RML MG Lola flies out of Le Mans 24 hour
Exactly one hundred years ago the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, made history in Le Mans by demonstrating their amazing flying machine for the first time in Europe. Their flights were relatively brief by today's standards, but a splendid monument rises high in the centre of the town to celebrate the association between Le Mans and those pioneers of aviation.
In 2008, RML's hopes of repeating the team's class-winning successes of 2005 and 2006 ended late on the Saturday evening, after nearly eight hours of racing, when the team's MG Lola EX265 took to the skies. In terms of height and distance the car's flight did little to challenge the achievements of the Wright brothers, but for Mike Newton, driving the car at the time, it would leave a lasting impression. As Ray Mallock, founder of RML remarked, "We joined the flying club this weekend," and in doing so became one of a string of prototype teams to see their cars leave the ground in recent weeks.
The 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours had actually started with great promise for the Wellingborough-based squad. Thomas Erdos, taking the start in RML MG Lola EX265, had been rising steadily though the LMP2 class order. From a relatively lowly grid position of sixth, Tommy had picked off the MG's rivals one by one, and inside the first twenty minutes had risen to third. His pace appeared consistently good, and the British-domiciled Brazilian commented on how stable and inspiring the car's handling had been. Then, almost on the half-hour, and just moments after he had moved through to capture another overall position, he and the LMP1 car he'd just passed made contact. The MG lost grip with the road and buried its nose in the barriers.
The impact was full-frontal and heavy, but Erdos managed to coax the stricken car back almost five miles to the pitlane, where the RML engineers effected a full repair in under thirty minutes. That was some achievement in itself, and Tommy was soon lapping even quicker than he had previously, but there was a considerable amount of ground to make up. Co-drivers Mike Newton and Andy Wallace continued the trend, each completing faultless double-stints, and by nine o'clock the MG had regained seventeen places overall.
The drivers began their second round of stints in the cockpit; Erdos the first to return, and then Newton. The CEO of AD Group had been in the car almost an hour when he came through to the famous Porsche Curves. His approach to the sweeping curve was nothing unusual, but the result was. The car snapped suddenly to the right, side-on to the direction of travel, and as the air pressure built up under the edge, the car lifted clear of the ground. It kept on rising, and revolving. "I can recall looking across, and seeing the ground coming in towards me," said Newton later. Almost at the point when the car was upside down, the front corner dug in, spinning the car violently back the other way, until the left rear hit the ground in turn. The car bucked again before finally settling back on its wheels. Miraculously, Mike was able to bring the MG slowly back to the pitlane and into the garage. Thanks to AD Group's video recording technology, installed in the MG Lola in the form of the RML X-PRO Recorder, Mike was able to show Phil Barker, RML Team Manager, exactly what the car - and driver - had just experienced. This assisted Phil in directing the team to focus the repair work on the areas of impact and subsequent damage as the RML pit crew stripped down the MG and then put it all back together again.
This second rebuild took two hours, but when Andy Wallace took the car out again he reported problems with the handling. Three times the team made adjustments, but it soon became apparent that there was additional underlying damage that was compromising the team's capacity to achieve a driveable set-up for the chassis. The team also faced a second dilemma. In order to achieve a classified finish a car must complete 70% of the winning car's distance, and time was running out.
At 1:58 on Sunday morning the decision was reached that the team had done as much as was humanly possible, but the challenge was simply too great. "The truth is, we simply can't achieve a classified finish from this position," said Adam Wiseberg, Motorsport Director of AD Group. "Even if we could get the car to handle properly again, there are insufficient hours left in this race for us to complete the minimum number of laps required to meet the 70% rule. Accepting that has been a very difficult decision."
Ray Mallock, founder of RML, was in the garage to witness the final hours. "Although the team did a remarkable job in getting the car back together again, we have been unable to recover the chassis settings that would enable our drivers to race competitively, or safely. Sadly, there is nothing to be gained by pressing on."
And so, with the race on the point of entering its eleventh hour, the shutters came down on the #25 RML MG Lola. Tommy Erdos was already resting, unaware of what was taking place. Andy Wallace, last to drive the car, was preparing to head back to "an early night", if two in the morning could ever be called that. Later, after analysing the video footage of his crash alongside the telemetry data, Mike could see that he had been travelling at over 270 kph when the car took flight. Not only did the video recorder survive the crash, but the spectacular footage also took the breath away from all who saw it in the RML control room, leaving Mike pondering on his lucky escape.
The team now has a two-month break before Round 4 of the 2008 Le Mans Series at the Nurburgring in Germany. It will be plenty of time for reflection, and recovery.