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This archive remains exactly as it was written in June 2005, and no tenses have been altered.


Warm up

RML's raceday began with the official warm-up at nine o'clock on Saturday morning, and everything went exactly to plan. The MG wasn't the first out, but by five after the hour Tommy was heading out of the pitlane to complete a single installation lap., The team simulated a driver change when he arrived back in the pitlane, with Mike quickly strapped into the car and sent out again. As Tommy had predicted the day before, Mike was then allowed the remainder of the forty-five minute session to improve his familiarity with the track, and ensure that those minor adjustments made to the car since Thursday's qualifying had achieved their objectives.

The session was still in progress when Mike came back down the pitlane to finish off his allocation of six laps. Once again, the team carried out a full pitstop simulation, with Warren Hughes helping Mike out of the MG before jumping in. "It was a useful exercise," said Warren, "but there's wasn't a lot to be gained by my doing an out-lap, so we called it a day!"

With the warm-up satisfactorily completed - "it all went fine," was Phil Barker's succinct assessment - the drivers spent time considering some of the minor problems they might possibly encounter during the course of the race, and how they might, perhaps, fix them at the trackside. Uppermost amongst the most basic skills is the ability to remove the entire rear bodywork single-handed. It's a vast section of carbon fibre, and while not heavy, it's cumbersome. "I had to remove the back of the car on my own in 2002, when we had the gearbox failure in the 257," admitted Warren Hughes. "At least I've got some idea at how to do it!"
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Saturday Morning

What is more of a concern for Warren, and the other drivers, is the electronic and technical complexity of the car. If the average family saloon now looks complicated when you lift the bonnet, it's as nothing compared to the innards of an EX264. "It's those intricate things on the engine and the electronics that are more of a challenge. If it's at night, for real, that could be so much worse. At least this [talk-through] gives us a chance, although, hopefully, we won't need any of them." They were shown how to use a small metal "chock" to hold the throttle open if the cable breaks. In conjunction with the pitlane limiter switch, this would allow them to drive back to the pits. There was also a special system to overcome a failed driveshaft, and an "limp-home loop" that might help in the case of an ECU failure. Topping it all was what one of the mechanics called a "handbag toolkit", which contains some bare essentials, including tape, tie-wraps, wire and a small selection of tools.

Tommy Erdos had been confirmed as starting driver on Friday, and he was looking quite relaxed. "We're feeling quite optimistic," he admitted. "The car has always been so reliable in the past, and we do have backup systems in case we need them. The team is so well prepared - in fact, better than I ever known before."

While the Legends race was entertaining the crowds, the team busied themselves with final preparations and an early lunch. Then, with the MG looking splendid in the bright sunshine, the car was among the first to be pushed out onto the track in the traditional herringbone formation. No longer actually used for the race start, when drivers of old used to run across the track to their cars, it is still retained for the final hour or more before the cars take up their grid positions. It's an occasion traditionally accompanied by noise, colour, bikini-clad Hawaiian Tropic girls and irrepressible Gallic flair. While Bruno Vandestick whipped the crowd into a frenzy, the drivers were introduced car-by-car, this year perched on the rear scuttle of Audi A4 cabriolets. This was followed by the presentation of the driver's national flags, and then their anthems - about eighteen this year. Finally, with forty minutes still to go before the scheduled four o'clock start, the grid was cleared and the cars moved off one at a time to begin a parade lap of the track.
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The Grid

It's a long drawn-out process, yet the time still seems to pass quickly, at least for the spectators. Perhaps less so for the drivers. Beneath a blazing sun and without even the slightest breeze, it was an hour or more of torture for the drivers. The team did their best to shade Tommy beneath umbrellas, but it was evident even the experienced drivers on the grid were starting to feel the heat. Despite the impending start, and the build-up of adrenalin in the system, it must have been a great relief when the grid was cleared and the pace car started the rise up the slope towards the Dunlop Chicane. There was a brief pause, and then a staggering noise erupted from the massed ranks of machinery as the entire field started off in pursuit.

The Start

This lap always seems to last an eternity, especially for those who can't follow the cars' progress on one of the massive TV screens, and then the first headlights are seen rounding the end of the final Porsche Curve, and entering the Ford Chicane. Slowing to a crawl, the leading Pescarolos, headed by Boullion in the pole-setting #16, allowed the pace car to pull clear, looking for space to control the start. With a bellow of noise, he gunned it across the line, drawing the forty-seven other starters after him.

Tommy, starting from the eighth row, found himself with more space than he wanted. The #8 Rollcentre Dallara Nissan would not take the start, so the slot ahead of the RML MG was vacant. Coming through the Ford complex he found himself ahead of Sam Hancock in the Intersport Lola, and emerged onto the pit straight leading the #32 car. "I don't know what he thought he was doing! He dropped so far back that I assumed he had a problem. I backed right off as soon as we cleared the last corner, and that allowed Sam to cross the line first, but it also allowed the Aston through. I suppose it was all academic really."

Unfortunately, all the momentum he'd generated coming through the corner had been lost, and not only would there now be no chance of catching Hancock up the straight, he'd also lost ground for the rest of the lap. The three LMP2 leaders: André in the #37 Berlmondo Courage, Hancock in the Intersport Lola, and then Tommy in the RML MG starting, would cross the line at the end of the first lap almost nose-to-tail.

It was as close as it was ever going to get. At the end of the next lap, Tommy was straight down the pitlane. It would be the first of several visits. The first two calls would be to address an overheating MG-Judd V8, most probably as a result of an airlock in the system. "The engine started to overheat almost immediately, for no obvious reason. It's never been a problem before, yet the temperature was up to 125, when the optimum is 85. I had to come in - it would have ruined the engine if not." So, while Sam Hancock was taking the lead in LMP2 and struggling to enforce his superiority over the first of the Aston Martins, the RML mechanics were purging the MG's cooling system.

With eighteen minutes of the race gone, the leading LMP1 runners were already lapping the last-placed Cirtek Ferrari 360 #92 and a Panoz Elan had taken the lead in GT2. Thomas Erdos, meanwhile, was coming back down the pitlane again, this time with a gear selection problem. "The compressor on the downshift had failed, so Tommy could up-shift, but once in fifth he couldn't come down again," came the explanation. That being the case, this was an occasion when the remedy could not be effected in the pitlane, so the car was wheeled backwards into the garage. It would stay there for almost a quarter hour until the problem could be fixed. "We changed the actuator and it's looking fine again now," confirmed Mike Newton.

At four thirty-five the Brazilian was back out on track, but not for long. This was a single check-up lap, and it would be nearly five o'clock before the RML MG would actually resume racing. Tommy's return to the track was almost overlooked by the distraction of seeing the #8 Rollcentre Dallara emerging for the first time, very, very slowly. Failure to start the race within the first hour would have lead to instant disqualification, so the car was making a painfully slow lap of the circuit before returning to the garage for further repairs. It would eventually start racing properly, but not for another half an hour.
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Hours Two and Three

By that time Thomas Erdos was in full flow. In fact, it would be just ten minutes short of a full hour before the RML MG would come burbling back down the pitlane - this time for a scheduled pitstop. Tommy would stay in the car, take on fuel, and head back out again. It must have been a rejuvenating experience. Just as the race entered its third hour the MG clocked its best lap yet, and 3:52.550 was also one of the quickest set by any car in LMP2 at that stage of the race. It wouldn't make a lot of difference to the race order - the fast-moving MG would still be last - but the prospects suddenly looked so much more favourable. Things were moving in the right direction at last.

Tommy was regularly setting times in the sub-fifty five mark, and hit a landmark ten minutes later by moving up into 47th position. "The engine was still running hot," he said. "The car felt slow down the straights, so I had to make up for that through the straights and under braking." The demise of the #39 Chamberlain-Synergy Lola offered another position, and then shortly afterwards Erdos set the fastest LMP2 lap of the race so far, posting 3:50.313. The RML MG was now lying in 44th place overall, and it wouldn't be long before the fast-moving Erdos would add another scalp; that of the ailing Peninsula Racing TVR. After a discouraging first hour, prospects for the RML entry were starting to look distinctly more rosy, especially when Erdos then clocked the first sub-fifty LMP2 lap. 3:49.723 was nearly five seconds faster than the next best in LMP2 at the time, a 3:54.088 from #37 Belmondo Courage.

This brought Tommy's lengthy and turbulent opening stint to a close. At 6:40 he headed down the pitlane to hand on to Mike Newton. While the two drivers exchanged seats, the car was refuelled. That completed, a shrill blast on the whistle then sent the tyre-fitters into a blur of frantic action, and within a few seconds, Mike was disappearing up the hill to start his first lap of the 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours.
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Hour Four

He'd taken over the car in 40th position, and that's where he stayed, thanks initially to the deployment of the safety car. The exact cause wasn't clear, although the #20 Pilbeam hit a problem about this time and was stranded on the track. As the hour-hand clicked over to seven, Mike passed the stricken car, and thereby moved into 39th place. It was all steady progress, albeit frustratingly slow. Having lost more than forty minutes in the garage so early in the race, it was going to take some time before anyone felt that the tables might be turning.

The safety car release was very strangely handled. On a circuit that's over thirteen kilometers in length, one safety car is simply not enough, which poses the challenge of how two, or sometimes three, are withdrawn simultaneously. On this occasion no attempt was made whatsoever, and while racing resumed across the startline, a second group along the Mulsanne were still being held behind flashing orange lights. This set up the situation of one group at racing speed bearing down on the tail end of a group still travelling at safety-car pace. Thankfully reason was restored before disaster struck, but then it did anyway. Pirro, at the time leading the race in the #2 Champion Audi R8, went straight on at the Arnage corner, caught out after the restart by a punctured tyre. He was able to pit, and the car was repaired, but when McNish resumed racing, it was no longer from the lead.

Hour Five

Mike Newton was settling down to a steady rhythm, posting a succession of laps that hovered most respectably around the four-minute mark. Then, just before the next hour, he passed the Ferrari 360 to move into 37th place, and followed that as the race entered hour four by overtaking the startling little Spyker - one of the revelations of the GT2 race before its untimely and fiery demise a short while later. Newton's next obvious target was Gavin Pickering in the #35 G-Force Courage C65, but with similar lap times it was going to be a long shot. Instead, and with both cars significantly quicker than most of those immediately ahead of them, they'd be scything through the GT2 runners almost in tandem.

At ten past eight, Mike Newton was back in the pits, but this was no scheduled stop. "I was just coming in to the first chicane when I lost all indications on the dashboard," explained Mike. It appeared that the paddle-shift gearchange system also failed at the same time, so he was forced to switch to the manual system. "The gearlever was also jammed, so I freewheeled for a way. Then I managed to get it working again, so I could use that to get back to the garage. We think it may be something as simple as a blown fuse, but we'll have to investigate," he said. In every other respect Mike seemed delighted by his stint in the car. "The car is absolutely terrific at the moment. There's a little understeer, but nothing you can't steer through."

It would end up being a twenty-minute stop, and cost two of those hard-earned places, so by the time Warren Hughes took over at half-eight, the RML MG was lying in 38th position once again. When Hughes opened his account with a 3:54.203, followed that with a 3:53.368, and then passed the Spyker (again!) with a 3:51.082 to reclaim 37th, it was clear that the former F3 Champion was on a real charge. So too was Sam Hancock, still leading the class in the Intersport Lola and setting his best lap of the race so far; a 3:49.564 being the first to better Tommy's earlier time. With the sun sinking in the west, the track was starting to cool just enough to make conditions a bit quicker for the cars, and more pleasant for the drivers.
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Hour Six

Another succession of quick laps from the MG culminated in a blistering 3:49.260 at just after eight o'clock to reclaim the honour of being the fastest in class. Almost simultaneously Warren overtook the #69 Ferrari, and then went quicker still with a 3:49.221to sail past the #52 Ferrari and into 35th position. Various thoughts of "if only" were going through the minds of those scanning the timing screens.

Warren's laps were proving very consistent, and consistently quick. Rarely dropping below three fifty two, he was gaining on the #92 Cirtek GT2 Ferrari by about 30 or 40 seconds a lap, and with the #51 stopped beside the track since just after nine, two slots were in the offing, and quite soon. The first came at twenty to ten, with Warren passing the stranded #51 to inherit 34th. That left him a lap behind the #92, but closing rapidly, sometimes by a minute a lap.

Hour Seven

Ten-to-ten and Warren posted another fastest lap of the race - and the class. His best of 3:48.902 was nearly seven tenths ahead of anything anyone else had managed, including Hancock in the class-leading Lola. Five minutes later and last year's RML co-driver, Nathan Kinch, ended his 2005 charge by plunging the Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari 360 nose-first into a tyrewall. His misfortune was RML's gain, and just before the hour, Warren swept through unchallenged into 33rd place.

A quarter distance in the 73rd running of the Le Mans 24 Hours and Warren Hughes at the wheel of the RML MG Lola stood less than a minute behind his next target, the #92 Cirtek Ferrari. A single lap later and the margin had narrowed to a mere fourteen seconds. Before they completed a third tour Hughes had taken 32nd place, and with it had made the encouraging move into the second timing screen.

Some distance ahead of Warren on the track stood Val Hillebrand in the #35 Courage, but the margin was coming down only gradually; typically by just ten seconds a lap. More likely to make a difference was the fact that both were bearing down on a gaggle of GT cars, although to put this in perspective, the Intersport Lola #32, still leading LMP2, enjoyed a ten-lap advantage over the battle. Even so, that was starting to look less and less like an insurmountable mountain, especially as Warren was currently circulating quicker than almost everyone ahead of him. Only the leading LMP1 runners were going quicker.

It wasn't easy going by any means, and Warren was battling his way through the traffic. The television cameras picked him up on the run between Tetre Rouge and the first Mulsanne Chicane, flashing his headlights at one of the Astons in an attempt to clear a path. "It's so difficult passing those GT1 cars, especially those Astons. You get into a rhythm, and learn where's best to pass. Some of the professional drivers are excellent, especially the Corvettes, but I wonder about the Astons sometimes.
If he'd breathed off the throttle for a second, we would have been fine, but he was clearly blocking me. I'm not sure that's right." The prototypes are fitted with white headlights, the GT cars use yellow, so it should be simple enough for the slower drivers to know when a faster car is coming through.
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Hour Eight

Coming up to eleven o'clock and there was drama for one of the smaller teams in this year's race. The Dutch Spyker had a rough time in the official test, and then again in qualifying, so it was no great surprise when it started last. Yet within the first hour it had made up eleven places, and was going strong. Now, seven hours into the race, its charge was at an end. Heading into Indianapolis, the engine blew bigtime, pitching the car into a spin and engulfing the rear end in flames. The safety car was immediately deployed, and one lap ahead of schedule, Warren Hughes headed swiftly for the pitlane.

The team performed a remarkably quick pitstop - completing the refuelling while Tommy took over Warren's place in the cockpit. Fresh tyres all round, a quick rip away of the protective film on the acrylic headlight covers, and the car was ready to go. Tommy would take up his position in the 'train' having lost precious little time at all. It was an exemplary pitstop.

First impressions suggested that Warren Hughes was suffering. "I'm sorry, I can't hear very well, and I've lost my voice," he said in a croaky whisper. "I felt rough earlier in the week; all achy, like it was flu, but I do feel fine now, really" he insisted reassuringly. It soon became clear that he was actually far better than he sounded, and had enjoyed his lengthy stint. "I wasn't expecting to do a triple!" he grinned. "I still had a tinted visor on, and my eyes were on stalks during the last hour, just to see where I was going, but it seemed to go quite well." He had not only captured a number of places, he'd also taken back several laps on some of those ahead of him. "I was behind Sam Hancock when I started, but took a lap back from him - it might even have been two, I think. They're very good in the corners, but we've got some good top speed. There's not a lot in it really, in terms of car performance, but I was in a groove. I was able to keep up a good pace without taking any crazy risks." The tyres had also performed well. "The grip at the rear was just starting to go towards the very end of my stint," he said, "but the grip had been excellent throughout and the car's going like clockwork now. It didn't look too promising at the start, did it?"

That was probably an understatement, but this is a very long race, and as they always say, anything can happen - and often does. With the race resumed at 11:17, Tommy was lapping consistently in the 3:55 to 3:57 bracket, on full tanks, and making up three or four seconds a lap on the #35 Courage. First victim to fall to both would be the #31 Noel del Bello Courage, which had been stuck in its garage for the best part of half an hour. The RML MG had achieved the dizzy heights of 31st place overall.
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Hour Nine

Just before midnight Tommy came back into the pits for his first scheduled pitstop of this, his second stint. The car was refuelled, but the Michelins were obviously ripe for a second stint, so no loss of time changing those. Apart from a quick tinker in the passenger footwell, this was another routine pitstop, and the MG was soon on its way once again. Throughout this period Tommy's times remained very consistent, but as the car lightened, they gradually became quicker, moving ever closer to that three-fifty mark.

With Hugh Chamberlain's Synergy-sponsored Lola already an early retirement, trouble was about to hit the long-standing class leader, the similar AER-powered Intersport car. At twenty past twelve the car began its first lengthy pitstop, with a fluid leak, and that ten-lap advantage was disappearing fast. Even after that had been fixed, a serious vibration set in that heralded more serious problems in the pipeline. Tommy had already moved onto the same lap as the #35 G-Force Courage, and both had passed the #91 T2M Porsche, so the RML car was now lying 30th overall. In a bizarre twist to an earlier incident, the #34 Miracle Courage was then excluded from the race, having freewheeled backwards down the hill from the Dunlop Chicane and into the pitlane while the safety car was circulating. This was deemed, somewhat unsurprisingly, to have been a foolhardy move.
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Marcus Potts