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Warm-up and Saturday Morning

Thankfully, rumours that the official warm-up would be staged at the usual time of eight o’clock, despite the delayed start to this year’s race to make room in the television schedules for a football match, proved to be groundless. Like the start itself, the warm-up was also set back one hour, and allowed everyone that little extra time to reach the circuit in the morning. All three RML drivers took part in the forty-five-minute session, with Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos doing straightforward out and in laps to practice their driver changes before Andy was allowed a few additional laps, and set a fastest of 3:45.924 right at the end to be quickest in LMP2. This effectively confirmed that the final set-up suggestions arising from Friday’s pre-race briefing had achieved their objective, and the MG EX264 was really running very smoothly. Not so the #7 Audi R10 of Allan McNish, which slowed twice – first time with a drive-shaft problem, and after that had been fixed, with smoke coming from the engine.

A quick de-brief and the three drivers were free to head back to hospitality and meet up with friends and relatives. Back out on the track there was activity aplenty, with a pair of historic races – one for vintage pre-war cars, and the second for classic sportscars from the Fifties. The first of these was hugely entertaining, with a spirited battle for the lead between Gareth Burnett in a Talbot 105 Alpine and Luke Stevens in an Alta Sports. The lead oscillated between them for almost the entire seven laps before Burnett grabbed victory at the bitter end by lunging across the line to take the flag by six one hundredths of a second. Considering these cars average around 60 years of age, running six-minute laps is no mean achievement. The post-war race was won by Gary Pearson in his C Type Jaguar, with Joe Colasacco second in his splendid Alfa Romeo 3000CM.

If that wasn’t enough, seven-times Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen then took to the wheel of one of the latest Audi DTM racecars and demonstrated its pace – and his nerves – by performing donuts along the pit straight, narrowly missing the concrete pit wall time and time again. With a dense cloud of rubber smoke drifting slowy across the grandstands, Kristnesen headed away to get ready for his race, leaving the track clear for the more sedate spectacle of this year’s Le Mans cars taking up their positions on the tarmac, staged in the traditional herringbone formation that did, until the mid-Sixties, represent that starting grid for Le Mans races. These days it is simply part of the spectacle, made more so by each team’s drivers being paraded along the main straight perched on the back of open-topped Audi cabriolets, stopping on the red carpet, and being presented to the crowds by Bruno Vanderstick. Mike, Tommy and Andy went through at just before three o’clock, with still two hours to go before the start. Somehow the minutes were filled, with the Hawaiian Tropic girls and Jan Lammers’ “Dome” ladies from Japan adding a bit of glamour to the occasion.

A great party atmosphere develops, but this suddenly changes to something more serious as the drivers are seen coming out towards their cars, and the national anthems of all the competing drivers are played out at full volume across the public address. By this time the cars are hot, the drivers are hot, and there’s a palpable eagerness to “get going”.

Race Start and First Hour (5:00pm - 6:00pm)

The cars had been sat out on the tarmac for more than two hours before the signal finally came for the drivers to climb into their cockpits and for engines to be started. It was twenty-past four when Tommy was helped into the cockpit and strapped aboard the MG. The journey around the circuit and back to the grid is a final opportunity for teams to check that their cars are ready for the race, and after such a long time in the sun, it is also an essential part of the process. Tommy was not alone in using the next quarter-hour to its maximum potential, and headed straight back down the pitlane, bypassing the grid, and stopping on the RML apron for one last splash of petrol and a systems check. From there he was able to head back out and do another complete lap before taking up his position on row six, directly behind the #12 works LMP1 Courage LC70 (with Briton Sam Hancock driving first stint) and alongside Bob Berridge in the #19 LMP1 Chamberlain Lola.

The wait was not yet over, however, and another twenty minutes would pass before the Audi TT pace car finally headed off up the rise towards the Dunlop Chicane, followed by the first of fifty starters. The ACO manage to string out this formation lap to a nail-biting degree, yet they’ve also honed the timing to a fine art. Accompanied by stirring music played loud across the public address, the blazing headlights of the leading group emerged through the heat haze of the Porsche Curves. Snaking their way through the Ford Chicane, just the right number of seconds were left on the clock to ensure that the roar of engines announcing the start of the 74th Le Mans 24 Hours echoed out between the grandstands at exactly five o’clock. Allan McNish, starting the #7 Audi R10, made an excellent run across the line, and had the edge on Frank Biela as they diced for the Dunlop Chicane.

A little further back Tommy had encountered a slight a slight loss of power at just the wrong moment, and Berridge had pulled clear in the #19 Lola, but within seconds of joining the pitlane straight the Brazilian had recovered and was pulling clear of Liz Halliday in the Intersport Lola, drawing Joao Barbosa through with him into second. Both cars headed off after the yellow Chamberlain LMP1 Lola, with Warren Hughes an interested spectator just a couple of positions further back. “I had a reasonably good start,” said Tommy later. “Right at the start I got bogged down in first gear coming out of the Ford Chicane. It was as though I had no power at all! The engine just went durrrrrrrrrrr, and I had no acceleration, no boost, and I fell right back.” He radioed in to report the problem, but simultaneously, the engine leaped back into life again.

By the end of the first lap the RML MG was tucked back under the rear wing of the yellow #19 Lola and it was evident that Berridge, for the time being anyway, was cramping the MG’s style. Not only had Barbosa also been able to close right up on the back of the RML machine, but Warren Hughes, benefiting from Liz Halliday’s evident problems in the Intersport Lola (four pitstops in the first half hour to address a misfire), was through to third in LMP2.

By the end of lap three Tommy had become more aware of the fact that the engine was very slightly down on power, but was steadily coming to terms with it. Not sufficiently, however, to withstand the increasing pressure from Barbosa, first, and then Hughes next. Both cars slipped by in the space of a single lap, and there was nothing he could do to respond. “The Radical was swallowing me on the straights, and out of the corners where I seemed to have no acceleration at all. I was pushing as best I could, but once they’d got up to pace there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. I was able to change my driving style a little, and that overcame some of the out-of-corner problems. In the end, Barbosa came past me out of Tetre Rouge, and just powered past me on the straight.”

During the fourth lap Warren Hughes had also found the pace – and the space – to sneak through ahead of Barbosa. His efforts were about to become somewhat academic, however, when the BMS Scuderia Italia Aston Martin DBR9, Babini at the wheel, pitched heavily into the concrete wall along the Porsche Curves. Two Safety Cars was instantly deployed, one on each side of the circuit, and a whole string of cars dived straight down the pitlane. Hughes and Barbosa were included among that number, but RML elected to stay out, so Tommy sailed past the pits and back into the class lead. It didn’t take long for the marshals to clear away the stricken Aston Martin, soon to become the first official retirement from the 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours, a heartbreaking twelve minutes into the race. Mid-way through the next lap the safety cars were called in and racing resumed, gifting Erdos a generous lead over Barbosa and Hughes.

While Erdos built up a steadily increasing advantage, the battle for second intensified, with Hughes finally getting ahead of Barbosa and into second place in LMP2 at 5:39. Perhaps the MG’s lead was slightly unrepresentative at this stage, since the two in pursuit had already made their first pitstop, and this became evident when the RML driver was called in for his first scheduled refuel at 5:46. As Erdos threaded his way through the tyre-walls at the head of the pit entry, Hughes and Barbosa came swiftly through the Porsche Curves behind him, weaved through the Ford Chicane and into the first and second respectively. The stop gave the team a moment to address that power-loss that Erdos had been encountering on the exit of corners, and with a tweak to the engine map, he was away again.

So, as the race entered its second hour, the #39 Chamberlain Synergy Lola officially held the class lead from Joao Barbosa in the #22 Radical and Tommy Erdos third in the RML MG Lola EX264. It was a brief exchange of positions, and when the Radical and Lola both pitted simultaneously at just after six, Erdos resumed his position at the top of the class. In relation to overall positions in the race, this was a very respectable ninth overall, suggesting that the little MG had three of its bigger cousins from LMP1 somewhere down the road behind it. It had been an impressive start to the race, and came in stark contrast to the events of twelve months previously, when Tommy Erdos had already endured several visits to the pitlane, starting on lap two. What’s more, that change to the engine mapping had transformed the car “I really enjoyed my second stint,” he grinned. “The car was running beautifully, and we were inside the top ten and leading the class. That’s so encouraging, especially when you think about how the race started for us last year!”

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Hours 2-3 (6:00pm - 8:00pm)

Thomas Erdos pressed on for the next half hour, and just before half past six passed the pits to see “L2” displayed on the signalling board. It was the last full lap of his opening double-stint, and he made the most of it. With the car light on fuel, but the tyres still at performing brilliantly, he pushed as hard as he dared, and clocked up the fastest LMP2 lap of the race so far, clocking a best of 3:44.572 before beginning his in-lap – and that wasn’t slow either! His progress down the pitlane was restricted by the rev-limiter, but was then further impeded by one of the GT2 Porsches, which was waved away from its apron just as the MG was cutting in on its final approach. Both drivers slammed on their brakes, and an accident was narrowly avoided, but it was a close run thing.

Tommy had to take an unconventional line to park up outside the garage, and then be pushed back into his correct slot before the pitstop could begin. He was clambering out within moments, and Andy Wallace, his seat insert in one hand, was rapidly climbing into the cockpit. While the car was refuelled, Jason helped Andy into his belts, connected up his radio, and fitted his drinking tube. Fresh Michelins were fitted, although a quick inspection suggested that this set might yet have done another stint, which came as good news for the cooler night-time periods ahead, when they might well be expected to triple-stint the tyres.

At 6:38 Andy Wallace headed off to begin his first race stint in the MG Lola. He’d rejoin the race in third place, with the extended pitstop having cost a few valuable seconds, but the gap was narrow despite Gareth Evans being between Wallace and Barbosa, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth. It was now apparent that the rivals were almost exactly half-an-hour out of sequence on the fuel stops, but fuel consumption was remarkably similar, to the point that Warren Hughes and Joao Barbosa pitted together once again at just after seven o’clock. Hughes handed over to Amaral, but Barbosa stayed in for a third consecutive stint, in the hope perhaps of keeping pace with RML’s widely-acknowledged superior driver line-up. Wallace, meanwhile, had passed Gareth Evans in the LMP1 Lola for twelfth overall, and would then move ahead of Barbosa during the Radical’s pitstop, leaving him a mere twenty seconds behind Amaral by the time the second of the Chamberlain Lolas had completed its driver swap.

Getting ahead of Evans was like letting the cork out of the bottle. The LMP1 machine had proven very difficult to pass, thanks to its straight-line speed advantage, but once Andy Wallace had put some clear air between himself and the LMP1 machine, he was able to ease ahead rapidly. Having previously been restricted to whatever pace Evans could maintain, he was now able to go at his own speed, and it was considerably faster. From running in the mid three-fifties, sometimes slower, he was now instantly into the forty-nines and eights. Barbosa, however, was also circulating rapidly, and when Wallace headed down the pitlane for fuel at half-past seven, the Portuguese driver was able to slip ahead once again, followed soon afterwards by Amaral in the #39 Lola.

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Hours 4-5 (8:00pm-10:00pm)

Half an hour later, of course, the roles were reversed once again, and Wallace swept back into the lead as the other two made their next scheduled stops. By quarter-past eight the MG was standing 7th overall, leading LMP2 by more than a minute and a half, and for the first time having enough of an edge over Moseley, who had taken over from Barbosa in the Radical, to be considered as leader by right, not just circumstance. With Andy now circulating in the low forty-sevens, that margin was growing, and the #39 Lola was a receding threat in 9th overall. Two minutes later Andy set his fastest lap, and also that of the car, with a best of 3:44.495. It signalled his final flying lap, and at the end of the next, he was back down the pitlane to hand over to Mike Newton. “I was having a great time!” enthused Wallace. “The car was just getting quicker and quicker, and there was no tyre degradation whatsoever. My last lap felt really fast, and turned out to be my quickest, just like Tommy’s had been.” The car was obviously behaving itself impeccably. “It’s perfect - just lovely to drive - and I could even chase the Pescarolos through the corners. They can’t get away.”

By contrast to the previous driver-change between Tommy and Andy, this one was very straightforward and trouble-free. Mike was rapidly ensconced within the cockpit and sent on his way, with the car refuelled and fitted with another fresh set of rubber. While this was all happening in the relative quiet of the pitlane, all hell was breaking loose behind Clairay in the #36 Belmondo Courage. Heading down towards Indianapolis along one of the fastest lengths of track his rear right tyre exploded spectacularly, ripping the rear of the car to shreds and pitching him helplessly into the Armco. Fortunately, for Mike sake, having just completed his pitstop, the marshals had the wreckage cleaned up very quickly, and there was no need for the safety car. Equally fortunate, Clairay emerged unscathed from what must have been a frightening encounter. Elsewhere, the #7 Audi was being pulled backwards into its garage; the first sign of fragility from an R10.

With a longer than expected pitstop from Amaral in the #39 Lola, Mike was able to consolidate the lead he’d taken on from Andy Wallace, and begin what turned out to be an excellent stint. By quarter-to-nine he was lying a very impressive sixth overall, leading LMP2 comfortably from Moseley in the Radical, with De Castro now third, having taken over from Amaral. That gap to Moseley was drastically reduced when Mike made his first pitstop for fuel at just gone nine o’clock, and when he returned to the track, the Radical was just a minute adrift. De Castro, however, would make a lengthy pitstop at 9:16, and effectively drop out of the immediate contest.

Mike and Moseley turned out to be quite evenly matched, and were trading times pretty effectively. Once in a while traffic allowed Moseley to post a faster lap, and little by little the margin did narrow, from 40 seconds at 9:25, down to 23 seconds ten minutes later, but then Mike responded, and by the time Moseley made his scheduled stop shortly afterwards, it had eased back out to half a minute again.

With the Radical pitstop came a change in driver, team-owner Martin Short taking over the car. The time taken to refuel and swap with Moseley, combined with a slightly less competitive pace, effectively eased the pressure on Mike, and he ended his opening double-stint at just after ten o’clock having not only retained the class lead he’d been given, but extending it. “I’m very pleased. I had an absolutely wonderful time out there – the best fun you can have with your clothes on! We re-mapped the engine earlier, and it’s now much better – better, in fact, than it was in qualifying. As for my stint, the only problem I had was getting out of the way of one of the Porsches when he cut across in front of me, and I caught the kerb. Other than that, it was entirely trouble-free, and I don’t think I slipped over four minutes for a lap even once, but sometimes you do wonder if there can really be any more cars to pass on a single lap!”

It was time for Thomas Erdos to step back aboard the MG once again.

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Hours 6-7 (10:00pm-12:00pm)

This would be the start of a lengthy treble-stint from the Brazilian, and one that would see the MG consolidate its hold on the class lead, and move up as high as fifth overall. When he started off, however, his greater concern was the narrow lead of just 44 seconds over Martin Short’s Radical that he’d inherited from Mike Newton, but with a succession of laps in the forty-eights, compared with fifty-fives from the Rollcentre car, that rapidly extended to over a minute and beyond. At half-past ten the Radical pitted, and with De Castro now three laps adrift, the immediate threat had receded.

At quarter to eleven Tommy moved up to fifth overall at the expense of Minassian in the #16 Pescarolo, who had encountered the first of what would be several problems for one of the pre-race favourites. Three minutes later the Radical challenge weakened significantly in LMP2 when Martin Short pitted the black and green car with an engine problem. The car was dragged back into the garage and the engine cover taken off, but when it was hauled back out a few minutes later, the V8 steadfastly refused to use more than half its cylinders, and the Radical was promptly dragged back into the garage again, where it would remain for some time.

Tommy made his first of two scheduled stops just before the hour, taking on fuel, but without the need to change the tyres. The crew ripped off the acetate sheets that had been protecting the headlights up until this point, instantly clearing away the combined detritus of five hours hard racing, and the MG was back on its way. Second in LMP2 as the race entered its seventh hour was the Chamberlain Synergy Lola #39, with the Radical steadily falling out of contention as it remained static in the Rollcentre garage.

Having enjoyed his stay in fifth place overall, Tommy had to relinquish this at 11:05 to Allan McNish, speeding by in the fast-recovering Audi #8. “I saw him coming,” admitted Erdos, “but I never heard him!” The R10s are remarkably quiet, and it has been a common observation, especially from GT drivers with closed cockpits, that they simply cannot hear the Audis coming, and before they know it, there’s a buffet of wind and they’ve been lapped . . . again.

The next half-hour went by without incident, and at 11:39 the MG clocked up its hundredth lap. Still lying sixth overall, Erdos enjoyed an advantage of just over two laps on De Castro in the #39 Lola, but now having to keep a wary eye on the GT1 leading Corvette, number 64, just four minutes behind and seemingly relentless.

With ten minutes of the day remaining, Thomas Erdos made his second stop for fuel. He now had former RML driver Warren Hughes behind him in second place driving the yellow #39 Lola, albeit some distance in arrears, and the Radical a distant memory. It was time to move into Sunday . . .

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. . . or on to Sunday >>

Marcus Potts