That means we could well end up with a full six-hour race, and under the hot, dry conditions were expecting, that could be tough on the cars as well as the drivers.”

Mike Newton was jubilant. “Tommy always does such an excellent job,” he said. “He dominated the class once again. Excellent!” For a moment, more pensive, he added. “Looking after the car will be critical tomorrow. It’s going to be a long, hot, dry race.”

View high-resolution Gallery for images from Saturday.