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Le Mans Endurance Series 2005
Round 1. Spa 1000 Kilometers. March 31st, April 1st & 2nd 2005
Qualifying Report

LMES - Spa - RML Saturday Practice & Qualifying - April 1st

Debut Pole for all-new EX264

There was a great sense of satisfaction – and achievement – amongst RML personnel after Thomas Erdos came through a treacherous qualifying session to claim the team’s debut pole of the new LMES campaign. “We’re delighted with the team’s first pole position,” declared team owner Ray Mallock. “It’s a great start to the new programme, and justifies the team’s decision to go LMP2 with the Judd engine and Michelin tyre package this season. It’s really excellent.”

Qualifying came at mid-afternoon, on a day when water, appropriately, played a significant part in the proceedings here at Spa. The morning had started dull and overcast, and then progressed through persistent drizzle, towards a climax of lightning, thunder and rain of monsoon proportions. Luckily, the final practice session for the LMES entrants came early enough in the day to offer tolerable conditions, although far from ideal. Mike Newton was given the bulk of the hour-long period in order to increase his experience of the new EX264, under exactly the kind of track conditions that the forecasters predict for Sunday’s race. He enjoyed the best of it, setting some highly respectable times.

“We wanted to give Mike a lot of seat time in the wet, and he did exceptionally well,” said Phil Barker, team manager at RML. “He was setting down some good times despite the conditions.” Barker was in an upbeat mood. “It’s all gone very well so far,” he said. “Every time the car goes out, we learn more, and we’ve had plenty of opportunity now to see how it behaves in conditions just like these. We tested in the wet at Albacete (in March), and that gave us a good indication of how the chassis and the Michelin tyres would perform, and they’re giving us excellent balance, even in the rain.”

Thomas Erdos was given his chance to try the car again for the final fifteen minutes, but was back into the pitlane after just a single lap - when the red flags came out for the third time during the session. “That was quite fortunate, for us anyway,” he said. “I had a problem with the visor. It misted up very quickly. The red flag allowed me to come in and fix it, but the conditions were deteriorating all the time. There were cars going off all over the place!” He took it relatively easy for the rest of the session, being well content with second quickest in LMP2. His time, set at the worst end of a challenging session, certainly looked very encouraging in context.

We caught up with Tommy again while the hour-long Belcar race was in progress just after lunch. Black clouds, thunder and torrential rain had rendered the paddock awash, and the track wasn’t much better. “I’m really looking forward to qualifying,” said the Brazilian with a wry grin, his eyes raised to the heavens. “I just hope that conditions improve (by three o’clock). Qualifying in this would be more than just pointless, it would be dangerous.” The general consensus at the time was that grid positions would be better decided by the times set in practice. “Far better to have a car in one piece for the race than risk everything on twenty minutes qualifying.” He would probably get enough time for five flying laps, and was hoping for a clear track and a dry line.

As luck would have it, he got just that, and no more. Qualifying, when it came, was split into two twenty-minute segments, with the prototypes out first, followed separately by the GT runners. The open-topped cars got the better of it, with moderate visibility and just enough standing water to make wets essential. The GTs faced thick fog, however, and their allocation was cut to fourteen minutes. “It will be nice to be out there with just the prototypes,” said Erdos in anticipation. “It’s a sensible format, and it gives you some quality time on track. It would be excellent if they introduced the same system for the practice sessions, with perhaps one mixed, and one dedicated for each of the two categories.”

Erdos was quickly up to speed, and emerged at the top of the LMP2 timing charts after just his second flying lap. His best of 2:28.349 would come later, and be good enough to secure the new MG’s first pole on its debut run, four-tenths ahead of Vincent Vosse in the Belmondo Racing Courage C85.

“I struggled with visibility right from the start,” he explained. “I have an anti-fog visor, but it clearly wasn’t enough to cope with the kind of conditions we were facing out there.” Twelve minutes into the session, and with the car already lying on provisional pole, the Brazilian headed back into the pitlane for a quick wipe-over. It was a matter of seconds, but the pressure was on to get a single flying lap into the bag before the chequered flag – especially when Vosse went quicker. Erdos crossed the line with moments to spare, but it wasn’t a straightforward lap. “I got really bogged down,” he muttered, referring to some slower traffic that baulked his progress, “but it was still my fastest lap.”

With pole secure, Tommy Erdos began his slowing down lap, but his dramas (albeit minor by most estimations) were just beginning. “The fuel warning light had been on for a couple of laps, but then the engine started to cough and splutter,” he said. The car made it to the top of Les Combes, and he then made best use of the downhill sections to conserve fuel. The MG was still under power as it approached the Bus Stop, but was now surrounded by the GT runners, eager to get their own qualifying under way. Coasting through the final metres he was almost engulfed by Porsche GT3s, and then entered the pitlane - with a fast moving Team Jota Zytek tucked under his rear wing. He had just enough momentum left to reach the scrutineering bay, and just enough juice left in the tank to supply the sample needed under the regulations. Pared to the bone, admittedly, but that’s the way to qualify on pole.

Erdos has since been confirmed as the starting driver in the RML MG EX264 for tomorrow’s race, which is due to get under way at mid-day local time. “We’re feeling quite optimistic,” admitted Phil Barker, “but we’ve still got a long race ahead of us. In an ideal world, I feel we can be very competitive in the class, and who knows, maybe even overall. But we won’t be going out there with the intention of entering a war with the LMP1 cars. If they want to go away, we’ll let them.” The team has worked hard on reliability this season, and their sternest test begins tomorrow. Follow it here.

Marcus Potts

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