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Le Mans 24 Hours 2007
Wednesday - First Qualifying Day. June 14th 2007

First "Daylight" Session

The pitlane opened with a bellow, as the #17 Pescarolo, the #13 Courage and one of the GT1 Corvettes roared away from the end of the pitlane, having stood there waiting for the green light for several minutes.

Thomas Erdos was first out in the RML MG, and as usual, completed a single “installation” lap before coming straight back in again to have the systems checked. Others pressed on to complete a series of early flying laps, including Stuart Moseley in the Bruichladdich Radical, who came through as the first car to set a real time. His lap of 3:49.520 took the orange LMP2 prototype straight to the top of the screens . . . for about three seconds. He was followed through by a string of LMP1 cars. Tom Kristensen, only confirmed as racing for Audi yesterday, proved his fitness by posting a first lap of 3:35.476. That took Audi #2 to the top of the chart, but soon enough the Peugeots were into their swing, with Sarrazin (#8) and Minassican (#7) both demoting Kristensen, and setting times at least a second quicker.

Within 20 minutes the board was starting to establish the expected colour scheme. Red markers for the LMP1 cars filled the top ten or eleven places, with Warren Hughes in the ASM Quifel Lola topping LMP2 (bright pink!) with a best of 3:48.492. Fastest GT1 (blue) was Ayari in the #55 Oreca Saleen, 20th overall. Heading the GT2 times (lime green) was Patrick Long in the #76 Imsa Performance Porsche.

Throughout this period there had been no further sign of the MG, and it transpired that Tommy had encountered some minor issues during his out-lap. Initial rumours that this was related to the paddle-shift gearchange proved to be unfounded. Instead, a front-end imbalance was the culprit, and he returned to the pitlane to have that attended to. It proved to be one of those niggly little problems that was difficult to trace. The delay put the team a little behind schedule, but with the weather holding well, and the session only forty minutes old, it was only a minor inconvenience. “We’ll just press on, and do what we usually do,” said Phil Barker. RML is well known for its calm and rational approach to Le Mans qualifying. The target is always the twenty-four hour race that starts on Saturday afternoon. If a fast qualifying lap comes there way, all well and good, but there’s rarely a deliberate effort to claim pole.

Photo by David Stephens

By the time Tommy headed back out again for a second installation lap, the best in LMP2 had fallen to 3:48.173 by the Binnie Motorsport Lola #31, with Allen Timpany setting the time. Warren’s time in the ASM Lola remained second quickest, with Karim Ojeh rising to third in the Barazi Zytek on 3:48.925. For Tommy, however, the frustration continued. With the fault still troubling him he returned to the garage. Andy Wallace, interviewed on Radio Le Mans, suggested that it was a tactic for “giving everyone else a head start”.

With five minutes over the hour completed, Marco Apicella in the #53 Lamborghini went off at the Playstation Chicane on the Mulsanne. It was a major accident, combining heavy impact and fire. The car was flung back onto the track after dislodging part of the tyrewall, where it burst into flames. The marshals quickly had the fire under control, but the #53 Murcielago was left stranded directly across the racing line, with debris littering the circuit and Apicella still trapped inside. The red flags were instantly shown, but not before several marshals had risked their lives to help the stricken Lambourghini. It took more than half an hour to extract Apicella safely from the car. There is no news as yet regarding his condition. The car, however, is evidently damaged beyond immediate repair.

With the light fading, and heavy rain visible in the distance, there was some urgency in the pitlane to resume the session, but work had not yet been completed at the Playstation Chicane. Getting Apicella safely out of the Lambourghini had been the priority, followed by removing the remains of the car, but that still left the damaged tyre wall to be repaired. Even so, a queue began to form in the pitlane, and Phil Barker was eager to get Tommy out and near the front “before there are thirty cars in front of him!”

Photo by Robin ThompsonJust as the pitlane opened, the heavens did too. Heavy rain started to deluge sections of the circuit, particularly around Indianapolis and the end of the Mulsanne. RML was one of several teams to send mechanics running down the pitlane to recover their early-queuing cars. “It’s an absolute monsoon!” confirmed Phil Barker. The MG was dragged back into the garage and fitted with wet-weather tyres.

Meanwhile, the track finally reopened, concurrent with the announcement that the session would be extended by fifteen minutes. Thomas Erdos headed out at just after nine, with perhaps time enough for just two laps. He completed his first, commenting that the conditions on the far side of the track, from the Mulsanne through to the start of the Porsche Curves, was far too wet to attempt any serious running. As if in confirmation, the Kruse Courage straight-lined the Ford Chicane, damaging the rear splitter and elements of the suspension, and easing to a halt at the end of the pitlane.

At quarter-past nine Daniel Poissenot climbed to the top of the gantry to wave the chequered flag, signalling the end of the session. The period concluded with the #1 Audi R10 recording the fastest time overall with a best of 3:38.301. Second was the #8 Peugeot, just over a second adrift. Third was the #3 Audi. In LMP2, top time came just before the red flag from Adrian Fernandez in the #33 Zytek, with Timpany’s time in the Binnie Lola still good enough for second, with Warren Hughes third. Tommy recorded only one timed lap, and at 5:12.190.

Back in the garage, there was a chance to catch up with the drivers, and also speak to Phil Barker. Had there been a paddle shift problem? "No. We purposely sent Tommy out on the (manual) gearlever, simply to check that it was all working correctly," said Phil Barker. "However, he complained of a front-end imbalance. It may have been damper related, but it is now fixed. That has put us a little behind schedule, but there's a long way to go still, and we can hope to catch up." Tommy admitted that the sensation had been "very strange. The moment I went out I knew it was wrong. It's fine now, but with the rain, there's no way I could do a good time. Even though it's stopped raining now, the damp will stay on the track for some time, and we won't be able to do much until it clears. If it gets any wetter, and then we have rain again tomorrow, we'll be starting from the back of the grid."

The latest news on Apicella is that he was conscious leaving the scene, and was able to wave from the back of the medical vehicles he was driven away..

Second "Night" Session

It was completely dark by the time the second of the Wednesday sessions got under way, with the start delayed by ten minutes to begin at 10:10. During the break, the MG EX264 was fitted with its central lighting pod, in anticipation of the darker second period.

The RML plan was simply – at this stage – to get all three drivers qualified with their “night” laps. All drivers must complete a minimum of three laps in the dark, and this can be achieved by completing an out-lap, a full flying lap, and then coming back to the pitlane a the end of the third in-lap. Tommy was able to complete his laps without incident. “It’s very, very damp,” he said, “especially braking for the first chicane, and all the way through to the Porsche Curves.” He also warned his co-drivers of a change to the circuit since the test day. One of our website photos shows Mike Newton straddling a white line on the run down from the Dunlop Bridge. That is now not possible, or at least, ill-advised! “They’ve made a change there and introduced kerbs through the fast Esses,” said Erdos. “It stops anyone cutting the corner.”

Phil Barker did query whether or not Tommy believed full wet-weather tyres might be necessary, but the Brazilian thought not. “The track is drying a little bit now, and the intermediates are fine – you just have to be careful,” he replied. Tommy’s fastest time, under less than ideal conditions, was 4:27.848, but with everyone else having had the benefit of running in the dry, that still left the car 53rd overall.

Photo by David StephensTommy completed his requisite three laps, with just the one flying lap in the middle, and then came into the pits to hand over the MG to Mike Newton. The car was only stationery for a few moments, while the drivers swapped places, and then Mike was blatting down the pitlane once again. It was just before half-ten.

Hopes that Mike would be allowed to complete his three laps untroubled were dashed before he’d even done the first, when one of the LMP1 cars (believed to be the Audi-powered Swiss Spirit Lola) went off just before the new Tertre Rouge corner, and brought out the red flags again. It was by no means as serious an incident as that which befell Apicella, but it still brought the session to a temporary halt. Mike sat patiently in the car while the track was cleared, and then went out and completed his three laps without further problem.

That left only Andy needing to satisfy the three-lap requirement, and at just before eleven o’clock, he headed out into the darkness. His first lap went well, and he was part way through his middle flying” lap when he suddenly radioed in to complain of a return of the imbalance that had previously troubled Tommy. “The car was absolutely fine for a whole lap, but then I tried to turn, and there was a big jump in the steering,” he said. He brought the car safely back to the garage, where the team began their attempt to root out the cause.

Out on the pitlane, the Radio Le Mans runners were heading Andy’s way. What was the problem? Andy confirmed the steering issue, suggesting that “as long as these problems arise today, and not in the race, it’s no real issue.” Having then had it suggested that the problem was the result of something he’d done, he insisted “No! It happened first while Tommy was in the car,” although he was quick to counter any interpretation that it was Tommy’s fault either. Andy was, however, confident that it would soon be fixed. “These boys are seasoned professionals, and they’ll soon have it sorted out.”

With twenty minutes to go the #32 Barazi Zytek went off by the Ford Chicane, and then three minutes later, there’s a gasp from the crowd as the timing screen suddenly shows a new fastest lap overall. Despite the conditions not being as good as earlier, Stephane Sarrazin posts a new provisional pole of 3:27.029 in the #8 Peugeot 908.

This was as good as red rag to the Audi drivers, and McNish was in the #2 R10 at the time. He responded almost immediately, with a 3:27.117. A little over five minutes of the first day’s qualifying remained, and it was suddenly getting very interesting . . . not least in the RML garage, where the team was re-fitting the bodywork in anticipation of sending Andy Wallace back onto the track. After a brief stutter and a re-start (left), he was heading off into the darkness. Inside the garage, eyes were turning to the screens once again – on the one hand, to watch for Andy as he came through, but also to witness the drama unfolding in LMP1. McNish ad upped the ante again, with a new provisional pole of 3:26.915; the first sub-twenty-seven.

Out on the gantry, the chequered flag was being unfurled in readiness of the midnight hour. Andy was on his first flying lap, and moments after the black and white flag fluttered above the track, he swept through in a time of 3:49.217. There was a muffled cheer from the RML crew, and “Good effort. Really well done!” from Thomas Erdos. The cheer that then erupted from the crowds in the grandstands might have been in Andy’s honour, but was more probably in response to Stephan Sarrazin’s remarkable last-lap stunner; 3:26.344 had eclipsed the Audi best by half a second. It was dark, the track was damp, and that was incredible.

In its own way, so was the lap from Andy Wallace. It later transpired that he’d been on course for a 3:47, and a potential third or fourth in class, before coming up behind a slow-moving car being white flagged through the Porsche Curves. That cost him the two seconds. “The steering’s fine now, but it was all a little bit on the slippy side,” said Wallace. “I was rather nervous going through the first few corners, where it was still wet, but it feels so good now!”

The sense of relief was almost tangible in the RML camp. “It’s been a frustrating evening, with all these teething problems, and I’m just glad it’s all behind us now,” said Mike Newton. “The conditions out there weren’t exactly terrible, but they weren’t very nice either.” He also explained why he and Tommy had been able to complete their three laps without encountering the steering problem. “It appears that the issue only manifested itself when the system was under load. While Tommy and I were out, there was still very little grip. Once the track had started to dry out, and Andy was put on slicks, those loads built up again, and then the steering problem was revealed again.”

Tommy was also pleased to have resolved the problem. “I’m happy that we’ve found the cause,” he said. “The worst thing is having a problem and you can’t find what’s making it happen. It was unfortunate that Andy had the problem, but fortunate in other ways, because it allowed us to isolate the problem, and fix it. All we need now is a small dry window tomorrow and we can, perhaps, improve a little.”

“Andy did a superb job,” smiled the Brazilian, with evident sincerity. “He’d had no time to come to terms with the car before he was asked to go for a quick lap on slicks, on a damp track. To do a flying lap like that was truly excellent. Andy really showed his class. That was stunning.”

Adam Wiseberg had a broad smile of relief across his face. “I’m truly delighted with Andy’s efforts. That was a tremendous lap, particularly considering he had no time in the car at all until then. It’s good to know that, whatever happens tomorrow, we’re ahead of the GT1s. Hopefully, that’s all of the little niggles out of the way.”

Phil Barker’s face also held a smile, perhaps for the first time all day. “The major problem all evening has been with the steering. Tommy complained of a vagueness, and we checked the dampers, and when the problem didn’t recur, we hoped it was fixed. Then Andy went out on the drying track and the issue returned. We discovered some movement in the steering rack, which we were able to find, and fix, second time around. That allowed Andy to go out and set a forty-nine, which was an excellent result over one timed lap.” Phil was clearly cheered by the thought that the car was now nearer to its correct position on the grid. “On the bright side, we have all three drivers qualified, and Andy’s lap is within the 110%, so all in all, a satisfactory outcome. It was good to find the problem today, and not carry it forward into the race, so a bitter-sweet taste.”

The weather forecast for Thursday is no better, and probably worse, than it had been for Wednesday. Several cars remain with unrepresentative times, but overall, the segregation through the grid is as expected. If it turns out dry, we may see some improvements. Will those come from Audi? Last year’s pole time has already been shattered, but the belief is that there’s more yet to come.

Top LMP2 Times (Wednesday)

Pos No. Overall Team Driver Car
15 Barazi Epsilon Adrian Fernandez Zytek 07S LMP1
17 Quifel ASM Miguel de Castro Lola B05/40 AER
18 Binnie Motorsports Allan Timpany Lola B05/40 Zytek
19 Bruichladdich Radical Robin Liddell Radical SR9
20 Barazi Epsilon Michael Vergers Zytek 07S LMP1
21 RML Andy Wallace MG Lola EX264
22 Saulnier Racing Bruce Jouanny Courage LC75
25 Pierre Bruneau Marc Rostan Pilbeam MP93
28 Kruse Motorsport Norbert Siedler Pescarolo C60 Judd
36 Noel Del Bello Vitaly Petrov Courage LC75
54 T2M Motorsport Yamagishi Dome Mader S101

A high resolution gallery is now posted.

Track photos this page courtesy of David Stephens (Studio 21) and Robin Thompson (Art-Racing)