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Le Mans 24 Hours 2008
Test Weekend - May 31st - June 1st 2008

Testing, testing

RML completed a very satisfactory shakedown test at the Rockingham circuit a few days ago, not far from their Wellingborough base in Northamptonshire, so arrived at Le Mans for the official test weekend with a car that could head straight out on track and start running, but that wasn't exactly the plan.

Several days of atrocious weather had left the track very greasy, with heavy rain washing across a road that usually carries regular road traffic - heavy goods lorries, farm vehicles and mothers in people-carriers on the school run. With that kind of history, and no race traffic for almost a year, it would be some time before the surface could be exploited fully, so the team elected to hold Tommy back in the garage for the first fifteen minutes or so, allowing the keener drivers - those with minimum laps to complete, or new cars and components to test - to clean away some of the surface muck.

With the weather holding, at least for the time being, Tommy headed out at just gone quarter past nine to begin a scheduled installation period of three laps, and then back to the pits.

He gave a running commentary for his first lap, partly as a radio check, and reported back to the team as he progressed along the Mulsanne, through the two chicanes, and then around the Mulsanne Corner. He confirmed that the surface was still dirty, but most of the circuit was dry enough for slicks.

He completed the lap, and then pressed on for a scheduled three full installation laps.

Once back in the garage Tommy reported that certain areas of the track remained very slippery, and verging on the dangerous, and that under such circumstances he was not really in a position to learn much about the car's set-up. Unable to push hard, especially from the second Mulsanne chicane all the way through to the Porsche Curves, where the surface is especially greasy, there was little to be gained from the situation, and after a few minutes of discussion over the radio, Tommy climbed back out of the car. With only three laps completed, a best of 4:16.191 was hardly significant, although sixth quickest in LMP2.

It was actually a great relief to everyone to see Tommy out and driving at all. A little over twelve hours previously he'd been in Le Mans hospital having his right wrist x-rayed after taking a tumble down one of the steel staircases above the paddock. "I'd just warned Mike that the steps were slippery," he grinned, "and then next second, I was sliding down them on by backside!" In a reflex action, he'd flung out his arm to steady himself, and caught the heel of his right hand on the edge of the step. Luckily, the doctors suggested there was no serious damage, although he is now sporting a reinforced wrist strap in a fetching shade of sandy pink. There is a suspicion of a hairline fracture to one of the bones, but he's been given permission to continue driving, and should be fully fit again by race week.

Elsewhere, there had been few revelations at such an early stage. The two Porsches were quickest, with Verstappen 12th overall on 3:55.738, and Maassen 16th on 4:02.036. Third however, was a surprise, with Ben Devlin posting 4:08.883 in the Bruichladdich Radical. Fourth was Vergers, fifth Hughes and then Tommy's time in the MG. Yet to show with a representative time was the Speedy Sebah Lola, but even Pedro Lamy, fastest overall in the #8 Peugeot, could only manage 3:43.546 - a time that would only be considered tolerably good for an LMP2 front-runner had the conditions been better. The Racing Box Lucchini had stopped on track without setting a time after snapping a throttle cable.

Half way through the morning session and the MG had remained static in the garage for almost an hour - nothing to gain, the potential for a great deal to lose. Others were being less wary. Michael Vergers had wrung an impressive (for the conditions) 3:47.398 out of the #32 Barazi Zytek to stand not only as fastest in LMP2, but also fastest petrol-engined car overall, in 8th position. Fastest overall was Jacques Villeneuve in the #7 Peugeot, setting a 3:41 that matched Tommy's best fro last year's test day, when conditions had been nearly perfect. The former F1 World Champion (looking this year to add the Le Mans 24 Hours to his significant tally of titles) was ousted some little while later by Allan McNish, whose 3:37.011 suggested that there was still fight in the Audi R10.

With the clock ticking round towards eleven o'clock, Tommy clambered back into the MG and headed out to see if conditions had improved. The Brazilian wasn't sure, and when he discovered rain at Tetre Rouge on his out-lap and "slippery flags" at the first Mulsanne Chicane, he knew for certain. "We're not going to learn anything in this," he suggested. Phil agreed, and Tommy returned to the pitlane.

One driver making an impression was Paul Thomas in the Bruichladdich Radical. Paul is actually Race Director for the team, and also a hands-on mechanic, but with the team a driver short this weekend he stepped into the breach. He has the right licence, of course, and some SR8 experience, but in every other respect, Paul is a rookie. You'd not have known that to see him circulating faster than half a dozen LMP1 drivers, and posting respectable 4:18 laps in the Bruichladdich car.

By eleven there was a steady drizzle falling across most of the circuit, with heavier pockets to the far south, and times began to lag once more. The prediction was that we'd seen the best times of the day, and things could only get worse. That came true with 90 minutes of the morning period remaining, when the #99 JMB Ferrari went off heavily into the barriers at turn 100 (Arnage) and brought out the red flags, not long after the Lucchini had finally set a first time. The Speedy Sebah Lola had also clipped the barriers at the Playstation (second) Chicane, causing some damage to the car. Xavier Pompidou was able to return the car to the pits for repairs.

At 12:15 the session resumed, with the morning period scheduled to run for another three-quarters of an hour. During that time the weather steadily improved and, with the brightening skies came some quicker times - not radically so, but by the time the chequered flag came out to signify the end of the morning run, the fastest lap had dipped to 3:36.938, courtesy of Alex Premat in the #3 Audi. With the #2 Audi second quickest, that left Peugeots occupying third, fourth and fifth. Fastest petrol-engined entry was the #17 Pescarolo, with the #10 Charouz Lola Aston Martin a lowly sixteenth after losing much time with an oil leak.

LMP2 still had the Barazi Zytek fastest, 10th overall, with the leading Porsche, the #34 Van Merksteijn example, five seconds - and five places - behind. Having completed only four laps the RML MG's position, 42nd overall and 11th in class, might have appeared to represent a potential cause for concern, but not so. This was the team's choice and the sojourn in the garage was entirely voluntary.

Afternoon Session

The afternoon session got under way on time, and after more than an hour without rain, the track was in much better state, and times began to tumble quite quickly. Michael Verger's petrol-topping time in the Barazi was soon relegated to the history books, with a succession of quick times from the non-diesel LMP1 prototypes.

First improvement in LMP2 came from Jonny Kane, who closed on Verger's pre-lunch time with a 3:49.080, followed by Tommy himself, whose first truly representative lap was within a second of Kane's, and good enough for third in LMP2, for the while anyway.

Then, with only ten minutes gone, Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 Peugeot 908 HDi shattered the lap record with a lap of 3:22.222 that bettered last year's pole position time by almost exactly four seconds. The second Peugeot, the #9 driven by Franck Montagny, was four seconds behind, but still 9 seconds clear of the best time then being set by the #17 Pescarolo. Considering the condition of the track - still far from perfect - Sarrazin's time was hugely impressive, but was still probably going to earn him a dressing-down from the team management when he got back to the garage. Revealing that kind of pace on the test day could not have been in Peugeot's game plan for the weekend.

Further improvements in LMP2, with Verstappen moving to the top of the class with a 3:42, and then more quick times from Kane, Stuart Moseley (in the Radical, once again showing that the car's potential is still there) and John Nielsen - the latter being enough for second in LMP2. It was to prove the best pertiod of the afternoon, and established an order in the class that would remain unchallenged: Verstappen (3:42.191), Nielsen (3:43.736), Moseley (3:43.920), Kane (3:44.16) and Tommy Erdos (3:44.678).

The run was brought to a halt by the first red flag of the afternoon came at 14:25 when Tracy Krohn took to the wall at the Ford Chicane in the #83 Risi Competitzione Ferrari 430. The track was closed for nearly 20 minutes while the car was recovered, with confirmation later that the damage precluded any further running this weekend. Tracy Krohn was given a precautionary scan, but claimed to be "fine".

At ten to three, Marc Gene in the #7 Peugeot went off the track in the Porsche Curves and brought out the session's second extended red flag period. While the car was being recovered, and damage to the concrete wall made safe, a light drizzle began to fall again. When the pitlane reopened at 15:12, the organisers declared a "wet" track, but Mike wasn't greatly deterred. "You actually stay drier in an open-topped car than you do in a cockpit," explained Andy. "Stick a roof over your head, and for some reason, the rain always finds a way in, and you get soaked. Race a car like the MG, and the water just sweeps over your head. Provided you keep moving, you can actually stay quite dry."

Getting wet was not Mike's concern, however, and simply staying on the track was. With none of RML's drivers needing to prove anything today, Mike decided that discretion was most certainly the better part of valour, and at the end of his out-lap, declared that enough was enough, and with rain like this, he was coming back in again.

He was quick to climb out of the cokpit after the guys had trolleyed the car back into the garage, and with the heavens opening in ever greater degrees, the MG's day looked to have been run.

The rain did eventually ease, at about half-past four, but by that time the track was peppered by puddles of standing water, some of them large enough to cause even a car on full wets some serious concerns. More challenging still, the tramlines down the Mulsanne, caused by tens of thousands of heavy lorries trundling up and down towards Tours every month, were ribbons of standing water, just waiting to catch out anyone bold enough to try swapping lanes.

By five o'clock the circuit was bathed in bright sunshine, but the conditions on track remained poor. Apart from a handful of cars, some with hardly any times from earlier in the day, few were even on track, let alone improving their times. The consensus in the RML garage was that the MG wouldn't be going out again unless matters improved considerrably.

This left Andy Wallace contemplating a most unrewarding day, with no time in the car at all. Radio Le Mans' Graham Tyler popped into the garage to ask the former Le Mans winner a series of what were clearly very searching questions (right), and the interview was subsequently broadcast as part of RLM's test day coverage.

With half an hour of the day's last session remaining the third red flag of the afternoon marked a problem for Joey Foster in the #45 Embassy car - off at post 11, believed to be somewhere near Dunlop. This coincided with the return, yet again, of more rain, heavy along the Mulsanne, and significant elsewhere.