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Le Mans Series 2009
Round 1. Catalunya 1000 Kilometres. April 3rd-5th 2009

Friday Review


The schedule for the Le Mans Series weekends has changed for 2009, with the number of free practice sessions reduced from three to two, but the length of each has been increased from an hour to 90 minutes. In a move intended to trim some of the cost to teams, the original intention had been to cut the number of active days from three to two by compressing all the practice and qualifying periods into a single day. However, the logistics of doing this for the first race of the year have proved too challenging, and a compromise has been chosen that does lend a more relaxed atmosphere to Friday.

With just one afternoon session, there was more time for the teams to prepare their cars, and then an extended run between four-twenty and five-forty in the afternoon.

For the past week this region of Catalunya has been subjected to some pretty dire weather, with heavy rain that has left the soil damp and the area around the circuit prone to early morning mist. Another down-side is an all-pervading aroma of raw sewage, which detracts somewhat from the excellent food being served to the team by the staff at The Smoking Dog. The track itself is also very "green", and quick times were not expected for some while.

First Free Practice

Regular service is resumed, as Thomas Erdos takes the RML Lola Mazda out onto track at the start of the first practice session of 2009. The format is much the same as it always is, with the Brazilian under instruction to complete a short series of six shake-down laps and, if he thinks the car is ripe and ready, hand over to Mike Newton for the next stint. That's the usual plan anyway, but this Friday at Barcelona is going to be a little different.

Within moments of getting up to racing speed, he's on the radio complaining about a severe vibration. The steering wheel is holding steady, but the whole car is shuddering so violently that he's finding it hard to focus. "It was a very severe vibration," he stated later. "My vision was so blurred that I could hardly make out the track in front of me."

The telemetry suggests there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Lola, so he presses on for several more laps, and having been among the first out, briefly holds top slot in LMP2. In the cockpit, however, the situation is worsening, and he's eventually forced to pit just before the first red flag of the weekend.

With action suspended, the team took their time in checking over the car and, finding nothing obviously at fault, fitted a new set of wheels and tyres ready for the re-start. When the session resumed Erdos was back out again and reporting back that the vibration was better than it had been, but was still in evidence.

Having replaced one set of wheels and found the vibration still causing problems, it might have been logical to assume that the fault lay with the car itself. However, the third set of tyres proved that there was nothing wrong with the Lola. This time the vibration disappeared completely, and later examination confirmed that an imbalance in all four tyres had been the problem with the first set, and then two imbalanced tyres on the second. On the one hand, good to discover a relatively minor root cause to the problem, but on the other, half the session lost striving to find a problem that ought never have arisen.

Having established that all was hunkydory with the Lola, Tommy handed over to Mike, who began his first stint of the year at ten-past five. Six steady laps later, and he was routinely back into the pits. Red flags for the Bruichladdich Radical and the Pegasus Courage disrupted the next ten minutes, but there was just enough time at then end for Tommy to complete a final run of four flying laps.

"The last run felt a lot sharper," said Tommy. "The vibration had gone, and the engine was pulling strongly. It felt so much better!" Mike was less happy, although his own run had gone without a hitch. As CEO of AD Group, he shares his responsibilities fairly equally between duties in the cockpit, and proving, developing and managing the car's on-board CCTV and video recording equipment. The vibration had not been helpful, and the images captured by the cockpit camera reflected the juddering that drivers, car and equipment had been subjected to during the ninety-minute session. The images below depict the rear-view camera.

"That was a very bitsy session," suggested Phil Barker, the Team Manager at RML. "We had to contend with a string of niggly problems that were not of our making, and we ended up spending most of the time just trying to put things right. It appears that two sets of tyres were not balanced properly. We're using exactly the same wheels that we used last year, so the cause of the problem isn't immediately obvious. The net result of that, and the succession of red flags, was that we lost too much track time today. We'll just have to hope that tomorrow goes better.

While RML had been tackling their gremlins, the rest of the LMP2 field had been tackling theirs. Fastest in class, the Quifel ASM Zytek was already making good the pre-season predictions that they'd be front runners in 2009. A fastest lap by Olivier Pla of 1:37.241 was significantly better than anyone else could manage, but still fell short of the quickest time at this stage last year, which had been a 1:34.008 from Jos Verstappen in the Van Merksteijn Porsche.

Quick out of the box, at their first event, was the #29 Racing Box Lola Mazda, while third for the Speedy Sebah Lola was true to form. For Tommy to claim fourth fastest after such a troubled ninety minutes was actually cause for some optimism.

LMP2 Times - Session 1

Pos No. Overall Team Driver Car
9 Quifel ASM Amaral/Pla Ginetta Zytek GZ09S
11 Racing Box Ceccato/Francioni/Piccini Lola B08/86 Coupé
3 33 12 Speedy Sebah Belicchi/Pompidou/Zacchia Lola B08/80 Coupé
14 RML AD Group Erdos/Newton Lola B08/86 Coupé
5 41 15 GAC Racing Team Ojeh/Gosselin/Peter Ginetta Zytek GZ07S
16 Kruse Schiller Marsh/Noda /Sini Lola B05/40
18 Racing Box Biagi/Bobbi/Piccini Lola B08/86 Coupé
19 WR Salini Salini/Salini/Gommendy WR Zytek
20 Bruichladdich Bruneau/Moseley/Greensall Radical SR9 AER
21 Oak Racing Ajlani/Lahaye Pescarolo Mazda
22 Oak Racing Nicolet/Hein Pescarolo Mazda
24 Pegasus Schell/Thirion Courage AER
28 Q8 Oils Hache Moncado/Cortez/Armetta Lucchini Judd
42 Ranieri Randaccio Randaccio/Giammaria Lucchini McLaren
43 Ibanez Racing Ibanez/da Rocha/Cavailhes Courage AER
no time

The second Free Practice session is scheduled for 10:45 am tomorrow.

There are high resolution images posted in the Barcelona Gallery.

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