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From the Archives - RML Team News
Spa 24 Hours, July 30th/31st 2005. Issued August 2nd 2005

Saleen Reunion!

It was all a case of déja vu for Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton when the two RML co-drivers headed out to Belgium to be reunited with the Saleen S7-R that they campaigned in last year’s FIA GT Championship. This was to be a one-off appearance in the 2005 season’s GT championship to take part in the Spa 24 Hours; widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest endurance races on the GT calendar.

In 2005 the Saleens have been campaigned by Graham Nash Motorsport in the FIA GT Championship, so the reunion was not just one of car, but also of team principal, certainly as far as Tommy was concerned. Throughout the nineteen-nineties Tommy was most closely associated with the Marcos marque, having raced LM600s for Team Marcos at Le Mans and in the British GT Championship in 1995, and Graham Nash had managed not only the factory squad, but also his own team of Marcos LM600s through to 2000. On this occasion, however, the car had been sent over to RML’s Wellingborough workshops just ten days before the race for a quick re-build – as much as time would allow anyway – and Phil Barker, Team Manager at RML, would oversee the Saleen for Spa.

In the end, it turned out to be something of a triumph for the team. The Saleen has been under intense pressure this season, with new cars entering the competition from Maserati and Aston Martin, and it struggled last year to remain competitive with the Ferrari 550s. Draconian implementation of the regulations has stripped the Saleen of its outright pace, and attempts to slow the car down further by additional restraints on the car’s aerodynamics left the RML-designed car hard pressed to remain on equal terms, on either side of the Atlantic. As a result, few held out much hope for the GNM/RML squad, despite driver strength emboldened by the arrival of Michael Mallock (son of Ray Mallock, founder of RML) and former Touring Car ace Phil Bennett. Early signs tended to confirm that the car would be off the pace, with Tommy only able to manage twelfth or fourteenth quickest in free practice. A Herculean effort in qualifying, however, saw the #8 car just hit the top ten, with a best of 2:19.480 from the Brazilian to outpace four of the other GT1 runners. It was still five seconds off pole however – such are the strides being made in performance this year by the newer machines.

So Erdos would take Saturday’s start from the fifth row, and a heavy shower fifteen minutes before the start would ensure an entertaining opening few laps for the Saleen. Spa’s weather is notoriously fickle, and rain one moment can change to bright sunshine the next. Teams took a gamble on the grid, with some opting for intermediate tyres, while others decided the clouds looked heavy enough to warrant full wets. RML was one such squad, kitting the Saleen with full-tread Michelins, and it turned out to be a wise move, at least for the first forty minutes.

At four on the Saturday afternoon the grid of thirty-seven cars powered through Eau Rouge amid rooster-tails of spray, only the lead Maserati able to see the track ahead clearly. Erdos, however, was in his element. Over the course of the next six laps he made up as many places, and within quarter of an hour was running third overall. It was an enormously impressive beginning, with the combination of the Saleen’s sure-footed Michelins and the Erdos flair making the most of the treacherous conditions. “It was pretty horrid,” grinned Erdos later. “You couldn’t see a great deal, so with nine cars ahead of me the spray was pretty horrendous. Getting through the first few corners was the most difficult part. There’s always the danger of approaching Les Combes on the first lap, when the spray’s so thick, and you – or someone else – misses the braking point. We also had no feel for the track, or how it would react. Under those circumstances people go for different braking points, and it becomes very easy for people to run into you. We were lucky!”

Out at the very front, the two Aston Martins, also on wets, were pulling away at an awesome pace. Once Erdos had moved ahead of everyone else bar these two, the gap calmed down, but so did the rain. “I was playing it conservative, and ensuring nothing would happen so early in the race,” insisted the Brazilian. “Things had settled down by then. I got a feel for the circuit and the grip that was available. Immediately I could sense that the car was pretty good, and better than those around me. We’d decided early on that we’d set the car up to accommodate wet conditions – the forecast had been for rain – and as it turned out, the car was fantastic in the wet. The Michelin tyres were brilliant. They were responsible for the pace we were able to maintain under those conditions, and even after that we were double-stinting them all the way.”

Half an hour into the race, however, and the rain began to ease to a light drizzle, and then stopped completely. The track was awash, but a dryer line steadily began to develop. “We’d had a good run up to P3,” acknowledged Erdos. “We were running well there until the track started to dry out. We were on full wets, and they’d been perfect for the conditions at the start, but many of the others were on intermediates. The track suddenly started to dry up pretty quickly, but I started losing pace. Those on intermediates began to go quicker, and several cars came back passed me.”

In danger of losing all the ground he’d made up, Erdos pitted before the end of the first hour, taking on fuel and slick tyres. Others were also pitting early, so it was hard to determine exactly who was where, but RML timed it well, and Erdos started his second stint in seventh place. Conversely, the Aston squad stayed out too long, and their thirty-second lead was switched to a similar deficit. Timing is everything.

After such an excellent opening, the team settled down to a steady pace. Knowing that outright pace was against them, the decision had been to go for steady consistency and hope for a reliable run to the finish. “After that promising start, it was really just a case of trying to stay out of trouble for the rest of the race,” conceded Erdos, and for the next twelve to fourteen hours, that’s exactly what they did. Almost throughout this period the car ran faultlessly, and hovered just outside the top ten before breaking back in again at the nine-hour mark. When the race reached its midway point, the RML/GNM Saleen stood in a very respectable eighth place, and looking good. “It was all going very smoothly,” admitted Tommy. “The car had run reliably, and we’d all maintained a good, sensible pace, with no heroics, and no incidents. I think only Michael had slight contact with one Porsche, but apart from that, we went through without touching anything.” Fifteen hours under the belt, and the car was standing seventh. As one reporter said at the time, “The RML Saleen has been a paragon of reliability with an all but trouble free run thus far. Its progress is almost boringly, predictably, regular but hugely impressive for all that.”

The first sign of anything likely to thwart this stately progress came part-way into the eighteenth hour of the race. After beating with metronomic regularity for such a long time, the V8 suddenly fluttered and started making unpleasant noises. The car was wheeled backwards into the garage, where a broken rocker arm was swiftly diagnosed. Although not an easy fix, it was still completed in less than forty minutes, but the result was still a slump down the order to twelfth. It was not the end, however, but the beginning of a series of engine woes that would hobble the car from time to time for the rest of the race – but at least there was a “rest of the race”! Many other entries had already fallen by the wayside, but the Saleen plugged on. “All our problems turned out to be engine related,” shrugged Erdos. “The first was the valve rocker, then a rod broke, or a related bearing failed, but they all cost us time.”

In the final hours it became clear that the engine was feeling very delicate indeed. Although Erdos did manage to set a fastest lap for the car just before midday, the pace was eased back considerably over the final two hours, with the Saleen’s exhaust note starting to sound particularly rough. All four drivers took it in turns to nurse the ailing V8 towards the twenty-four hour target, with Erdos strapped back into the cockpit for the final stint. In the main, after the opening half hour, the race had remained pretty dry throughout – something of a record for Spa – but, with little over an hour remaining, the Ardennes climate was about to be re-imposed with a vengeance.

The Brazilian was back in the car for the run to the flag. “If it had stayed dry Mike would probably have taken the finish, but the conditions became quite appalling. It was impossible to see anything at all. The wipers simply couldn’t cope! They were by far the worst conditions of the entire race.” One or two of the squads actually pulled into the pitlane to ride out the storm, including the Astons, but Erdos ploughed on. Despite its problems, the car had crept back up to eleventh place, and nobody wanted to lose any of those hard-won places. “I remember thinking, with about seventeen minutes to go and the conditions were absolutely appalling, why couldn’t they have finished the race then? It was extremely dangerous, and there was nothing to be gained. We were going about 40 mph at the top of Eau Rouge, and even then having ‘moments’. Nobody could cope with the amount of water coming down the track.”

It very nearly ended in disaster on the very last lap. Unbeknown to Tommy, or the Corvette he was following, the driver in the winning Maserati had actually drawn up nearly to a halt as he went past his team on the pitwall, but with so much spray and heavy rain, it was impossible to see. As Thomas came out of La Source for the last time, intending to power across the line to take the chequered flag, he suddenly discovered a stationery Vitaphone MC12 in the middle of the track! “The Corvette made it worse!” insisted the shocked Erdos. “He slammed his brakes on, and the Maserati was going so very slowly that we very nearly both collected him. I just managed to thread through the gap, but it could have been very embarrassing!”

The RML Saleen had finished the race, much against the odds. What’s more, it would be classified as tenth, making this the best result for a Saleen in a 24 Hour endurance race for well over a year. “It’s a great result,” smiled Tommy. “We’re all very happy with that. A finish, and almost trouble-free. That’s a very respectable result for us, coming into the middle of a competition, with no testing and very little time to prepare. To be running as high as P3, well, I think that was great.” There was universal praise for the squad. “I think we all went well,” suggested Erdos. “Michael drove some great stints, and Phil was fantastic, and it felt good to be driving a Saleen again with Mike. We all really gelled, and worked well together. As for the mechanics and the engineers, I can hardly say enough about them. They’d only had the car for one week in the workshop, so all credit to them for such an excellent job of preparation. They did an incredible job.”

Not a lot had been made of the outing ahead of the event itself, with the team remaining quiet about their plans right up until the last minute. In the end, it was a highly creditable effort and demonstrated that the Saleen, given a slight performance break by the organisers, could still be a potent force in GT racing. Having been penalised over successive seasons for the car’s early success, it now deserves to be given another chance to compete against the new crop of supercars. If it happens, it’s unlikely to be with Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton. Their next challenge is the Silverstone round of the LMES, when they’ll be back in the RML MG Lola EX264.

This report was originally prepared and posted on All photographs by Marcus Potts/CMC