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Le Mans Series 2008
Round 1. Catalunya 1000 Kilometres. April 5th-6th 2008
Weekend Preview

Sun, Sand and Sportscars

The opening round of the 2008 Le Mans Series takes place this coming weekend at the fabulous Formula 1 Circuit de Catalunya, just outside Barcelona on Spain’s sunny east coast. The weather forecast is good, and the prospects for motor racing are excellent.

While the situation for sports and GT racing in America hasn’t been especially vibrant this past year, the European-based Le Mans Series goes from strength to strength. No less than 49 cars are entered for this first race of the year, with a full thirty of these being the top-flight prototypes from LMP1 and LMP2. It will be like Le Mans itself, only compressed into 1000 kilometres or about six hours of close-fought motorsport magic.

This isn’t simply strength in numbers either, since the quality of this year’s grid is astonishing. Out at the sharp end, the big guns are present in force, with Audi and Peugeot set to battle it out for top honours in LMP1, with both factories fielding paired squads. They're unlikely to have all the running entirely their own way, thanks to equally impressive competition in the form of the latest Aston Martin powered and supported Lola coupé prototype being run by Charouz Racing, together with entries from 2006 champions Pescarolo Sport. Add in the Creation team to that mix, and things should be very tight at the front of the grid.

If anything, the same is even more accentuated within LMP2. Current titleholders Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos in the RML MG accept that their last three years of semi-dominance of this lighter-weight and nimble category is going to be very hard to carry forward into a fourth season. Erdos is well aware of the challenge, not only for pole and the class win, but also for track space alone.

“Looking at the competition, the championship has changed dramatically,” he suggests. “There are 15 entries in LMP2, and as many in LMP1, so the first corner of the race is going to have prototypes everywhere, and that’s my first concern as we look ahead to the weekend. The start of any race is always a difficult time, of course, but even more so now. In the top 25 or so, there will be at least 20 cars trying for that same section of track, and that’s an awful lot of horsepower and adrenalin to channel through a single corner! No doubt the excitement will extend for the first few laps as drivers continue to jostle for position, so we should anticipate the potential for incidents from the moment the lights turn green.”

What makes this even more of a factor than usual, aside from the numbers, is the fact that the competition within LMP2 is so evenly matched. Of those fifteen entries, perhaps a dozen could be considered as contenders for pole.

“There are three Porsches (above), two Zyteks, the Sebah Lola (below), two open-topped Lolas, the Radical, and the two Embassy cars (left), and that’s just the ones that come to mind straight away,” says Erdos with a groan. “Then you have to consider the quality of the drivers. Think of Pompidou in that coupé, or Verstappen in a Porsche, or Nielsen and Elgaard and Lammers, Guy Smith, or those two Embassy cars with Hughes, Haberfield, Foster and Kane at the wheel . . . the list just goes on and on. It’s almost endless! There are also likely to be others ready to spring a surprise, so we know we’re up against it, but that makes us even more determined.”

That is one of RML’s strengths. The other is the experience they have as a race team. With championships of one kind or another falling their way almost annually for the past twenty years, RML has experience in spades, and they’re known for their ability to rise to a challenge. “We have a great team now in RML,” insists the Brazilian, “and Mike and I now have an opportunity to show well against a host of very professional pairings. I’m looking forward to it!”

On the whole, preparation work has been going well, but many of the other teams will be looking sideways towards the RML pit garage and wondering quite what the guys from Wellingborough have been up to these past few months. The official Paul Ricard test did not get RML’s year off to the flying start Mike and Tommy might have hoped for. With two engines incapacitated almost before a serious time had been set, the benchmark that their rivals might have been looking for is significantly absent as they prepare for this weekend’s first practice sessions.

Looking Back to Ricard

Adam Wiseberg, Motorsport Director for AD Group, the team’s principal sponsor, takes up that story. “Our plan for Paul Ricard had been to do some running on the first day to assess the aerodynamic and mechanical set-up for Le Mans, as Ricard has a significant straight (the Mistral) which enables us to see how the car is likely to behave on the Mulsanne. Once that had been achieved the late afternoon and evening running would have enabled all three drivers (Mike Newton, Thomas Erdos and Andy Wallace) to run some race-length stints, probably in Le Mans configuration, until midnight. This would also enable the crew to practice and hone their pitlane skills. Monday running would then have been split between tyre evaluation and probably some higher-downforce running.”

The test started well, with Tommy doing some initial set-up work and then Mike having a short run. Unfortunately, towards the end of that stint (above) the car experienced its first engine failure. “This was the first time we'd run on the new-for-2008 fuel,” explained Adam. “We now suspect that the failure was related to the different composition of this fuel.” The spare engine was fitted during the lunch break and through into the afternoon. At the same time the engine support team made some adjustments to the related units in some of the other chassis - those using a similar basic configuration and turbo boost pressures. “Once our spare engine was fitted,” continued Adam, “Andy went out for a stint, but within a short time a similar failure was experienced, despite some adjustments to try to compensate for the ‘fuel effect’, and that was the end of our test!”

Since then the engine manufacturer has assessed why the new fuel caused problems with RML’s new MG XP21 engine, and specifically, investigated why such issues were not experienced by those using units similar to the one employed by RML in the EX264 last year. “We have since run a series of extended tests with absolutely no recurrence of the problem,” said Adam. “We feel we're now in good shape for the first round at Barcelona.”

Thomas Erdos looks back on that Paul Ricard test with some regrets, but only a few. “It’s a shame that we didn’t have a more successful test,” he admits. “We’ve had a tight schedule, and missing the full potential of Paul Ricard was a disappointment, but we’ve since had a good series of runs at Snetterton, and even if we’re a little short on mileage, we know we have a well tried, reliable car in every other respect, and it’s equally possible that others haven’t yet been able to complete as much of their preparation as we have. Consistency is our strength, and other teams are arriving at a race with new cars and new driver combinations, and almost anything can happen in motorsport!”

As for the engine, he has no qualms. “The engine is new, I admit,” he says. “It has yet to be proven for six hours, and then we have to look ahead to running 24 Hours in June, but it has shown excellent form in our most recent testing. I’m confident that it will be strong all the way, and I have absolute faith in AER and Mike Lancaster [the boss at AER]. The way they reacted after Paul Ricard, and the level of response, was simply superb. We had a first re-run at Snetterton very soon after those Paul Ricard failures, yet they’d achieved so much in just a few days. The engine ran like clockwork, and that gave us a lot of confidence, not only in the XP-21, but also in AER’s capabilities and their commitment to the project.”

The Circuit

Barcelona is another new circuit for the Le Mans Series, but one that comes with an excellent pedigree, and is sure to meet with widespread approval from drivers, spectators and media alike. As a major Formula 1 venue, the Circuit de Catalunya is well equipped and, after a major refurbishment only a few years ago, is the perfect venue for this year’s opening round.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be going to Barcelona,” admits Thomas Erdos. “It’s a proper F1 track with all the facilities you need. It’s where these cars are supposed to run! Look at the circuits we’re at this year, and you can see that the series is finally going in the right direction. From here, to Monza, Spa, the Nurburgring, and Silverstone – all perfect tracks for endurance racing. Add in the food and the weather, and Barcelona's an ideal place to start the season. I just love Spain!” Being able to get by in the language must help to!

Tommy and Mike were last at Barcelona for the FIA GT Championship of 2003, but that’s five years ago, and the track has changed quite a lot since then. “The main difference we’re going to notice is the surface itself,” clarifies Erdos. “It used to be known as a very abrasive surface, and horrendously hard on tyres Not only that, but there were ripples and bumps everywhere that upset the balance of the car, shook the car to bits, and made your teeth chatter. Now it’s much smoother, and I’m so looking forward to that. They have also changed a couple of the corners, so we’ll have to learn those before we really start pushing.”

With the exception of one lengthy straight, the circuit is characterised by a succession of tight, twisty, high-G corners, and some pundits have suggested that this configuration may favour the LMP2 cars. Indeed, one of the LMP1 drivers has already predicted that an LMP2 car might even be on pole for Sunday’s race. With LMP2 Porsches having dominated the results sheet at the Sebring 12 Hours last month, albeit thanks largely to problems encountered by the leading LMP1 entries, speculation must allow for the trio of Spyders to be somewhere near the front, although the RML MG cannot be discounted. Mike and Tommy finished an unprecedented third overall in the Spa 1000 kilometers last season (on the podium, right) and while considerably shorter, the characteristics of the two circuits are not a million miles apart.


“No doubt, the Porsches are very, very reliable, and with three on the field, at least one or two will keep on going all the way to the flag,” said Erdos. Of his other predictions, he doesn’t rule out the continued challenge from the ASM Lola. The Portuguese team’s driver line-up is changed for 2008, with Miguel Amaral now joined by the single pro-driver, Olivier Pla. “Olivier is a very quick guy, and you don’t win GP2 races unless you’re on the money,” points out Erdos. “Dunlop also appear to have made good progress with their rubber, so I’m sure ASM will be a tough customer again this season.”

Other Issues

Aside from the general mêlée of Turn One, called “Elf”, Thomas Erdos’s other concern for the coming weekend is the revised qualifying format. In the past, the prototypes have always headed out for the first twenty minutes of the official qualifying period, but for Barcelona the sequence has been reversed, and the GT cars will take to the track first. “GT cars historically tend to ride the kerbs and go across the grass much more than we do, especially in qualifying. That’s sure to mean that the track is more likely to be dirty by the time we get out there. The prototypes simply don’t use the track the same way. In the past the GTs have always had the benefit of a clean track when we’ve been out first, but this change may make things far more difficult for us.” Qualifying is scheduled for 14:15 on Saturday.

In Our Thoughts

One aspect of the weekend that will be bearing heavily on many minds is the absence of David Leslie. His tragic death last Sunday has hit the motorsport fraternity especially hard. He was an enormously popular figure, and the thought that his warmth and humour will now and forever be absent from the pressroom, the paddock, and the racetrack, is difficult to comprehend. Arriving at Barcelona, where he would have been expected to carry out his duties as a commentator, will bring this home to everyone with a strength and reality that reading reports and tributes cannot convey.

“The whole weekend will be very difficult,” said Thomas Erdos. “David will be on everybody’s mind, and especially here with us at RML. You couldn’t help but like him. It’s truly tragic. I feel sad, not only because of David’s passing, but also for those others who knew him so much better than me. Phil [Barker, RML Team Manager] was David’s race engineer in the BTCC, and they had a close friendship that had carried on ever since. David and Ray [Mallock, RML Team Principal] raced together, shared the podium, and had been together as families. Those kind of thoughts will be around us each and every day that we’re in Barcelona.”

Harry Handkammer, in a statement released on Tuesday, has confirmed that Apex Motorsport will be pressing on with its Jaguar XKR GT3 race programme and its entries in the 2008 FIA GT3 European Championship. “We were racing before to win; now we will be racing with an added purpose – in memory of Richard, David and Chris.”

Such inspiration will be felt just as strongly by other teams to which these men meant so much, and no less so than by those at RML, to whom David Leslie was one of their own.