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First Qualifying
Wednesday 14th June 2006

The first of the week’s two qualifying days proved to be a frustrating time for just about everyone, and RML was no exception. Five minutes after the pitlane opened for the start of the early-evening session, the threat of rain became a reality, as a steady drizzle set in that persisted for the rest of the evening – with the exception, perhaps of the one-hour break between sessions.

To put this into perspective, the only driver to press on past the pitlane on slicks and set a time at the very start of the opening session was Simon Pullan in the #20 Pilbeam. While everyone else was heading back into the pitlane to make their installation checks, he set a best of 4:25.398. It would be enough to reserve the top slot on the timing screens for the best part of 45 minutes, and five hours later, the Pilbeam would still stand eighth overall and fastest in LMP2. By then outright quickest would have been set by Emanuel Collard in the #16 Pescarolo on 4:13.832, but that wouldn’t even be enough to claim pole in GT2 had the conditions been dry.

In that context, and with better weather being predicted for Thursday, RML’s Phil Barker elected to bide his time and do the bare minimum necessary rather than risk the car or his drivers. That strategy began with Thomas Erdos being sent out soon after the pitlane opened to complete an initial installation lap, returning straight away to the garage for the team to carry out the routine precautionary checks. With a lot of new components on the car since last weekend’s test there was a warm crackle to the MG as it was pulled back into the garage, but a swift check-round revealed that everything was in order. Outside, however, the light misting of drizzle had turned heavier, and before Tommy was able to set back out again, a pair of medium-downforce dive planes were fitted to either side of the MG’s nose section. That took a few minutes to complete, so it was almost twenty-past before the Brazilian was on his way again.

With rain falling heavily Tommy’s first full flyer came through as a 4:37.683, and was quick enough for sixth overall, second fastest in LMP2 behind Pullan’s somewhat unrepresentative – or merely fortunate – four twenty-five. His second eased that down to 4:35.048 and would leave the MG fifth after half an hour. Those top five made strange bedfellows, with the Pilbeam heading one of the Pescarolos, a GT1 Aston Martin third, a Ferrari 550 fourth and then Erdos fifth.

On his next lap Tommy was given the pitboard signal to return to the pitlane, where Andy Wallace was waiting for him. While the drivers swapped places in the cockpit a few adjustments were made under the engine cover, and then Andy was heading out smoothly into the gathering gloom. Elsewhere, some drivers were finding a few extra tenths despite the worsening conditions, with Lammers up to 4th in the Dome, and Jamie Campbell-Walter fastest overall in the Creation. With that the Pilbeam had finally been knocked off its perch and was now second, but still thanks to Pullan’s first and only flying lap. “It’s not nice out there, not at all,” said Erdos. “It’s especially horrid for Andy heading out there for his first time in a new car. One thing is certain, though; there’s no point in pushing.”

Eight o’clock came with Andy posting 4:43.163 on his first flyer, and then following that with a 4:39.974 next time through. With that first hour completed, a very unusual top ten was revealed, with the two Pescarolos first and second, the Creation third, Pullan’s Pilbeam gamely holding on to fourth, Lammer’s Dome, two Astons and a Ferrari 550. While RML had been working on their downforce settings, the Intersport Lola had gone through to claim second spot in LMP2, with the Lister left to stand tenth and the MG eleventh.

Conditions were not getting any better, and just before ten-past Andy came burbling back down the pitlane, two laps short of his original schedule. “It’s just so slippery!” said Wallace, streams of water dripping from his race suit. “There are several large puddles, particularly on the run through to Tetre Rouge and down the far end of the Mulsanne, and that’s making it a bit difficult, but the car itself feels great.” Those difficult conditions had persuaded Phil Barker to instruct his squad to replace the car’s aerodynamic package with a higher-downforce variant. The front section was having the double dive-plane sections fitted (see below), and further adjustments were being made to the engine mapping to make the traction more manageable out of the corners. “The car won’t be going out again for a while” confirmed Phil Barker. “We’re making some changes to make the car a bit easier for the guys to drive – something to give them a bit more confidence in these conditions. It’s like skidding around on an ice pan at the moment! We’ll increase the downforce levels and then give it another look. The engine guys have also been trying some new maps, so we’re working through those as well. Ultimately, we’re just trying to tune in the car for these wet conditions, and anything we can learn tonight could prove very valuable come Saturday or Sunday, if the weather turns wet for the weekend.”

The team has been working extensively over recent weeks on perfecting a low-drag package that will allow the MG to make the most of the long straights here at Le Mans, but they have also done this in such a way that the car can be swapped back to the more usual high-downforce settings quickly and easily. “It may take some time to complete these changes,” explained Barker, “but we’re prepared for this, and it’s more important that we know we can make these adjustments under changing conditions. It’s better to lose a bit of time making the car safer and easier to drive than lose the car!”

While other cars were spinning off around the circuit, including one of the leading Pescarolos, RML neared completion of the aerodynamic changes. At just after half-eight the new nose section was fitted, and at 8:38 Andy Wallace headed back out into the rain.

He was not gone long. A single tour of the circuit was enough to convince him that there was nothing to be gained by taking further risks. “The car’s just perfect,” he insisted, “but there’s just so much water all around the track that there’s no point in pressing on. If you could actually learn something from being out there, all well and good, but this simply isn’t worth the risk.” As for the downforce changes – he never got going fast enough to find out if they’d really made a difference. “People are spinning off all over the place!” said Wallace, and to prove his point, the #39 Lola did exactly that a few moments later, clipping the Armco through the Esses on Amaral’s second flying lap. It was a glancing blow, but enough to bring out the red flags and end the session ten minutes early.

The decision to come in had been Andy’s, and Phil Barker was full of praise for his “new” recruit. “I’d much rather Andy brought the car in that take any risks. It was exactly the right thing to do. As for what happens later, well, if it’s as bad as this after the break, we won’t be going out at all. If it improves, we’ll simply do the bare minimum.” In the end the rain did ease, during the break between sessions, only to began again in earnest as soon as the cars headed out on track. To the accompaniment of thunder, lightning and enormous dollops of rain, Tommy, Mike and then Andy completed their minimum requirement of at least three laps each under cover of darkness. To be more accurate, Andy did five, and his second flyer clocked 4:34.940 to become the team’s fastest of the evening. “The conditions are simply horrible. There aren’t even any tracks to follow. The biggest problem is trying to leave the corners. There’s a spike in the power as you accelerate away that makes it difficult to control. If the conditions for the race look as though they’re going to be anything like this, then we may have to work on the engine mapping. In the dry, even when you’re starting out in first gear, you’re OK. You get used to the way an engine behaves, and even in low gear, you can open the throttle and know what’s going to happen next. In these conditions, you simply can’t do that. If it was going to be like this in the race, then there might be some point in making changes, but we really don’t think it will be.”

There was no sense of disappointment in the evening’s proceedings. Far from it. “That’s our night qualifying done - mission accomplished, as far as we’re concerned,” said a contented Ray Mallock, happy to see all three drivers successfully qualified, and the car still in one piece. Mike Newton was also pleased to have tested two new fittings on the car; the new TransVu video system that “worked perfectly” in the wet, and the equally new supplementary headlight pod, which fits over the centre of the nose section and gives substantial additional light.

Having called it a day half an hour before the flag fell, RML’s team was able to pack up early and head for their hotel a little sooner than expected. With fairer weather forecast for Thursday, much of Wednesday’s running could be rendered meaningless. “We have a new AER engine lined up for the race,” concluded Phil Barker. “This is also a new engine we’re using for qualifying, so we can do as much running on this one as we want. That means we can have another go tomorrow, wet or dry, and maybe give the drivers a chance to see what they can do.”


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