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Autosport International 2008
RML AD Group at Autosport International. Issued January 11th 2008

Thursday at Autosport International ~ Team Review

It was a hectic opening day at the NEC for the men and women from RML AD Group.

On the one hand, Phil Barker was there early to ensure that all was well with the two cars his workshop crew had prepared for display – the MG Lola EX257 to grace the stand of the British Motorsport Marshals Club, of which Mike Newton is a longstanding member and supporter, and Alain Menu’s WTCC Chevrolet Lacetti, which gleamed with appropriate gloss on the Autoglym stand. There were announcements to make on both counts, and much to-ing and fro-ing between the stand, the Autosport main stage and the Silverstone/Radio Le Mans broadcast studio – not forgetting hundreds of other visitors to meet, drivers to speak with, journalists to placate, and exhibits to admire.

With no fixed schedule for the first announcement, the initial priority was to reveal the RML AD Group driver line-up for the 2008 sportscar programme, with Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos extending their partnership into a sixth year, and with Andy Wallace stepping forward to share the MG Lola once again for the Le Mans 24 Hours in June. (See item here). With Tommy’s arrival delayed, this announcement had to be postponed until 1:00pm, when all three drivers took to the Radio Le Mans stage for an in-depth interview.

“We’ve retained the same line-up as last year,” confirmed Mike Newton. “I’m delighted that Tommy will be sharing the car with me for the Le Mans Series, and then for the Le Mans 24 Hours we have Andy joining us again.” He then revealed that the team was “close to finalising a deal for a new engine” with Shanghai Automotive Company, who recently acquired the MG brand from Nanjing Automotive (see news item here). Full details will be published shortly, but as Mike stated in his interview, the arrangement will see SAIC aiding the development of a new AER engine loosely based upon the XP-20 unit that powered the original works MGs in 2001. Since then the engine has undergone successive years of rigorous development, appearing as the AER PO7 in the EX264 and taking RML to a class victory at Le Mans in 2006.

To be designated the XP-21, the new engine is a genuine evolution of the first fruits of collaboration between MG and AER, and a fitting powerplant for what will be a much-revised MG Lola when RML debuts the 2008 car in a few month’s time. Extensive and on-going work by both RML and Lola during the closed season has meant that the car will be sufficiently altered to warrant a new name. “It will be re-homologated,” admitted Mike, “and the new designation will be MG Lola EX265. The MG road cars are in production again now,” he continued. “MG is back, and we’re properly supported.” Having flown the flag for MG since late 2003, maintaining the marque’s motorsport pedigree at the highest levels with wins at Le Mans and a major international series title in 2007, it obviously feels good to know that MG’s current owners appreciate the team’s efforts.

Moving on to discussions about the season ahead, Tommy admitted that the LMP2 class was “getting stronger and stronger” with every year, and that 2008 looked likely to be the toughest yet. One reason for that would be the arrival in Europe of the Porsche RS Spyder, with at least three teams are expected to run them in the Le Mans Series. Andy Wallace, after a season with Dyson in 2007, is familiar with the RS Spyder. “It’s a great car,” he admitted, “but Le Mans (where he may face the Spyder’s challenge) is a very different deal. Le Mans is long, and the Spyder does better on tight, twisty tracks.” The balance of circuits on the Le Mans Series calendar this year is pretty even, however, but the Porsches still look likely to face more of those high-speed low-downforce conditions in Europe than they have done to date in America.

When quizzed about the apparent fragility of LMP2, Mike was quick to point out that the EX264 had finished 8th overall in the 2006 24 Hours, and that the car’s performance last season demonstrated “no lack of strength!” It had, after all, endured a horrifying high-speed crash, and yet went on after repairs to last a further 15 hours.

Andy was clearly delighted to be back with the same squad for a third successive year. “These guys always make me feel so welcome!” he grinned. Fortunately, his own commitments this year mean he will also be able to spend more time preparing for his role with RML. “For the first time I will be able to take part in the official Paul Ricard test,” he suggested. “It will be good to get some extended running in the car before we arrive at Le Mans.” The test is scheduled for March 2nd-3rd, ahead of the opening round of the Le Mans Series in Barcelona on April 6th.

Reverting to the topic of the coming season, Tommy then defended the team’s prospects by pointing out that the team’s two wins in 2007 (at Spa, when the MG had finished third overall, and then at the Nurburgring) had come “against a full, competitive field,” and had demonstrated that the MG, although at that stage two years old, was still setting the standard that others were having to beat. “Reliability is always an issue,” he added, but RML has the experience and understanding to get the best out of any car in their care. “The class does look very healthy this year,” he said, but insisted it was too early to suggest they faced an insurmountable task.

What were Mike’s thoughts on Brazil? There was a wry smile from the CEO of AD Group, shared by a shake of the head and a grin from Thomas Erdos. “The team’s position is somewhat mixed,” conceded Mike. “Brazil is Tommy’s home, but Brazil doesn’t fit in with our marketing strategy.” Perhaps that, and the fact that the title had been all-but won in September last year, helped to persuade the team that a trip to Interlagos was not value for money in 2007, but with the venue not ruled out for 2008, and every likelihood that the rules will be adjusted to deter teams from skipping rounds, Brazil may be a definite away-fixture this season.

Countering the threat of possible sanctions against those who elect to miss long-distance events is the hope that 2008 will see the series organisers making greater efforts to render the logistics more palatable. Additional promotion to draw in the crowds would also be welcomed. “The coverage from Motors TV is excellent,” suggested Mike, but there was no denying that everyone would appreciate bigger crowds. It may be a question of how endurance racing is perceived. “Some of our guests who’ve never been to a six-hour race before assume it’s going to be boring,” he said. “Then they’re glued to the screens for the entire race!” He explained how a small incident could cost valuable time, but provided the race was still in its early stages, there was the added excitement of watching a team claw its way back into contention.

Tommy then explained that his role had changed during the years that he had been racing with Mike, and that the preparation of the car was no longer entirely down to him. Praising Mike’s talents as a driver, he went on to say that “it’s not just me setting up the car these days. It’s very much a team effort, and Mike’s contribution is enormous.” Mike’s understanding of the technical aspects of racecar preparation is extensive and his input is hugely valuable. “You never win a race on your own,” added Andy Wallace, picking up the ‘team’ theme. “You have to go into an endurance race with that in mind.”

The interview then went into various set-up related discussions, touching upon the changeable weather conditions at Le Mans in 2007, the challenges of driving at night, and the enormous speed differentials between classes, although equally, the difficulty that LMP2 cars face in overtaking GT1 cars on the straights. This topic, in particular, bears relevance to the announcement also made at Autosport International on Thursday that the Aston Martin V12, employed in last year’s GT1 winning DBR9s, has now been developed into an LMP1 engine, and will power the Charouz Lola LMP1 this year.

The interview concluded with final thoughts on the forthcoming Le Mans Series season. “We’re still aiming for class wins,” insisted Tommy. “At least, I certainly hope so! We aim for the podium every time. Last year we won the title, but we were nearly there in the previous two seasons as well. Without doubt, it will be our toughest year, but we like a challenge. RML is a great team to work with, and I’m confident we’ll keep the MG Lola competitive, especially now with the added support of MG.” Looking sideways towards Andy, he then added: “I still believe that this is the Dream Team for Le Mans.” Andy agreed. “We enjoy what we do, we work hard. I’m just so excited about being with the team again. It’s a really good opportunity to get a proper result at Le Mans” Given the choice of the Le Mans Series or the Le Mans 24 Hours, which one would Mike most want to win? “The twenty-four, without a doubt!”

With the interview wrapped up, the team went separate ways to grab a snack lunch. One of those listening to the discussion on stage had been Michael Jakeman – known as Jakey to his team-mates. After three years as Chief Race Technician with RML’s sportscar programme, Michael finally walked out of the doors at Wellingborough for the last time a week ago to set up his own company in partnership with David Howes.

A charismatic figure, often seen with a foot resting on the front splitter of the MG during pitstops, Jakey (pictured left at Silverstone in September) had been one of the key figures in the team’s successful three-year run with the MG Lola. Everyone associated with the team will undoubtedly miss him, but after some twenty years of sharing his knowledge with others, he has decided it is time to use that expertise to his own ends. With a background that includes almost every level of motorsport, from Formula One to the roots, he is going to exploit that experience by dedicating his time to the restoration of heritage sports and racing cars, while also carrying out some race preparation work for private customers. “We’ll be working mainly with classic sportscars and historic racing cars, particularly Formula One,” he says,“but we’ll take on anything, even pre-war, and through to carrying out transmission work on contemporary race cars.” We wish him every success with his new venture.

In September we reported ( here) on Michael Mallock’s first shakedown test of the Aston Martin N24, pictured right. We chanced to meet up with him on the MIA stand, and while unable to confirm exact details, he was ebullient about the coming year, and evidently delighted to know that he can look forward to a full season’s racing. Details are, he assures us, imminent, and we hope to have further news shortly.

Michael’s father, Ray Mallock, founder of RML, was an interested spectator when Gary Robertshaw of Newcastle-based Robertshaw Racing took to the main Autosport stage to discuss their decision to run a pair of Chevrolet Lacettis in the British Touring Car Championship this year (pictured left).

This is the first time since the early 1970s that Chevrolet will have been active in the BTCC, and will also bring the General Motors big-name brand into direct competition with its UK cousin Vauxhall. The cars in question are already race-winning chassis, having enjoyed a very fruitful season in Denmark in 2007. Reigning SEAT Cupra R Champion Harry Vaulkhard is listed to drive one of the Chevrolets, with the other driver is as yet unconfirmed. Robertshaw Racing will need to create two squads for the championship in order to continue running Alan Taylor’s campaign in a Honda Civic, but boss man Gary was happy to admit that support for the Lacettis will come from RML.

As announced in the official RML press release, the Chevrolet campaign in the World Touring Car Championship (which simply got better and better through 2007!) will see all three experienced Lacetti drivers staying with the squad. With a succession of podiums and several victories coming at the tail-end of last season, one can only hope that Menu, Larini and Huff pick up where 2007 left off. RML has a proven track record when it comes to tackling new ventures, with a habit of picking up titles at the third time of asking. Fingers crossed for WTCC glory in 2008.

The day concluded with a final press call on the British Motorsport Marshals Club stand at 4:00pm for the three MG drivers. The team’s MG Lolas have always carried the club’s emblem, and in conjunction with RML’s sponsorship of the ACO Marshal of the Year award in France, AD Group maintains close links with and actively supports the British organisation. Mike Newton remains a paid-up member, and spent many of his early years in motorsport on the other side of the Armco. (An expansion on this theme was published as part of our Le Mans coverage last year – click here for access).

Adam Wiseberg, Motorsport Director for AD Group, will be at Autosport International throughout today, Friday, and we shall publish more news from the show tomorrow.