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Le Mans 24 Hours 2007
Saturday - Warm-up/Legends/Parade/Race Start. June 16th 2007


It seems the pattern for the Le Mans week is firmly established already, and once again, conditions were wet for Saturday morning’s warm-up. To begin with, very few cars did more than an out-lap and then come straight back in again, but after ten minutes the times started to rack up on the screens.

In LMP2, de Castro was first to set a time in the ASM Lola; a 4:44. With the skies brightening, and the track less saturated, the times then began to improve, with Moseley in the Radical achieving 4:27, followed by a swift 4:35 from Kurosawa in the #33 Zytek.

Up until this point RML’s MG, with Thomas Erdos in the driving seat, had completed just a single exploratory lap, during which Tommy had encountered a problem with a loose rear-view mirror. He returned to the garage to have that adjusted, and after a few minutes, returned to the track to complete a trio of laps that included a modest 4:36, before returning to the pitlane for a change of tyres.

With seventeen minutes remaining, the second (or perhaps first?) Barazi Zytek made an appearance, with Michael Vergers posting 4:18 to mark a new best for P2. Tommy Erdos, then back out for a few more laps in the MG, came through with a 4:22 to move into second place, twelfth fastest overall. He followed this with a 4:21.103 to end the warm-up second fastest in LMP2, fifteenth overall.

"It was all very straightforward," said Phil Barker. "We were scrubbing in some tyres, and checking that yesterday's engine change had gone OK. A few installation laps, and everything looks fine."

Race start

The cars moved off the grid at just after ten-to-three, and began their slow, weaving run around the 13.6 kilometer circuit, headed by the Audi pace car, all lights flashing. It must seem like an eternity to the drivers as they try their best to generate a little heat in their tyres, but eventually, after almost nine minutes, the first cars arrived at the Ford Chicane. With the public address pumping out stirring music, the cars snaked through the last series of bends. At the last moment the pace car pulled aside, and for a moment longer the front-row Pescarolo and Audi slowed, hesitated, then with a rising crescendo of noise, the entire pack roared across the line and up the pit straight.

A little further back, all went cleanly for Tommy in the RML MG. Hanging onto the tail of the Binnie Lola, he eased clear of the GT1 leaders behind him, and set off in hot pursuit.

Coming up through the Dunlop Curves, Bourdais in the lead #8 Peugeot made a slight error, crossing the corner of the gravel, and allowing Capello in the #2 Audi through into the lead. The #7 Peugeot held third, with Audis fourth and fifth. Elsewhere, other cars were also changing places, including the #25 MG, with Tommy getting ahead of the Binnie Lola for fifth in LMP2.

That was how they ended the first lap, with Tommy starting to ease away from the Binnie Lola just fractionally. Pulling off behind them and into the pitlane was the #19 Chamberlain Synergy Lola, suffering from bodywork fouling on a punctured rear tyres. It would be in the pits only briefly. The #33 Zytek was leading P2, with the ASM Quifel Lola sandwiched between it and the sister Barazi Zytek #32. A hair’s breadth behind them was Stuart Moseley in the Bruichladdich Radical SR9 and then a narrow gap to Tommy. Right at the back of the field, the “new” Lamborghini had overtaken one of the prototypes, albeit the T2M Dome, which had started one place ahead of it on the grid.

For the next few laps matters remained largely unaltered at the front of both prototype classes. While the leading Audi appeared to be pulling away easily from the chasing foursome – two Peugeots, two Audis. In LMP2, the gaggle of four at the front were circulating almost as if connected by a cable, but a narrow margin had appeared between the Radical, fourth, and Tommy in the MG, fifth.

Behind these five, a large gap was opening up to Bill Binnie in the #31 Lola, which had fallen into the clutches of the leaders in GT1. Like a pack of dogs, they were snapping all over the Lola’s heels. The first to make the kill was the leading Aston Martin, but over the course of the next half-dozen laps, another five GT1 cars got ahead of the Binnie car.

By the end of the fourth lap the #21 Radical had started to fall back from the leading trio, and as Moseley lost touch with the Gulf-coloured Zytek, so Erdos must have started to loom ever larger in his rear-view mirrors. Lap after lap, the gap ahead of Moseley lengthened, while the margin over Erdos evaporated steadily. Just ahead, the #32 Zytek nipped in ahead of Warren Hughes, the former RML driver taking first stint in the ASM Quifel Lola and slipping to third in class.

The next lap saw the first significant error by any of the leading drivers in P2 as Michael Vergers in the #32 Zytek went for a spin, losing second, and only able to regain the track after Tommy had slipped by. The race was only six laps old, but already there had been a lot of chopping and changing amongst the various class leaders.

Avoiding Vergers didn’t seem to disrupt Tommy’s concentration too much and he proceeded to close down on Moseley with relentless determination. The two cars ended the eighth lap nose-to-tail through the Ford Chicane, and it only took another lap for Erdos to ease into third place. With this move the first of the three lights on the side of the MG lit up, signifying the move into the top three, and bringing a brighter aspect to the car’s progress.

Only ten laps into the race and the first of several cars started heading for the pitlane. The overall leader, Dindo Capello in the #2 Audi, was among the first. It was most probably a deliberate early-pitstop and ploy to get this car out of sequence with the other two R10s in the team. The lighter initial fuel load would account for its unexpected pace advantage at the start.

On the very next lap Tommy brought the MG down the pitlane for the very same reason. With garages adjacent to the ASM Quifel Lola, it was important that the two cars did not arrive in the pitlane at the same time, at least no more than could be avoided. This was one means of achieving that break in sequence. At the time he’d pitted, Tommy was some eighteen seconds behind the ASM Lola, and four seconds ahead of Moseley in the Radical. Just before the end of the hour, Hughes moved through into the class lead, getting the best of Fernandez in the #33 Zytek, but the opening sixty minutes hadn’t yet introduced its full quota of incident.

Light rain began to call, especially round the Arnage end of the track, and two cars were about to suffer the consequences. Coming through the Porsche Curves the Creation Judd CA07, with Jamie Campbell-Walter at the wheel, and Stuart Moseley in the Bruichladdich Radical, hit standing water that caught both totally unawares. Moseley lost control of the Radical, and spun backwards into the unforgiving concrete. Jamie suffered likewise, although in his case the contact with the wall appeared less critical.

Hours 2-3

So the second hour began with a safety car period. LMP2 stood as Hughes leading in the ASM Lola from Fernandez second and Thomas Erdos third in the RML MG. They were 14th, 15th and 16th overall respectively. With the exception of the Radical’s demise, it looked like a good beginning for LMP2. Indeed, demise proved to be the apposite word. Although Moseley was able to bring the car gently back to the pitlane, with evident damage to the front and the back of the car, and no rear wing, an inspection by the scrutineers resulted in a forced retirement. Although the team was willing to work on the car, and get it going again, the officials felt that the integrity of the main tub had been damaged, with elements of the front suspension actually puncturing the carbon fibre. Under those circumstances, safety becomes the prime concern, and the garage doors descended on the #21’s garage. Although the Radical’s impact with the wall proved terminal, the Creation would eventually resume the race, although some twenty laps down on the rest of the field.

While some areas of the track were being subjected to heavy rain, other sections remained dry. So long as the safety car continued to circulate, this was not a huge problem for drivers as experienced as Thomas Erdos, so he stayed out on the slick tyres he’d started with. Others elected to go for the pitstop anyway, while the track was moving so slowly. One of these was Adrian Fernandez in the #33 Barazi Zytek. The pitstop itself went well enough, but he was waved off the box just a little too eagerly, and drove right into the path of Liz Halliday, just hading for her pitstop a little further along. Fortunately, neither car was travelling particularly fastm and there was no obvious damage.

Tommy was running fourth in a train behind the second Safety Car, and as he came through on the pit straight, moved through ahead of Fernandez to take 2nd in LMP2. Those lights on the sides of the car are very useful!

The green flag came at twenty-past four, and shortly afterwards Fernandez had a brief off, believed to have been due to a gearchange issue, although it didn’t stop the car’s charge for long., It did allow Tommy to ease just a little further ahead, however. Elsewhere, a stop-go (reason unknown) for the #35 Saulnier Courage also rippled an effect through LMP2.

By half-past four Tommy had moved along to 14th overall, with Warren Hughes still leading the class in the #40 ASM Quifel Lola, ninth overall. Moments later there were gasps from those watching the television monitors as Mike Rockenfeller set a new fastest lap for the #3 Audi, and then suffered the indignity of a massive ‘off’ at the exit of the new Tertre Rouge corner. The rear end of the car was wiped heavily down the Armco, rearranging the suspension in a bizarre fashion. To all those watching it was obvious that the car was never going to make it round 12 kilometres or so of the circuit, but even so, the young German began the process of trying to do just that. For about half an hour he worked away at the back of the car, clearing broken panelwork and trying to reconnect damaged pipework. Finally, he attempted to restart the car. The engine fired up, but judging by the volumes of smoke, the R10’s diesel engine wasn’t happy. Rockenfeller finally gave up, and the first of the Audis retired.

Apologies for the beak in reporting, but we have been unable to get on-line for some time, and cannot update the website when this happens.

This time Tommy took full advantage of the Safety Car, and came straight down the pitlane at the end of his next lap. It was 16:35. Tommy clambered out of the car after a very successful double-stint, and handed over the MG to Andy Wallace. The car was fitted with fresh tyres, and off he went, smoothly and without any problems.

One of the MG’s earlier rivals was having problems. The #32 Zytek (Barazi/Vergers/Ojeh) had been in the garage for some time with gearbox woes. It would stay there for a little while longer, but it would rejoin. Warren Hughes and the ASM Lola were not troubled at all. Leading LMP2, the Portuguese car stood seventh overall, six positions above the second-placed MG.

Hour 3

The start of the third hour had only just ticked over when Andy radioed in to say that the car had “stopped”. This wasn’t strictly true, since he was still freewheeling at a fair pace when he said this, but his momentum steadily died away, and the car coasted to a halt at the foot of the Esses.

The Marshals helped push the car to a point of safety, where Wallace clambered out and started removing items of bodywork in order to find out what was wrong. With advice over the radio, he managed to find and transfer to the auxiliary crank trigger system.

Correctly diagnosed, this allowed him to restart the engine and bring the car back to the pitlane at 17:17, where it was checked over and passed as fit for further action. The delay had cost several minutes, and even though the #33 Zytek had gone for a quick spin, ground had been lost.

Andy’s visit coincided with another worsening in the weather, and the pitlane itself was very heavy with water, despite the fact that other stretches of the track remained dry. Rear rain lights brightly lit, Andy rejoined at twenty-past, but from second in class only half an hour or so previously, the MG now stood 34th overall and 6th in LMP2.

The half-hour came and went, with Mike Rockenfeller still working gamely at the back of the #3 Audi, determined to the last. The ASM Lola came in for a scheduled pitstop, and Andy confirmed that the track was very treacherous, especially along the pit straight. From the first chicane onwards it was better, and he felt the track remained “OK for slicks”. A pirouette for the #15 Charouz Lola suggested he was correct, and this is still behind the safety car. Another finding the conditions more than a little testing was Amaral in the #40 ASM Lola, who elected to go straight on at one of the Mulsanne chicanes and negotiate the tyre walls.

With the rain growing heavier by the minute, Andy finally agreed to come into the pits and swap the car’s slick tyres for intermediates, but remains convinced that the track is not yet sufficiently awash to justify full wets. Moments later, at 17:44, racing finally resumed.

A driver of Andy’s experience is not put off by a bit of damp track, and he was rapidly into a series of very quick laps, moving up to 30th overall and bearing down on the #35 Saulnier Courage, Nicolet at the wheel. Warren Hughes in the #40 ASM Lola retained the LMP2 lead, with the smooth and unruffled Binnie Lola second, and the #33 Zytek third.

At five before six, and with the conditions much improved, Andy came back down the pitlane for a more scheduled stop and a set of slicks. The interruption dropped the MG back to38th, but everything was still close enough at the back that it would only be a matter of time before the RML machine started moving back up again. Andy’s times, being regularly in the 3:56 to 3:58 bracket, were typically four or six seconds a lap quicker than anyone else in the class. It’s an impressive run.

Hour 4

At ten past six, Andy moved ahead of the #35 LMP2 Courage, and thereby into fifth position in the class. Over the next half hour he began to make significant inroads into the advantage enjoyed by Vitaly Petrov in the Noel del Bello Courage AER, thanks largely to being 20 seconds a lap quicker. This was amply demonstrated at just after half-past when the track had almost completely dried. His time on that half-hour of 3:48.618 was getting very close to the 3:46.634 that Tommy had done towards the end of his opening stint, when the sun had been shining brightly.

At 18:46 Andy Wallace came burbling back down the pitlane for his next scheduled pitstop. He also requested that someone went round and cleaned his mirrors. Even a fast LMP2 driver needs to know who’s coming up behind! He would stay in the car for another stint, but lost one place to the Ortelli Saleen during the stop. Just along in the pitlane (but safely after Andy had left) there was a brief flash fire aboard the Charouz Lola, rapidly extinguished by the marshals.

Less than ten minutes later, it all started to go very wrong for Andy and the RML MG. Sweeping through the fast right-hander that leads into the Porsche Curves, the car suddenly snapped away from its driver, and pitched itself heavily into the tyre wall. The results were obvious to everyone watching the television screens. “It may be a puncture,” he said over the radio, after a few moments ominous silence. “There was nothing I could do. It hit really, really hard, and I think it’s bad. They’re going to pull me out.” From the view on the monitors, it was clear that both ends of the car were severely damaged. The recovery crew were quick to react, and had the MG dragged out of the gravel in a matter of moments. Once safely into the escape road, Andy was able to get out and examine the car. It looked rough, but Andy thought there was a good chance he could get it going again. He succeeded.

The journey back to the garage was anything but easy. Although on the final leg of a full lap, Andy soon discovered that steering the MG was not going to be easy. “I’m sorry Phil, but it won’t steer. I’m trying my best!” His best proved to be good enough, and more than that, he drove back in such a way that the engine, which was in danger of overheating as a result of damage to the cooling system, survived the ordeal without any obvious signs of harm. “You’re doing a great job Andy. Just keep it coming!” Twelve minutes after he’d hit the wall, he re-entered the pitlane.

Pulling up outside the garage, the MG was a very sorry sight. The engine cover in particular looked very much the worse for the experience - split and sagging, it was hanging loose across the back wheels. The rear wing had disappeared completely, and nearly every panel, including the nose, had sustained damage. The crew were remarkably quick to get into action, although getting the trolley to engage with the pick-up points at the back of the car proved challenging. With that done, the MG was hauled backwards into the garage with Andy still aboard.

Andy had not even had time to climb out before the team was ripping the remains of the engine cover away from the back of the car. There was no ceremony here – the panel was beyond repair, so there was little point in treating it gently. “That’s a throwaway!” came the call, followed swiftly by “Fuel leak, fuel leak!” Anyone surplus to requirements was ushered out of the garage, while others with fire extinguishers rushed forwards. Thankfully, they weren’t needed, and the seepage was swiftly plugged.

The garage took on the appearance of an ants’ nest that has just been kicked. That was the first impression. Anyone taking the time to pause and look would soon see that these were not the random actions of animals in panic – far from it. Hurried they may have been, but the engineers and mechanics all knew their tasks, and they were moving swiftly to fulfil them. Everything was also strangely quiet. It was impossible to ignore the constant drone of cars passing by on the track outside, but within the RML garage there was no time, or need, for wasting effort on talk. Aside from the occasional instruction from Phil Barker, or Michael Jakeman, each man knew exactly what he should be doing, and they were getting on with it.

With the engine cover and nose section removed, the side-pods were next to go. New panels started to arrive, all set to replace the ones already discarded.

By quarter past seven the rear underfloor had been removed, and the car was up on high stands so that access underneath was easier. Once revealed, the rear sub-assembly looked to have escaped the impact unscathed, despite the very obvious damage to the ear wing uprights.

At the front, the nose could not be salvaged, but the first available spare nose had been set up with a higher-downforce configuration, so while most of the crew concentrated on repairs, others started adjusting the spare nose to the same settings as the damaged original.

19:22 and the replacement rear wing upright was already bolted into position, and the car was starting to look like a car again. Some of the team had been given the job of vacuuming out any loose gravel from the recesses and corners of the tub. Adam Hughes, who had been attending to the rear sub-assembly, was despatched to finish sorting out the nose. It’s a vast piece of carbon fibre, so more space was needed, and the last of the spectators were cleared away from the back of the garage.

Half-past seven and the RML MG had slumped to 43rd overall. There wasn’t a lot further it could fall. Underneath the tub, Paul Smallcorn and others had managed to get the front floor removed, and the replacement was offered up straight away, and bolted into place. Within four or five minutes, possibly less, it was in place. The whole of the rear of the car was also now fully rebuilt, with the exception of the new undertray and rear wing, and they were now about to be reintroduced as well.

Half an hour into the repair and the initial rushing around had eased. By then the guys seemed to know they were on the home straight, and reassembly is so much more important than ripping apart. There’s no room for error when it comes to building a racecar – a man’s life depends upon it, and as Tommy Erdos has said so often in the past, he feels he can always trust a car that’s been prepared for him by the crew at RML. Even under the extreme pressure of having to get a car back into a race as quickly as possible, the team knows that cutting corners is not an option. They were working on the MG with a methodical thoroughness and care born of experience.

19:40, and while the coolant was being refilled, Phil called for the rear floor section to be bought forward. Inside four minutes, it was installed. Two minutes later, and the sidepods were being bolted into position. The MG really was starting to look like its pristine self once again! Confirmation came in the form of Mike Newton, who walked through to the front of the garage, suited, helmeted, and ready to climb into the cockpit. He was signed in by one of the ACO scrutineers, and then stood back, waiting for the crew to complete their work.

Ten-to-eight and fresh tyres were rolled or carried through from the warmers outside. A final check for the rear diff, a check on the water levels, and then the whole tub was lifted, briefly, the stands removed, and then the car was lowered to the floor. 19:56 and, with a brief stutter, the engine snarled into life. It sounded good, although Volker Muschick, helping to refit the rear wing, was caught slightly off guard by the blast from the exhaust!

Hour 5

19:57 and the tyres were being fitted, followed by the engine cover and then the last bolts securing the rear wing. Exactly on eight o’clock the MG was hauled out onto the pit apron, with Mike firmly strapped inside. Refuelled and waved away, the car blasted down the pitlane towards the track. It was two minutes past the hour, and 67 minutes after Andy piled into the tyres, the #25 was back in the race. It was some testament to the RML crew that it had taken them only 55 minutes to repair a car that others might have shrugged their shoulders at and dismissed. Little wonder that these men won the ESCRA award in 2006! “We work well together,” admitted Paul Smallcorn. “We’re a team, and when we get together for an event like this, everything just gells. Next week I’ll be back doing fabrication in the workshop, and some of these other guys will be in the design room, or working on electronics, but collected into a team, we just get on with what we need to do.”

The MG’s exhaust note was still reverberating down the concrete walls of the pitlane when Rick Perry reminded everyone to “get this garage cleared up, just in case it happens again!” One can only hope it doesn’t. The delay had cost the team the equivalent of 18 laps, and Mike emerged “dead last”, as Ray Mallock observed. That meant 48th place overall, and a long, long way back on the LMP2 leaders; the #33 Barazi Zytek, followed closely by Miguel Amaral in the #40 ASM Quifel Lola.
Mike’s pace was good, right from his first flying lap. His confidence in the car had never wavered, in spite of having watched how much work had been completed in such a short time, and he was content to push on, come what may. Twenty minutes or so into his stint and there was another major accident on the Mulsanne. Once more it was the long-suffering Creation Judd that had come to grief, head-butting the tyre wall on the escape road for the first Mulsanne chicane. The entire row of tyres fell down like a row of dominoes, and the Creation was left looking a much sadder version of its earlier (and stunningly liveried) self. Elsewhere, the #82 Panoz was pulling over to the side and the #76 Porsche was having an off moment.

20:39 and the MG had moved clear of the bottom of the timing screens, climbing up to 47th overall, a somewhat unrepresentative 9th in LMP2. Twenty minutes later and it was time for Mike’s first scheduled stop. Fuel only, and very swiftly accomplished.

Hour 6

Mike’s stint moved on smoothly into the sixth hour, with the CEO of AD Holdings holding his own against all the other P2 drivers on the track at the time. This was proven by the scalps he steadily acquired – moving into 45th position by 21:24, and then having a brief duel with one of the GT2 Spykers. The #86 put up a fair resistance, but it was pointless. “He wanted a battle,” suggested Mike. “I think I won!”

By quarter-to-ten the P2 situation had settled down, for a while anyway, and had the #33 Barazi Zytek (Adrian Fernandez in the cockpit) leading from de Castro in the #40 ASM Lola. Chris Buncombe (Binnie Lola) held third from a string of Courage C65s: Liz Halliday in the Del Bello car; Nicolet in the Saulnier example fifth, and Tony Burgess sixth in the Kruse C65.

Roughly an hour after he was last there, Mike’s MG was burbling down the pitlane at 21:49 in anticipation of a driver change with Tommy Erdos. With the car refuelled and fitted with fresh rubber, the Brazilian was off again by 21:54. Even these more complex stops seem to come and go smoothly for the RML squad. Not so Jan Magnussen’s progress up towards the Dunlop Chicane in the #63 Corvette. Quite needlessly, and in an appalling exhibition of how not to drive an LMP1 through traffic, Marco Werner in the #1 Audi swiped the innocent Dane sideways into the gravel. Skilfully, Magnussen kept control of the Corvette, skipped across the gravel and regained the track at the brow of the hill, thankfully without serious damage. The Audi was in the pits shortly afterwards to have a new rear panel fitted. Just desserts, perhaps.

Hour 7

Almost exactly on the hour and the Creation’s race goes from bad to worse. What started with such promise, and such publicity, is developing into a catalogue of disasters as Shinji Nakano is the next of the car’s three drivers to test the resilience of the tyre wall. This time it’s in the same spot as Andy’s earlier encounter, and looks almost as hard.

The stranded Creation proved more difficult for the marshals to remove than had the MG, and the safety car was swiftly deployed. Tommy took up his position in the train, holding 43rd overall, just narrowly ahead now of the #20 Pilbeam-Judd, having passed Chris Macallister a few minutes previously.

The track was cleared and racing resumed at 22:23, but not before the #33 Zytek had been into the garage to have a brake fluid lead attended to. By contrast, Tommy was soon back up to speed and moving smoothly, closing to within half a minute of the #44 Kruse over the course of the next twenty minutes. He wouldn’t quite have enough time to catch the Courage and pass it, however. At 22:57 he was starting his in-lap, and true to form, the fuel warning light blinked on as he sped between the two Mulsanne chicanes. Erdos marked the conclusion of the seventh hour by heading into the pits for fuel.

A high resolution gallery an be found here.