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Tuesday 13th June 2006

RML’s Le Mans 2006 campaign resumed again in earnest this afternoon (Tuesday) with technical scrutineering for the team’s MG Lola EX264, and signing-on for the trio of drivers; Mike Newton, Thomas Erdos and Andy Wallace.

After such a successful official test last weekend, when Tommy set the fastest time in LMP2 and improved on his 2005 best by more than four seconds, the arrival of the red, white and blue MG in the Place des Jacobins was greeted with considerable interest. Now firmly established as one of the favourites in the category, and with some pundits even suggesting that the RML machine might challenge for the high places overall, there is yet more pressure on the squad to perform, but there were no signs of nerves today. The team was in a very relaxed mood, generously handing out HeroCards to the crowds, joking with rivals, and showing a healthy interest in their surroundings.

Having to stand for four hours in the centre of the open square beneath relentless sunshine, and with hardly a breath of wind, made for difficult conditions, but Phil Barker and his crew of nearly a dozen made light work of their task. The car arrived on a flatbed at just before half-one, in good time to meet the scheduled 14:10 entry into the first of four scrutineering zones. This gave the guys plenty of time to mingle with the crowds, answer questions about the car, and distribute autograph cards.

Meanwhile, Mike, Tommy and Andy headed towards the inner sanctum of the official ACO administration building, where they went through the process of signing-on. This seemed to be more relaxed than in previous years, and also a little faster, with licences checked, helmets approved (and stickered) and race suits passed ‘fit for use’ in about half an hour. Each driver then posed for the official ACO mugshot before emerging back into the sunshine, where they were then accosted by the leagues of journalists and photographers seeking interviews and photographs.

For the first time the two scrutineering days have also been broadcast live by Motors TV as part of their extensive 2006 Le Mans coverage. First call on the driver’s time after they’d escaped the media circus was to venture up onto the stage and be interviewed by Martin Haven, with the lanky commentator – a familiar voice on motorsport coverage all around the world, but less often seen – zeroing in on new signing Andy Wallace. Although English born and bred, and still living in the UK, Wallace is perhaps better known these days in America, where he has been a regular front-runner in the ALMS and other GT and sportscar series for the past eight or nine years. Even so, any conversation tends to revert, at some stage or other, to his rookie win at Le Mans in 1988 with Jan Lammers and Johnnie Dumfries in the TWR Silk Cut Jaguar. Today was no exception, but also covered topics such as his time with Dyson Racing in the States, where he drives a car very similar to the RML MG Lola EX264, and competition in the GrandAm series with Boss Motorsports aboard something very different; a Crawford Pontiac Daytona Prototype. For those who've noticed that Andy's name on the side of the car has a Union Jack beside it, while Mike Newton has the flag of St George (and Tommy, of course, has the Brazilian flag), the explanation came that he's actually a quarter Scottish. Well, with a name like Wallace, I suppose that's understandable, so long as he doesn't start getting heavy with the woad.

Martin was just wrapping up his interview, asking a few additional questions of Mike and Tommy, as the MG began its journey into technical scrutineering. Just five team members are permitted to follow the car through, with everyone else having to view the process from behind barriers. In the first awning the entry papers are checked. That should be no more than a formality for most teams – and certainly was for RML – but it also offers a welcome opportunity to shelter from the sun. The car is then pushed forwards into the first of two bays where it is checked for compliance with the technical regulations, and accordance with the original homologations papers. This begins with extensive measurement of the car, which includes such things as rear wing height and width, the theoretical safety cell created by the triangulation between the rollhoops and the front of the cockpit, and the external dimensions of the car. From here it is pushed forward a few feet onto an elevating platform, where similar measurements are taken beneath the car, and the underside is checked for compliance with the rules relating to ground clearance, flat bottom and overhang. The car is also weighed.

Eased round the corner into the final bay, the MG is then examined to ensure that it incorporates all the required safety features. This includes a close examination of the electrics, lighting and cockpit, with particular emphasis on fire prevention and driver security. If all the right boxes have been ticked, and there are no outstanding issues from any of the previous checks, the team manager is then handed the official ACO stickers that confirm the car’s eligibility to race.

All these processes are carried out in a relaxed and good humoured way - although that might have something to do with the fact that the officials now know most of the RML personnel very well, and also recognise that any car being presented by the team is highly unlikely to cause any problems. Today reinforced this view, with one official being overheard to suggest that the MG was one of the best-prepared cars they’d seen this week, and that “this is exactly how a car should be presented” for scrutineering. Comments like that merely serve to add to the sense of pride in their work that is as much a part of the RML ethos as the attention to detail that underlines everything they do. “It’s been a very good day,” admitted Phil Barker, team manager at RML. “We had a bit of a discussion about the merits of fixing the rear gauze on the tail top and bottom, and the ACO agreed that our flexible installation was fine as it was, so the car’s squeaky-clean and sailed straight through.” The gauze in question covers the apertures behind each rear wheel and across the tail of the car, and on the MG is clipped at the base, but can be raised quickly and easily. “The officials here love a car that’s well prepared, so I’m pleased to say we had the cruise through that I’d hoped for,” concluded a well-satisfied Barker.

With the stickers fixed to the car the three drivers and the rest of the squad rejoined the MG for the official photograph – the first with the drivers alone, and then as a group. This marked the end of the official scrutineering process, and while the engineers and mechanics pushed the car back round to the flatbed, Mike, Tommy and Andy signed yet more autographs and posed for snapshots. The hoped-for quick escape back to the circuit then failed to happen, thanks to the team’s designated transporter driver performng some kind of disappearing act. In fact, he never did turn up, and the car went back on a different flatbed almost an hour later! This was just another opportunity for the guys to meet up with the public, and for the drivers to be interviewed – this time over the public address by Bruno Vandestick, the official commentator at Le Mans since 1994. The “Voice of Le Mans” asked Andy Wallace several of the usual and somewhat predictable questions before quizzing Mike and Tommy about football – who would they wish to see in the World Cup final? In the case of Mr Erdos, that elicited the obvious response of “Brazil!” But asked who he thought that final would be against, he tactfully answered “France . . . . vive les bleus!” Mike Newton had no such reservations. Once he’d established that Bruno was talking about soccer, and not rugby or cricket (and successfully bewildering Bruno by discussing wickets and goal-posts with tall uprights!) he stated that England would play Brazil in the final, and that perhaps England might win.

Before all that happens, there’s a race to be run. The process resumes tomorrow, Wednesday, with two sessions of qualifying. The team did take the MG back to Wellingborough during the week to attend to a few issues arising from last weekend’s test, but have not made any significant changes. The sensor problems that were reported to have curtailed last Sunday’s run before Tommy could be let loose on qualifying tyres proved to be exactly that, but Phil Barker agreed that it had been “better safe than sorry” in his decision to end the day an hour before the chequered flag. The test did confirm that the team’s work on perfecting a low downforce aerodynamic package for Le Mans had paid dividends. “It’s not so much a low downforce setting,” corrected Barker, “as a low drag setting. We still need as much downforce as we can get, but we don’t want that to compromise us along the straights, where we want the minimum possible drag. Fortunately, we can make considerable minor adjustments to the car front and rear – subtle changes to the aerodynamics – that have allowed us to achieve a setting that really seems to suit the car and the circuit.” That was amply proven when Thomas Erdos set a best of 3:41.873 last Sunday; one-and-a-half seconds faster that the second-placed Radical, and a second quicker than pole in 2005.


Step back to June 2005, and re-live RML's class-winning run in the 73rd Le Mans 24 Hours: Le Mans 2005