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Le Mans 24 Hours 2008
Scrutineering - Tuesday June 10th 2008

First Steps Satisfactorily Completed

RML successfully completed the first phase in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours with a faultless performance through the challenging chicanery of official scrutineering. Staged amid the leafy-edged surroundings of the Place des Jacobins in the centre of Le Mans, and with several thousand spectators in attendance, it was a noisy, congested and very hot afternoon for the members of the RML team.

The MG Lola EX265 was given a mid-afternoon slot in the busy two-day schedule, positioned between the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola Coupé and the #40 Quifel ASM open-topped Lola. Delivered to the square on a flatbed truck, the MG looked splendid, its bodywork polished and the colours bright in the strong sunshine. After two weeks of publicity, thanks to being featured on the official poster for the Parade des Pilotes, the distinctive colour scheme of the MG made the car instantly recognisable to the local population, and it soon drew an appreciative crowd.

The entire team had made the trip down to the middle of Le Mans, not only to assist with manhandling the car through the scrutineering process, but also to ensure that they could take their positions for the official team photograph. For the first hour or so it was a case of standing near the car and absorbing the atmosphere – and the heat. It seems as much a part of the tradition that scrutineering is staged under bright skies and on a swelteringly hot day. 2008 has been no exception.

While the attendant team members waited for their turn to push the car though to the first awning in the scrutineering process, the three drivers headed in towards the central reservation and the series of portacabins where they presented their licences for authentication. Race suits and helmets were also be examined and approved. It was something of a formality for Mike, Tommy and Andy, and all three were soon back out in the sunshine.

That left the best part of an hour for them to sit and roast in the baking heat while they waited for the car to complete its slow progress between the security fencing. It was an opportunity to speak with them, and a succession of journalists collared the RML drivers for words of wisdom.

This year will be Mike’s sixth Le Mans 24 Hours. What is his ambition this year? “I’m hoping to even-up the numbers. Over the last five years we’ve had three engine failures, and two class wins. Another win would balance things up nicely!”

We struggle sometimes to ask Andy questions that he hasn’t been asked a million times before – so today there will be no reminder of his win here with Jaguar in 1988, or the fact that he’s the only contemporary racing driver to have won all the endurance classics. Instead, here are some interesting – or perhaps not – snippets about one of sportscar racing's best known drivers . . . .

Contrary to reports once given within the pages of Autosport, Andy is not, and never has been, a ferret breeder. He is not even that keen on small furry animals, although he did once sport a very droopy Frank Zappa-esque moustache.

When in doubt, Andy will call someone he recognises, but can’t quite place, “John”. This stems from his period as a co-driver with Jan Lammers and the Racing for Holland team, when “all the Dutch guys in the team had first names I couldn’t pronounce, let alone remember, so we agreed that everyone was called John.” It’s a habit that has stuck.

Does Andy have any other interest, besides motor racing? Gardening perhaps? “Uh, no, certainly not gardening! I I just love going fast, in anything. I love driving in the rain, and I love going round roundabouts. I just love driving! I never break any speed limits, of course, but I do like going to Germany. Whenever I get a new car, I just have to take it to Germany, just to find out how fast it will go. Sliding is good too. You’ve never lived until you’ve gone sliding somewhere.” He does admit to having had one hobby, even if it lapsed several years ago. “I used to make model racing cars. I remember making a model of that wonderful slab-sided John Player Special car, and then my mum broke the whole of the front corner off it. She was probably trying to dust it, or something, but it’s still a cause of contention even today.”

What does he not like? “I can’t stand travelling. Actually, that’s not strictly true. It’s the airports I really hate. Thankfully, I’m not having to do so much flying this year, but when I was racing in the ALMS, Grand-Am, and over here in Europe, one weekend after the next, it was almost unbearable. It’s not so bad this year."

Has Andy had any direct input to the RML sportscar programme? It seems he has. At Andy’s request, a short fluorescent orange extension has been fitted to the MG’s indicator switch which makes it easier to find, especially in the dark. To quote Andy, “it makes you less likely to end up as the filling in an Audi-Peugeot sandwich.”

Having exhausted this somewhat random line of enquiry, it came as something of a relief when the call came through that the car had progressed from the initial examination of papers, through compliance with regulations, and had finally arrived at last stage in the process; the signing off of the paperwork. “The car went straight through without any problems at all, as normal,” said Phil Barker. “We’ve been here so many times now that we know the car has to be just right, first time. The ACO know us, and we know what they expect.”

With the stickers firmly applied to the side-pods of the car, the MG was now ready for the official photographs, although a further delay was imposed by an extended session for the three-car Audi team, occupying a slot ahead of the Speedy Sebah Lola. Finally, nearly three hours after they’d first arrived, the RML engineers, mechanics and team management made their way out onto the grey carpet to pose for the image that will be reproduced in all the official history books, from the Le Mans Annual to magazine articles and websites.

Throughout the afternoon the team had been handing out copies of the new HeroCard, published during the week since the test weekend. By the time the car was being reloaded onto the flatbed nearly 1000 had been given away, but with the three drivers now all in one place, a further opportunity to hand out – and autograph - the cards was taken. The enthusiasm of the autograph hunters is difficult to refuse, and it took more than half an hour for the trio to extract themselves from the scrum and head over towards the main stage.

There they were awaited by Bruno Vanderstick, the “Voice of Le Mans”, who performed a interview with Mike, Tommy and Andy that was broadcast live on Eurosport and simultaneously relayed across the public address. The RML squad shared the stage with the Speedy Racing Team Sebah Lola Coupé squad, with Xavier Pompidou doing most of the talking for the Swiss-designated team. Much of the discussion concentrated on the 50th Anniversary this year of Lola Cars, and how different it was to drive the new-generation coupés, and what the benefits might be of having a roof.

Having exhausted his questions for the Frenchman, Bruno then turned to the RML drivers. How did they feel about 2008 being Lola’s 50th Anniversary? Mike responded first, acknowledging that there was “a great tradition associated with Lola” and he was proud to share that connection, but while the MG EX265 was an excellent Lola chassis, there were a lot of other Lola chassis in the race this year, and that was not something to be trifled with. How did it feel to be featured on the official poster for the Grande Parade des Pilotes, and to be the first drivers to set off for the procession on Friday evening? “We have won the class here twice for Lola, and it feels good to be there in the lead for them again,” replied Mike.

With a gesture towards the Speedy Sebah drivers on his right, Bruno then suggested that the coupé was the “new generation” of Lola sportscar, and looking ahead to 2009, did the coupé not inspire him? Diplomatically, Mike suggested that, just for now, the team’s thoughts were focused on the challenge this week. “We like driving in the open air,” he added, “but the coupé is a very impressive package, and it is certainly a possibility we’ll have to consider.”

Tommy was then asked about the increased competition within LMP2, and in particular, the arrival of the Porsches. “I don’t think it will change much about the end result,” he said. “It also won’t change the way we race. At Le Mans, we race ourselves. If we’re still in contention when we get to the final hour or so, then we might start pushing, but up until that moment, we run our own race.” Tommy then conceded that “Porsche, Zytek, the Lola Coupé; they’ve all raised the bar this year” but, while the MG was based on a chassis that was nearly four years old now, RML was still capable of challenging the newer cars, and this was a “complement to the people at Lola”, who had originally designed the car. RML was still seen as the team to beat.

Finally, Bruno turned to Andy Wallace, observing that it as 20 years since he first won the Le Mans 24 Hours– an anniversary also shared by David Waldron, the “English voice” of the ACO, who first commentated here in 1988, the ear Andy won with TWR Jaguar. “It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago,” joked Andy. “In fact, it feels like only yesterday.” Was he pleased to be back? “I’m always happy to be here!”

What did Andy think about the team’s chances in LMP2? “All four classes are very competitive this year,” and no less so in LMP2. “We’ll drive as fast as we can, of course, stay out of the pits as much as possible, except for fuel and tyres, and just keep on going.” Given that strategy, there was every chance of a good result.

And with that, the team’s duties in the Place des Jacobins finally drew to a close. The drivers headed back towards the circuit at the end of the first day of their 2008 Le Mans campaign – hot, weary perhaps, but satisfied with a day’s work satisfactorily completed.

Please visit the high resolution gallery for images from Le Mans 2008