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Le Mans 24 Hours 2007
Sunday - Race Hour 8 - Finish. June 17th 2007

Hour 8

Fresh from his eleven o'clock pitstop, Tommy was back out in 41st position overall, 94 laps clocked up. Some way up the road ahead of him lay the #32 Barazi Zytek – itself not untroubled by incident and mechanical issues, but at this stage still circulating strongly. Amazingly, Tommy was gaining hand-over-fist, reducing the deficit by a massive 40 seconds on one lap early into the eighth hour. This was the battle for sixth in class.

Major dramas at seventeen past the hour, when the class-leading ASM Quifel Lola, with Warren Hughes at the wheel, coasted to a halt, three wheels on his wagon. “I lost drive completely,” he said later. “I’d just come through the Dunlop Curves when the right rear wheel detached through Tertre Rouge. I had to take off the engine cover and lock the diff on one wheel. That allowed me to drive the car back to the garage in first gear. Now we need to find the cause.” It took him the best part of a quarter of an hour, but the Lola was still immobile when the #33 Zytek swept through to take the class lead. That coincided with the MG’s hundredth lap.

The battle for second in LMP2 had been quite tight, so it was only a minute or so after the #33 had taken the lead that the Binnie Lola #31 followed through into second., seventeenth overall. The ASM’s descent from a glorious lead proved to be somewhat meteoric, but at least Warren had got the car moving again, although the pace was almost sedentary. He crawled the car laboriously round the circuit to reach the garage at ten minutes before midnight, having lost five laps. The car would lose many more before the night was over.

Midnight was fast approaching when Thomas Erdos made his next brief visit to the pitlane, taking on fuel but not a lot else as he started his third consecutive stint, and the MG’s ninth hour.

Hour 9 - from Midnight

It seemed hard to credit that only nine hours of the race had been completed when the race entered its second day. It had been an eventful period for the RML pit crew, but once again, they’d achieved the near impossible and kept the MG going, and not without some slim hope of a decent finish. The going wasn’t totally without its occasional hiccup, but in general, it was smooth running. Early into the new day and Tommy was having a problem with the shift into third gear, but it was quickly traced to the “jacker” system, and provided Tommy (and whoever followed him) blipped the throttle on the down-change, everything continued to slip through the box neatly.

Car 44’s race (the Kruse Courage) was also having its moments, one of them coming at eight minutes past twelve when it spun through the second Mulsanne chicane, but the C65 was already well behind the MG, and falling further adrift. It would soon become the last car running.

At just after the quarter hour Tommy moved through into 40th overall with a pass on the #19 Chamberlain Synergy Lola, stuck in the garage with clutch issues.

Twelve-thirty and the ASM Lola returned to the fray after spending the best part of forty-five minutes in the garage. When Warren rejoins, he is less than a minute ahead of the MG, but the #40 car appears to be back in pretty fine fettle, and his lap times are good, so the gap remains almost constant until the next round of pitstops.

Conditions out on the circuit were actually very good, and the rain had been long forgotten in most quarters. This was demonstrated by a number of new fastest laps in several classes, including a 3:40.946 from Michael Vergers in the #32 Zytek.

Quarter-to-one and the ASM Lola was back into the garage again, the team seemingly unable to solve the problem of self-loosening wheelnuts. Thankfully the wheel hadn’t fallen off this time, but it was still disconcerting to feel it wobbling about. Four minutes later and Thomas Erdos was back into the pits as well, although his stop was planned, inclusive of driver change to Mike Newton.

No sooner had Newton left the pitlane than the on-board telemetry suggested a pressure problem with the front right wheel. Was there a puncture? There was no point in taking the risk, and Mike was called back in again at the end of his first lap. A new wheel and tyre was fitted, and the delay was very brief, but subsequent tests failed to find a fault. Better to be safe than sorry.
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Hour 10

Ten hours into the race and things were getting exciting again in LMP2 – for the lead anyway. For some time the Binnie Lola had been out at the front, largely due to an untroubled, if equally unhurried progress. It’s often the case that the car that encounters the fewest problems is the one that gets the Le Mans result, and outright pace isn’t always the only answer. So here was the Binnie Lola, almost ten seconds off the best Zytek pace, but leading the class. It was a close-run thing though. Allan Timpany was losing ground to Vitaly Petrov by the rate of 7 or 8 seconds per lap, and the del Bello Courage looked about ready to pounce.

Having turned mechanic to keep the ASM Lola moving, Warren Hughes was out to prove that he was still a racing driver too. A new best of 3:44.804 was a pretty fair pace from the #40, but he hadn’t finished yet. Next lap through he sliced three seconds off that to post a new best for a Lola of 3:41.891, but it couldn’t last. The half-hour was beckoning when he returned the Lola to the pitlane with a recurrence of the earlier wheel problem.

That was the only excuse Mike Newton required, and at 01:31 he took the MG EX264 through into 38th place overall, and with it the #25 car moved forward onto the psychologically significant “second screen”. In the ASM pit, Hughes was giving way to Amaral.

The del Bello “pounce” came at quarter-to-two, when Petrov moved ahead of Buncombe on the pitstop, and with it took both the class lead and 17th overall. Mike pitted later on the same lap for fuel and tyres, and then just before the hour Buncombe regained the lead as the Russian, Vitaly Petrov, pitted.

Hour 11

Two o’clock in the morning, and the RML MG’s race appeared to have swapped race characteristics with the ASM’s. After a troubled first quarter, the #25 was making serene and relatively untroubled progress. It made a pleasant change for the pit crew, who were able to catch up on some much needed rest after the exertions of the afternoon and evening. In the Portuguese pit, the emotions were very different when Miguel Amaral took to the very same gravel trap at the entrance to the Porsche Curves that had caught Andy Wallace all those hours before. He would get the car back to the garage, but his return would herald the ultimate retirement of the ASM Quifel entry. The one-time leader would exit the race this hour.

Another former leader that had dropped down the order was the #33 Zytek. Confirmation had come through that the earlier delay was the result of a brake fluid leak.

Mike was enjoying himself, and had been consistently setting times in the sub three-forties. That contributed to his rise through the ranks to 37th overall, moving ahead of the 006 Aston Martin at 02:30. Shortly afterwards, he passed the #82 Panoz, and then followed that with a move on the #85 Spyker. He’d arrived at 35th place overall.

Like Tommy, Mike was in for the duration, and was about to begin a third stint at the wheel of the MG Lola. His pitstop came at quarter-to-three, and marked the beginning of another trouble-free hour.

Hour 12

While we’d been concentrating on Mike’s progress, we'd missed the fact that the #24 Del Bello Courage had encountered gearbox problems and tumbled down the order. That left Chris Buncombe leading the class comfortably in the Binnie Lola, from the #35 Saulnier Courage second and the #33 Zytek third. Buncombe was actually setting the car’s fastest laps of the race, and had just posted a newly improved 3:50.032. That was about four seconds slower than the RML best, but enough to confirm that the “steady-Eddie” approach was working well for the blue Lola.

At seven past the hour Mike Newton’s scalping progress continued, with Christian Fittipaldi in the Team Modena Aston Martin being the next to join the collection. The move took the MG forward into 33rd overall. He would continue in the car for another twenty minutes, swapping with Thomas Erdos at just after half-three.

It was another clean and untroubled exchange, and the rest of the team was keen to offer their congratulations to Mike for an excellent triple-stint. “It’s already easier at this stage than it was in the Saleen (in 2003), and I’m hardly even feeling hot!” he said. “It’s tricky spotting the lines at night, but I really enjoyed that. The tyres were excellent too, and the grip levels felt good all the way through, except at the very end, but I suspect that was me!” Progress had indeed been good. “The big thing we must ensure now is that we don’t have any more problems, and Mike must get a rest before his next stint,” said Adam Wiseberg.

Throughout all this the #24 del Bello Courage had remained in the team garage, losing ground steadily to Mike and the RML MG. With Erdos in the car, it was not long before the #25 wailed by along the pit straight and took the place.
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Hour 13

Four o’clock in the morning, and Tommy had moved into 31st overall, fifth in LMP2. Lapping consistently around the three fifty-six mark, he was making steady inroads into the LMP2 pack. Having once been nineteen laps down on the lead, the MG was now just (just?) sixteen laps adrift. The #33 Zytek’s problems were continuing, and to earlier woes had been added a rear right wheel bearing failure. At 4:06 the French-blue LMP2 was taken back into the garage to have this attended to.

Another car suffering was the #13 Courage, and this would shortly be heading for retirement. At the other end of the scale, Allan McNish set a new lap record of 3:27.204 at 04:22, confirming that the R10 still has the legs on the new Peugeot – although there are enough hours left for the 908 to strike back.

At half-past four Tommy was back through the pitlane for his next scheduled pitstop – typically slick. His next lap took him ahead of the still-stationery #33 Zytek, and thereby gifted the MG 29th overall. It felt nice to be inside the top thirty again. Another psychological milestone passed successfully.

At ten to five it got even better, with a clean on-track pass of the #78 Ferrari (Ben Aucott driving, but perhaps better known this year as “Adrian Newey’s Car”. This made Tommy’s next theoretical target the #12 Courage, but since this was a recovering LMP1 car, travelling just a tad quicker than Tommy, there seemed little chance of clawing back a four-lap deficit. Tommy pressed on regardless.

With the first hints of dawn dusting a pale glow across the eastern skies the race entered its fourteenth hour.

Hour 14

The MG’s unruffled progress continued through the awkward period of the dawn - traditionally viewed as the most difficult stint for the Le Mans driver. The sight of the rising sun can have a multitude of effects, not least as it lifts above the horizon and blazes through the trees, blinding and confusing with long shadows. There’s also the tendency to think that you’re further through the race than you truly are – it’s easy to forget that there’s still another full Le Mans Series race (and some!) to go. False confidence can lead to a loss of concentration and unforced errors, and for these and other similar reason many teams will place their most experienced drivers into the car for the dawn run.

Thomas Erdos had drawn that straw, but would end up sharing the responsibility with Mike Newton when the two swapped seats at 05:28. An impeccable pitstop as usual, and a smooth transition saw Mike swiftly into the groove.

While there may not have been much to comment on with regard to the MG’s serene progress, others were making things a little harder for themselves. The #33 Zytek, with Adrian Fernandez driving, went off again at the Dunlop Chicane, but it was more an inconvenience than a major delay, and with the car some way behind the MG, of little consequence to RML’s race plan – for the time being anyway.

Hour 15

Six in the morning, and the order in LMP2 had not changed for some while. The Binnie Lola retained the lead, 13th overall, from the Saulnier car in 17th. Third in class was the #32 Zytek, and then fourth for the RML MG Lola 28th overall. Fifth, and not a vast distance in arrears came the #33 Zytek, still far from out of this race.

A routine pitstop for the #31 class leader was followed seconds later by an error by Michael Vergers in the #32 Zytek, spinning out at the second Mulsanne chicane and then rejoining but losing five minutes in the process.

6:18 marked a heavy shunt for the #16 Pescarolo, but despite what looked like a severe impact, Collard rejoined almost instantly, and then headed back to the pitlane for repairs. It took the team a surprisingly short length of time to have the car going again, but several places were still lost. Mike was into the pits at roughly the same time, taking on fuel but nothing else, and then pressing on quickly for another consecutive stint.

The #33 Zytek was back in the garage by half-past having various body panels replaced – not sure where the damage was incurred, but it looked repairable. A few minutes later Mike was also back down the pitlane, and this wasn’t planned either, but the telemetry had revealed what looked like a low pressure warning on one of the tyres, and that could be suggestive of a slow puncture. To be on the safe side, Mike came back in on the next lap (about 6:38am) and the team replaced the questionable tyre, although no fault was found. Fortunately, it was a quick and trouble-free stop.

Next time around Mike overtook the garage-bound #17 Pescarolo for 27th; the LMP1 car slipping back through the order while the accident damage was made good. A quarter of an hour later Mike made up another place, passing the #97 GT2 Ferrari – a former class leader – for 26th overall. The car had taken a spin on oil just a short time before, and in doing so had damaged one of the radiators. The Ferrari would get going again, but eight to ten places behind its highest position as class leader.

Kurosawa came through with a new fastest lap of 3:40.395 for LMP2 at 06:53, and this was an indication of how quick the circuit was becoming. The LMP1 leaders had also been setting rapid times, typically in the high three twenty-sevens, but still quicker than most had achieved in qualifying.

Hour 16

The day seemed almost old, yet it was still only seven o’clock in the morning. In the backs of garages, around hospitality suites, and across the tables in the Media Centre, bodies were slumped, heads back or across arms, as the exhausted attempted to catch a few minutes’ sleep.

In the Barazi garage there was no time for sleep, as the #32 was still being attended to, but the chairs around the tyre-warmers at the rear of the RML garage were being well employed. For nearly ten hours the MG had hardly missed a beat, and any incidents had been very minor. It made a pleasant change for the mechanics.

At around ten-past the #32 Barazi Zytek rejoined the race. Mike, meanwhile, was feeling the pressures of nature, and radioed in to request that his stint be ended a little earlier than planned, perhaps by just a couple of laps (roughly ten minutes) so that he could deal with it. “It’s hard to cope with these kerbs when you’re bursting!” he said.

It was just on seven twenty when the next significant moment came in LMP2, and it involved Kurosawa in the #33 Barazi Zytek. He had gone straight on into then tyre wall at the right-angle Arnage Corner, and buried the front end in amongst the spent rubber. It took some time to extract the car, but when the front end was revealed, the extent of the damage could be assessed. It probably looked worse than it was, but with section of the bodywork now missing completely, a few minutes’ delay in the garage looked inevitable.

Two minutes later and the #25 MG Lola was burbling down the pitlane; Mike asking for “clear access to the bathroom!” As he rushed through to the back of the garage, Thomas Erdos was being strapped into the cockpit. He roared away after not much more than a minute. It had been an exemplary pitstop.

As Tommy headed off towards the Dunlop Curves and Tertre Rouge, the warning was relayed to him that the track was oily all the way through to the Mulsanne Corner, and to take it carefully until he’d assessed just how bad it was.

Closer to home, the #35 Saulnier Courage was being moved back into the garage again, and shortly afterwards Tommy effectively overtook the car as he drove down the pit straight between the grandstands. The MG’s trio of drivers had now placed a tentative foot on the bottom step of the podium. Phil passes on the good news to Tommy. Unfortunately, there’s no advance in overall position because Antonio Garcia in the Modena Aston Martin moved ahead during the pitstop, but Tommy’s laptimes suggest he’ll soon have the DB9 in his sights.

Just beyond the half hour the public address commentator suddenly went wild, and everyone started craning their necks to catch sight of a monitor that might explain his excitement. What they saw was an action replay of Dindo Capello the #2 Audi sliding sideways at full tilt through the right-hand approach to Indianapolis, being overtaken by his left rear wheel, and then ploughing heavily into the tyre wall. This was more than just the race leader, it was Tom Kristensen’s car, the R10 he shared with Allan McNish, it was the favourite to win, and here it was sagging like a damp tent and looking decidedly the worse for wear. Dindo was ushered away from the car very quickly by the marshals, which posed the question as to whether, by doing so, he had abandoned the car, and thereby forfeited any possibility of driving it back to the pitlane. It turned out to be academic. Once the car was extracted from the tyres it was soon evident that the R10 wouldn’t be going anywhere – a fact that prompted Dindo to give the errant car a thump, just in case it wasn’t already damaged enough.

That left the #1 Audi leading the race, with both Peugeots still running, as well as the Rollcentre and #16 Pescarolos.

Hour 17

Eight o’clock and all’s well . . . well, nearly all. The #41 Binnie Lola made a routine pitstop just after the hour, but radio communication between the RML garage and its driver had broken down. It didn’t appear to distract the Brazilian, since Tommy was still making up ground, passing the #99 Ferrari for 23rd overall just short of the pitboard order to “pit next lap” that he received at quarter past. Next time around he came down the pitlane, and the loose plug on his radio was swiftly fixed while the car was fuelled for another stint.

Now that it was working again, it was not long before Tommy was back on the radio to say that he was suffering from some severe vibration, especially through the steering. For about half an hour he lived with it, but it did start to get steadily worse. It wasn’t enough to prevent him passing two more cars for position, including the #93 Porsche, with Lars Erik Nielssen driving. A little later, a 08:50, the Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari pulled up on the last section of the Mulsanne Straight with a broken driveshaft. It would retire from the GT2 class lead.

Tim Mullen was aboard the red Ferrari when it died. He might have wished he was nearer Thomas Erdos, who was at the opposite end of the circuit about to pit to have the vibration dealt with. New front disks and ads did the trick – a task completed in a matter of about six or seven minutes. That’s not a rate you’ll get in the high street.

This clearly solved the problem, and Tommy promptly set a new fastest lap for the MG. It seemed a good way to round off the seventeenth hour.
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Hour 18

Having just set a new fastest lap, Tommy then built upon that by passing the #99 Ferrari for 22nd place. It was a move he’d practiced almost exactly an hour previously, but having stopped for pads and disks the Risi Competitzione 430 GT had got back in front. Twenty minutes later the MG exceeded the total number of laps completed by the “retired” Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari – the retirement is not official until the rolled doors come down at the front of the garage, so even though the car had not moved in ages, it was still considered to be a runner until demonstrably proven otherwise. That gave the MG 21st overall, and brought it to within one lap of the #59 Modena Aston Martin – a car it had also passed at least twice before.

A few minutes down the line and there was trouble in the air for the #32 Barazi Zytek – the one in the Gulf colours. It was down the pitlane and dragged backwards into the box, with the mechanics frantically starting to work on the rear end. There wasn’t a lot between the Zytek and the MG on the track, and it only took fifteen minutes (three laps of the track) for Tommy to pass the stricken car. Astonishingly, having started from the lowest possible position – last place overall at eight o’clock the previous evening - Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos had the worked their way back through the field until they were not only knocking on the door of the top twenty, but also occupying second place in LMP2.

Another fastest lap came at 9:40, with the MG crossing the line after 3:45.773. It was his last lap before heading for the pitlane to hand over to Mike. The swap took place at 09:49. It seemed an appropriate moment to issue another Press Release in the Media Centre, and various members of the team were approached to express their thoughts on how the race was developing. “The car has not been back in the box since it was fixed following Andy’s shunt,” said Adam Wiseberg. “We’ve only had one unscheduled stop since then, to replace the pads and disks. Other than that, the car has run faultlessly.”

Ray Mallock said it was “great to see the car going like clockwork at this time on a Sunday morning. Mike and Thomas have done a fabulous job to complete the race to this distance with only two drivers.”

“The car has been running so well,” said Mike Newton. “Our main challenge has been to see how best to manage the driving stints. Tommy and I shared the last twelve hours, and will have to continued to do so through to the finish, if that proves to be necessary.”

At which point it would be appropriate to provide an update on Andy Wallace following his accident. Andy suffered concussion as a result of the car’s heavy impact with the tyre wall at the entrance to the Porsche Curves yesterday. Instructed by the circuit’s medical centre to rest overnight, he has since been offered the option to drive again, if he feels up to it. This morning he is still a little bit groggy, so we will have to wait to see how he feels later in the day.

Having spent ten minutes or so preparing a press release it was coming up to ten to ten when the text was finished and ready to be authorised for distribution. Meeting in the team’s hospitality suite above the garage, it was more by chance that anyone was looking at the television when a shot of the MG was shown, heading down the Mulsanne, pursued by a cloud of white smoke. It wasn’t immediately obvious what was causing the smoke – it could have been a punctured tyre fouling on the bodywork, but somehow one just knew that it wasn’t as simple as that. Mike’s voice came over the team radio, confirming that he had a serious mechanical problem. “I’ll try and get it back if I can,” he said, but even if he did manage the ten kilometres or so back to the pits, would there be anything the team could do?

The painful journey took only five minutes in the end, and the MG grumbled to a smoky halt outside the garage at near-enough ten o’clock and was hauled backwards into the garage.

Apologies if this record is rambling a little, but having not yet taken a rest it's becoming a little hard to concentrate!

Hour 19

Mike clambered out of the cockpit as soon as the wheels stopped moving – perhaps even a moment or two before. The crew leaped swiftly into action, but those actions were markedly different from those witnessed fourteen or so hours previously. This time it appeared less frenzied. There wasn’t any damaged bodywork to rip away, no clear assignments to be carried out, no obvious repairs to be addressed. This was a more controlled process, with the first task being to identify the problem.

It seemed many had already arrived at an assumption, and it was not good, but they weren’t prepared to give up yet. Even as the lines of concern were etched across their faces, the engine cover was pulled away. Some stepped back to make room, while others – those directly responsible for the car’s engine – moved forwards, tools in hand, to start removing components from the rocker cover and above so that the AER could be accessed and examined. That amount of smoke, where it had come from, and the feedback from Mike, suggested only one thing, but other possibilities had to be checked too.

Where space allowed, cleaning paper was being used to mop up spent oil from the gearbox and rear suspension assemblies. If the car could be repaired, then it would have to go out again clean. Anyone not required elsewhere was filling it time with useful jobs. Around the engine, the call went out for oil. “Put some in and see what happens.” Unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be a leak, which would have been easily fixed. Instead, Jakey and others took it in turns to peer down into the very heart of the engine.

Using a special scope, the cylinders were inspected in succession. One deserved closer examination, and then a second opinion. The prognosis was not good, and the look of glum resignation on Jakey’s face said it all. There were questioning glances from others, until he slowly shook his head. The guys looked from one to another, and then, almost in unison, they started to drift away from the car. Some stepped back and just stared. Others moved off towards the back of the garage, to the truck, or into the tyre awning. For what must have been only a few seconds, some simply stood still and gazed, glassy eyed into space. Nothing had actually been said, but everyone knew that the MG would not be going out again.

It was not easy being a witness, and one’s heart went out to these men who had already given so much to keep the car in the race. Adam, perspiration still dripping of his nose and chin, had given his all, physically and mentally, and suddenly looked totally deflated. Paul too, the grime of hard work and commitment ingrained across his face, the paler imprint of his goggles left cleaner round his eyes, allowed his shoulders to slump for the first time in two days. Rick, cleaning his glasses for a moment, his hair ruffled, his smile gone, shook his head from side to side. Jakey – solid, dependable Jakey - marched, straight-backed as always, through to the truck. Volker, the new member of the front-line team but no less dedicated, stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest, and glared at the back of the car, perhaps willing things to be different. And then there was Phil Barker, moving from one man to the next, offering his thanks and appreciation for everything they’d done, but a team manager to the last. There was time for a wry grin, but it wasn’t enough to mask the enormous disappointment that he, and every other member of his crew, now felt. “Why couldn’t it have happened when we were fiftieth, not now that we’re back up to second,” he said. That, indeed, might have been so much fairer.

In moments the car stood alone. There was a suggestion that the shutter should come down, but not yet. For a while longer the garage would remain open to the pitlane, so that the crowds in the grandstands opposite could still see the red, white and blue MG, sitting proudly inside, the front panels splattered with flecks of rubber, dead insects, and the grime of nineteen hours' hard racing. Ultimately the roller door would clatter down to the floor, shutting off the light, and confirming to the world that RML’s hopes for a third consecutive class win at Le Mans were finally over. For now though, the world could wait and wonder.

As if to rub salt into the wound, the #32 Barazi Epsilon Zytek, with Karim Ojeh at the wheel, came whipping through the final element of the Ford Chicane, caught the outer kerb, and then spin wildly across the pit straight and crumped into the concrete wall. That left only two cars still running in the decimated LMP2 field, from a starting list of eleven. A podium was assured to anyone still moving, it was that simple. Ojeh, helped clear of the car, hunkered down behind the wall, his helmeted head in his hands, and wept. It was just after ten o’clock, and the race had entered its twentieth hour.
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Hour 20 to The Finish

The final hours proved to be an enormous anticlimax – and not simply because the RML MG Lola was no longer running. With only two cars left in the race for LMP2 glory, there wasn’t a lot to watch there. Even less so when both cars ended up in their garages. The #33 car was hauled in first, to have its radiators cleared of debris, and a starter motor problem addressed. It ended up being a lengthy delay. The Binnie Lola, never especially quick, slowed even more, and began to circulate with extreme lethargy, before pitting. With a lead of more than 20 laps there was no great need for the car to come out again. It was well inside the likely target for total number of laps covered (as a percentage of the winner’s) so it seemed sensible to rest the car, and the drivers, and not take unnecessary risks. The fact that it was also showing a reluctance to restart, down to an intermittent electrical fault, probably swayed the team’s decision.

For the majority of the final hours, there wasn’t a single LMP2 car on track. Had the MG still been running, a third consecutive class win would have been there for the taking. It was a bitter pill to swallow. In a strange reversal of fates, all but two of the GT1 cars were still in the chase, including both the Oreca-run but RML-designed Saleen S7-Rs.

Adding a further damper on the proceedings, the long-predicted rain finally arrived. At almost exactly one o’clock, the heavens let forth their deluge – and it was very generous indeed. For about an hour, the downpour was relentless. A rueful Emanuele Pirro was shown pulling pleading faces at the TV camera, before raising a rain-sodden note carrying the words ‘Safety Car?’ Others, including Hugh Chamberlain, were known to have submitted more direct requests to race control – the Chamberlain Synergy Lola #19 having been one of the walking wounded for the last quarter of the race, but still aiming for seventh in LMP1.

Then, at just after two o’clock, the teams get their way, and the safety car came out. It seemed a little pointless on two counts; the rain had eased somewhat, and there was only one “race” left – that for position (but not podium) in GT2, where professional Rob Bell was bearing down rapidly on Adrian Newey’s Ferrari. Perhaps Bell would have caught the F1 car designer, but perhaps not. In the end, it was somewhat academic, and desperately unexciting. Finally, the ACO must have realised that processing through clouds of spray was doing nothing for the reputation of the world’s greatest motor race, and the safety car was withdrawn. Racing, if you could call it that, resumed for the final ten minutes, but the 75th running of the 24 Hours still went out with a whimper, not a bang.

Both LMP2 cars did come out again at the end, the Binnie Lola with first-timer Chris Buncombe at the wheel, taking a win that the persistent and hard-working team probably deserved. It was also a fourth consecutive win for Lola, with Bill Binnie himself also a part of the victorious Intersport team in 1994. The second-placed Barazi Zytek limped around the track to take second. There was no third place.

Overall, it was glory once again for Audi. Despite making every effort, it seemed, to diminish their own chances, the solitary surviving R10 gave the German marque a seventh successive victory: Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner steering the #1 Audi to the chequered flag (Fifth Le Mans wins apiece for Pirro and Biela, incidentally). Peugeot’s fight faded almost into farce, with the #7 retired some time previously, and the #8 reduced to sitting out the final minutes in the Porsche Curves, waiting for the chequered flag and a chance to cross the line. A few years ago, this strategy was outlawed, and a minimum seven-minute last lap rule introduced. With the track awash, and seven-minute laps difficult for several cars, the French manufacturer took a calculated gamble that the ACO would overlook this discretion, if only once. They did, and darling of the French crowd, Le Mans-born Sebastien Bourdais brought the surviving 908 across the line for Peugeot and his co-drivers; Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy. Third step on the podium went to Henri Pescarolo’s trio of Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Romain Dumas.

GT1 was the success story of the 2007 Le Mans 24 Hours. Victory again after nearly five decades for Aston Martin, with all five DB9s making it to the end in an impressive display of reliability and flair. David Richards was delighted, and had every right to be. Prodrive can now hope to replicate success at this level in 2008, when they enter the heady world of Formula 1. For now, however, it was a win for the #009 Aston of Darren Turner, David Brabham and Rickard Rydell. Corvette, for so long dominant in GT1, had to be content with second place for their #63 squad of Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen. The gap was just one lap, and the question remains - if Marco Werner hadn't made that foolhardy lunge at Magnussen into Dunlop, would Aston have been celebrating so loudly? Perhaps not. It was Astons third and fourth, with the lead Saleen fifth.

No such reward for present day F1 contenders Spyker, who saw both their GT2 entries fall by the wayside, leaving victory to the IMSA Performance Porsche of Patrick Long, Raymond Narac and Richard Lietz – as much winners for being out of trouble and still quick at the end, as for being one of the best. At least their victory gave the Marseillaise an airing. It was also a rare success for Porsche in a year when Ferrari’s prancing horse has been supreme, the Risi Competitzione squad of Niclas Jonsson, Tracy Krohn and Colin Braun finishing second in the slime-green and blue 430 GT. The much-vaunted Autorlando 997, with the impressive Allan Simonsen leading Pierre Ehret and Lars Erik Nielsen to third place, completed the GT2 podium.
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Post Race

A press release published just before the end of the Le Mans 24 Hours (here) summed up the feeling in RML’s garage after the retirement of the #25 MG Lola EX264. It would be difficult to add to that now, and few within RML were especially willing to talk in the hours following the car’s untimely end. There are rarely words adequate to explain the feelings within a team that has worked so hard for such small reward. Time and again over recent years Mike Newton, Thomas Erdos and RML have performed to the heights, only to have a richly deserved win denied them by bad luck and misfortune.

One thinks back to the Spa 100 kilometers in 2006, lost through a simple but costly puncture – to the Nurburgring, where an unprecedented brake disk failure denied victory once again – to Istanbul at the start of last season, when a foolish move by another competitor, in a different class, cost the team their race. Most of all, one recalls the final event of 2006 at Jarama, when certain victory and the championship title was snatched from their grasp just moments from the end of the race. Once again, it is possible to look at a race, in this case the Le Mans 24 Hours 2007, and say, this was a race that RML should have won. It is all very well being good at what you do, and there’s no denying that RML is up there with the very best, but the motor racing record books don’t always record those that lead the way, only those that reach the finish first. There are no medals for valour in motorsport, no mentions in despatched (save here, perhaps), but if ever a team deserved recognition, it’s this one.

Last year the hard-working RML mechanics were rewarded, not only with a win at Le Mans, but also the ESCRA Award. This year they worked even harder – perhaps almost as relentlessly as they did in 2005 – but came away with nothing. Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true. They have their pride, which is rightly inexhaustible, and they have the admiration of those who matter – their peers, friends, families and colleagues.

The immediate future lies with Round 4 of the 2007 Le Mans Series, which takes place in just two weeks’ time at the Nurburgring in Germany. The car must be fully rebuilt between now and then, so there’s no rest for the exhausted engineers. Looking further ahead? One inescapable fact remains. The RML MG Lola EX264 may be three years old, but it is not an out-dated car. Even this year Lola has delivered essentially the same chassis to new customers, and the Huntingdon factory continues to offer support to its existing teams. While LMP1 may be moving towards the closed cockpit, and Lola launches its new contender in September this year, LMP2 remains Mike Newton’s preferred battlefield. Only time will tell if this was the MG’s last Le Mans.
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A high resolution gallery an be found here.