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Le Mans Series 2007
Round 2. Valencia 1000 Kilometers. May 4th-6th 2007

The second round of the 2007 Le Mans series sees the teams at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo, just outside the city of Valencia in Spain. The nation's third largest city, Valencia stands on the Mediterranean coast, 350 kilometres south of Barcelona and a similar distance from Madrid, which lies inland to the west. Back in the Middle Ages Valencia was where "El Cid" famously battled the Moors, while a little more recently, during the Spanish War of Succession in the early 1700s, it was occupied by the British for more than a year. These days the British are back in even bigger numbers, taking advantage of the climate, the beaches, and the nightlife, while the big buzz around town is all about the imminent arrival of the America's Cup yachting teams. The waters off Valencia will host this event next month.

Before that happens the sporting highlight is undoubtedly the arrival of the Le Mans Series, and with a major poster campaign throughout the city, and free entry, a healthy crowd is being predicted for Sunday's race. In the meantime, it's down to the serious business of Free Practice, and attempts by the teams to dial in their cars for a circuit that has, in recent days been subjected to heavy rain. The surface has a reputation for low grip at the best of times, and demands a high downforce setting if drivers are going to set quick laps. Aside from the lengthy main straight, past the pits, the circuit consists of a succession of short straights punctuated by right-angled or hairpin bends. The whole thing is surrounded by low hills, forming natural amphitheatre that is accentuated by a continuous ring of grandstands, allowing spectators to view the whole track from almost any seat – somewhat similar to Rockingham in the UK.

Photo by Marcus Potts

There are few easy opportunities for overtaking - a situation made more challenging by the narrowness of the track and the size of the grid - and unusually (but in common with Imola and Interlagos) the Circuit Ricardo Tormo runs anti-clockwise. Over the course of a long stint, this can lead to neck problems for some drivers, who are more used to the combatting the g-forces generated by clockwise circuits.

First FreePractice

The day's first practice session began at one o’clock . . . and stopped again five minutes later. Tommy had only managed a single installation lap, and had come back into the pitlane, when the red flags started waving round the circuit. The Chad Racing Panoz #84 had run into serious difficulties on its first lap out of the pits. “He spun on his own fluid, and there was a big fire inside the car, and round the wheelarches,” said Mike Newton. The car was engulfed in flames and badly burned before the marshals extinguished the fire. It was some time before the session could be restarted.

Photo by Marcus Potts

That first lap from Erdos had been enough to confirm that the RML MG EX264 is now running the new 2007 aero package, developed over the winter by Lola as part of their on-going development of the chassis, and associated with their launch of the updated B07/17. Visually, the kit is distinguished by the prominent air intake in the nose (visible above), and the absence of ducts to either side, while subtler changes include a revised front splitter and profile changes to other frontal surfaces. Questions had been asked after Monza, when the EX264 still sported the earlier bodywork, but Team Manager Phil Barker was happy to explain the decision. “Our own tests have proven that, in low downforce configuration, the ’06 aero kit is more efficient, and generates significantly less drag. As the downforce is increased the ’07 becomes more efficient. Monza was a low downforce circuit, so the ’06 kit was used and the ’07 bodywork was kept in the stores. Now that we’ve come to a high downforce circuit here at Valencia, we’re using the ’07 kit.” To the casual observer it is sometimes difficult to tell what set-up a team is employing, but in the case of the current family of Lolas, a car running in a high-downforce configuration will have dive-planes fitted to either side of the nose (also clearly shown above), and the pitch of the rear wing elements will be steeper. Other less obvious signs include the fitting of Gurney flaps to the railing edges of the rear wing and bodywork, which can vary in height, and the number of dive-planes fitted to the nose.

In the days leading up to this weekend, pundits have been predicting a closing of the gap between LMP1 and LMP2 at the head of the field. Valencia’s tight and twisty circuit should favour the lighter, perhaps nimbler P2 chassis, while the outright pace of the P1 cars may be stymied by their inability to exploit any longer straights. It was no great surprise then, when the session resumed, so see Thomas Erdos setting a fastest lap that took him almost to the top of the timing screens. On only his second lap out, he established a best of 1:29.297 that would prove the quickest from any of the LMP2 cars, and place him fourth overall. On the same lap, Robin Liddell revealed that the Bruichladdich Radical would be a strong contender at Valencia, posting 1:22.596.

Photo by David Stephens

Over the remaining forty minutes those times remained the best from the class two cars, but several of the LMP1 runners made improvements, including the Swiss Spirit Lola B07/10, making its debut with Audi engine. Tommy completed four flying laps before handing over to Mike Newton, who managed an excellent 1:32.468 during his seven-lap practice, making him significantly quicker than all but one of the other “second” drivers in LMP2.

Photo by David Stephens

By the time the MG returned to the pitlane with four minutes remaining, the #25 car was ninth overall, but still the leading LMP2 runner. Behind Erdos and Liddell, came Bruce Jouanny in the #35 Saulnier Racing Courage, third, and Warren Hughes fourth in the Embassy Radical SR9 #45. “The track is still very green at the moment, but it’s getting better. It rained yesterday, but it’s a low-grip circuit anyway,” said Erdos. The general feeling in the RML garage was one of satisfaction. “We have a safe, balanced car” said Phil Barker. With reference to the car’s aerodynamics, he added: “Drag is a powerful tool. You carry it around with you all the time, and it costs you top speed and fuel. Ahead of the second session we will be looking to reduce that drag, but not at the cost of downforce.” It’s a delicate balance.

Second FreePractice

Two and a half hours later and the cars were gathering in the pitlane for the day’s second Free Practice. Overhead, a bank of low clouds had masked the Spanish sun just enough to allow the track to cool slightly, although the threat of rain now hung over the circuit. RML stuck with their usual pattern of running, giving Tommy the first handful of laps, then a lengthy stint for Mike, before Tommy went back out again towards the end of the hour. There were a few spots of rain, about two-thirds of the way through the session, but overall the conditions remained good, and times were noticeably quicker than before.

Photo by David Stephens

On his final lap, Tommy sets his fastest lap of the day, topping out at 1:27.500, sixth overall, with the fastest time of the day coming from Nic Minassian in the #7 Peugeot 908, who managed 1:25.906 in the LMP1 coupé. While this maintained the trend in LMP1, the picture in LMP2 appeared to have altered somewhat. Fastest was Michael Vergers in the Barazi Epsilon Zytek, claiming 1:27.422 to go a tenth or so quicker than Tommy, while the Binnie Motorsports Lola had moved into third, and the Quifel ASM Lola fourth, although both were a second or so behind Erdos. At fifth and sixth overall respectively, the Barazi car and RML’s MG

Photo by Marcus Potts

“The track is picking up on grip and everyone is going quicker,” suggested Erdos. “We’re also learning more about the new aero pack, and that’s been quite a major change to the car. When we understand it more I’m sure we’ll be even quicker!” Circumstances have meant that this has been the first opportunity for RML to trial the new bodywork. “It’s all part of an on-going development programme,” added Erdos. “Lola have been a great help over the last few weeks, as have AER, and we’re steadily closing the gap on the others, particularly the Zytek.” At Monza that gap had appeared to be significant, but already in Valencia the MG is looking to be much more “on the pace”.

Photo by Marcus Potts

Picking up on that theme, Mike Newton had a satisfied smile on his face. “I’m much happier to be where we are today than I was at this stage in Monza,” he declared. “I feel very comfortable in the car, but I found that last session particularly frustrating, what with cars going off the track all over the place, and I wasn’t prepared to argue with tractors or yellow flags! I wasn’t able to get even close to stringing together a quick lap, but overall we’re pleased with the car.”

Adam Wiseberg, the Motorsport Director for AD Holdings, also plays a key role within the team, following times and strategies from the pit wall. “This is going to be a race that’s hugely influenced by the way the drivers deal with the traffic,” he said. “We always like to feel we’re on top of the pace, and we’re almost there now, but I expect at least a couple of the others to be closer by the time we get to qualifying. On the whole, though, it’s all gone very well today. Tommy’s quick lap was done through heavy traffic, right at the end of the session, and confirms that everything’s going to plan.”

Photo by Marcus PottsThe final round-up of views comes from Phil Barker, who was visibly more relaxed at the end of the first day’s practice than he had been in Italy three weeks previously. “We ran the 2007 aero kit for the first time this morning, and we were very happy with the way that went,” he said. “It was a good beginning, but after that first session we felt we needed to make some changes to the balance – the car was generating too much drag and we were losing speed down the main straight. With the adjustments we made to the aero, we found another six kilometres [per hour} this afternoon. I’m quite encouraged really, and we’re certainly not starting the weekend with the deficit we faced at Monza.” Looking ahead to Saturday, he added: “Lap times don’t mean a great deal yet, since the track is still so green, but we’re still off the pace we set here in testing, so there’s the chance of more to come yet.”

The third Free Practice session is scheduled for 09:50 tomorrow.

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