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

Wednesday Qualifying

First "Daylight" Session

The long-range forecast since the start of the week had predicted rain. At first it was "for the weekend", then it was brought forward to Thursday, but in the end it arrived at just after seven o'clock on Wednesday evening. The timing could not have been more inappropriate, and it rendered the rest of the first day's qualifying as little more than an extended and challenging test session. Some teams still set-to and embarked on an all-out qualifying attempt, pounding round the track for four solid hours. Others, with a wary eye to the skies and less to gain from adding more miles to their components, kept their running to the bare minimum. RML favoured the more cautious camp, and did no more than was either necessary or prudent.

At first the prospects looked good, and in the final minutes before the pitlane opened at seven, the track was in perfect condition for qualifying - cool and dry beneath a cloudy sky. Warren Hughes was first out in the RML MG, and was waiting patiently in the queue at the end of the pitlane before the lights turned green. As he sped off up the hill towards the Dunlop Bridge the first faint mist of a light drizzle began to fall. "Everything looked fine until we reached the second chicane, and then the rain really came down," he said. "Everyone was on slicks, and it turned treacherous. Those are nightmare conditions to go out in." He returned carefully to the pitlane, where the car was fitted with wets before rejoining.

It wasn't long before Warren (left) was back on the radio to say he felt there was little point in continuing under the worsening conditions. The rain was now constant and heavy, and combined with a track that was still universally "dirty", having served for the last twelve months as a public road, there was nothing to be gained from risking both car and driver. He pressed on to complete a single timed lap, with 4:48.529 being enough to place him eighth overall and heading LMP2, and then returned to the garage.

"There's absolutely no point in pounding round the track in these conditions," declared Alastair McQueen, chief race engineer on the MG. "The forecast for the race is dry, so we're achieving nothing by adding yet more miles to the engine. We can perform a few function checks, but little else." Many hours had been spent at the official test ten days ago trying to perfect a dry set-up for the car, and there was little to be gained by changing those setting for just one qualifying session.

Even so, there was something to be made of the evening. Warren's few laps had revealed that the team was experiencing some inconvenient shortcomings with the pit-to-car communication. Not only were there some significant breaks in the radio link - in effect all the way round the track from the Dunlop brow to the Porsche curves - but also the car's telemetry was inconsistent. It was decided that Warren would continue to circulate through a series of outlaps while the engineers tried to improve the link.

Fitted with more appropriate "wets", Warren headed back out again at 7:45, but he wasn't about to get very far. No sooner had he left the pitlane than the red flags came out around the circuit. Car #39, the Chamberlain Synergy Lola, had gone off into the barriers just after the second Mulsanne chicane with Peter Owen at the wheel. "He looked to be OK," said Warren, who was passing the scene moments later. "He was out of the car, but there seemed to be a fair amount of damage. He was some distance beyond the chicane, so I'm not sure what can have happened." Soon enough, the MG was back in the garage, with instructions from Phil Barker, team manager at RML, that Warren wouldn't be going out again until it could be established what had caused Owen's accident. "We need to know if it was a mechanical breakage or driver error," he explained. The two cars share many components, and this was simply a sensible safety consideration. The track re-opened at 8:05, but it was another fifteen minutes before the MG rejoined the throng. "It's our belief that it was almost certainly driver error, so Warren can go back out again," came the explanation.

For the next twenty minutes it was a case of heading out and then coming straight back in again for Warren, with a few minutes in the garage each time as minor adjustments were made to the telemetry system. It appeared to do the trick, and with twenty minutes of the session remaining the MG was parked up. "I'm optimistic that the second "night" session will be dryer, and quicker," said Hughes hopefully. "When you're only going round for one lap at a time, you don't really learn a lot. You need heat desperately; in the brakes, the tyres, everything, and you're not getting it."

Second "Night" Session
More tinkering with the electronics had telemetry coverage up to 80% or more by the time the second session started at ten o'clock. The plan was that Warren would go out, complete a single flyer to check the set-up, then return to the pitlane and hand over to Mike. Fitted with softer compound wet tyres, he did exactly that, setting a best of 4:29.466. It was the car's quickest, and moved him up to 13th overall, third in LMP2, just behind Sam Hancock in the #32 Lola.

The MG was back in the garage within quarter of an hour, and Mike Newton (above) took to the cockpit. He was under instructions to complete the minimum three-lap requirement that all drivers must meet in order to qualify for the race: one out, one flyer, one in. Hughes, meanwhile, was easing himself out of driving mode. "If the track got properly dry, enough to have a go at a qualifying time, then perhaps I ought to be on standby, but unless that happens there's no real chance. I'd prefer to leave that for tomorrow," he said.

Newton, his laps complete, returned to the pitlane at 10:45. His single flyer had been a modest 4:59.196, but he then did a 4:56 on his in-lap. "It was just starting to come together," he grinned, evidently enjoying another few laps of this fabulous circuit, despite the conditions. "I'd just started to enjoy myself and getting a feel for it when I had to come in. I was fifteen to twenty seconds up on my in-lap, yet that was still my quickest, even including coming gingerly down the pitlane. The next one would have been a lot quicker, but it's stupid to try to be a hero when you've not driven the car in a week, and never (with this particular car) here before at all. I just took it gently."

Tommy's first and only flying lap was a 4:28.869 - the car's fastest to date, but not quick enough to change the order. The car still stood 15th overall and 3rd in LMP2. "The objective was just to do a lap to qualify, that's all," he said later. "The track is still far from being right, so there's not a lot of point." Alastair McQueen agreed. "I see absolutely nothing to be gained by going out there again tonight while these conditions persist. We'd only be putting the car at risk for no good reason." Phil Barker was prepared to leave his options open. "We'll wait a while and see what happens. If the track does dry out significantly, and the times start coming down, then we may have a look, but it's not worth the risk at the moment. Even the leaders are 30 seconds off the pace."

The evening had not been totally fruitless, however. "The weather may have spoiled our plans," continued Barker (left), "but we've made good progress on ironing out some telemetry issues, and we've now got roughly 90% coverage around the track."

The original plan had been to run the current engine through a meaningful qualifying session, then fit the race engine and use Thursday to bed it in. "We've only got twenty laps left on this one," he explained. "We'll still fit the race engine tomorrow, but the drivers will be restricted on what they can do. They won't be allowed to go out there and drive willy-nilly. The guys are all qualified, so we just need to chase pole if the opportunity arises. If we do, then we'll be our own masters. They'll do as few laps as possible. We're committed to a minimum of nine, of course, so all three drivers can complete a basic run, but then we may allow Tommy to go out and have a few more, if he's going to have any chance of firing it up the front."

So the RML engineers saw out the remaining hour of Wednesday cleaning and polishing the MG amidst an easy-going relaxed atmosphere, while everyone else milled about, drinking coffee, chatting and joking. Circumstances may render Thursday evening a less tranquil occasion.

Marcus Potts