Mike Newton handed the MG Lola EX264 over to Tommy Erdos just after 10pm on Saturday evening and 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...
Mike Newton handed the MG Lola EX264 over to Tommy Erdos just after 10pm on Saturday evening and 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, 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, Tommy 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. Tommy was mid-way through a lengthy triple stint, holding sixth place overall, and the lead in LMP2 as the race moved into Sunday. Further memories of 2005 were generated by the demise of the second Belmondo Courage, which retired early in the new day with transmission failure. Last year the two AER-powered "Belmondos" had taken the fight to RML all the way to the closing minutes of the race, and might well have won the class if they too had not encountered problems in the final hours.
It must have been with some relief that Tommy came down the pitlane at 12:40 to hand over the MG to Andy Wallace, who would himself be facing a similarly lengthy triple-stint. The exchange of seats was rapid and routine, complete with fuel and fresh tyres. The news from Tommy, however, was not quite so encouraging. "There's a vibration coming from the front, and it's getting worse. My vision was getting blurred by the end of that last stint, and there's also a slight misfire. The gear selection was also a bit temperamental at times, but the vibration was the worst thing. The brake pedal was pulsating, and that was making the car difficult to drive."
To begin with Andy was able to drive through the problems, and he pressed on regardless. A few laps further back the #39 Lola was encountering the first of what would be several garage-visiting problems, although it would hold 9th overall and second in LMP2 for a while longer yet. At quarter-past one Andy eventually admitted defeat. The vibration was becoming so severe that he could hardly see where he was going, and to continue could become dangerous. The MG trundled down the pitlane, was rapidly refuelled, and then dragged backwards into the garage. The drivers had suggested that the front right-hand corner was the source of the problem, and the telemetry tended to support this assumption, so the engineers set-to and replaced the entire upright, including brake discs and calipers. This is quite a lengthy operation, so other lesser issues were addressed at the same time. The gear "pot", or potentiometer, was replaced, in the hope of addressing the gear-selection problem. A turbo wastegate was also replaced, more as a precaution than anything else, but the possibility of a "leak" might help account for the loss of power identified by Tommy at the start of the race.
Take your car to the local garage and ask them to do that much work, and they'd want to hold on to it for the day and then charge you a fortune for the privilege. RML's efficient engineering crew had the whole lot wrapped up in a quarter of an hour. Andy, who'd sat patiently in the cockpit throughout, was roaring away up the road again at half-past one having lost just one place overall; to the class leading GT1 Corvette # 64. Any fears that Warren Hughes might reap the benefits of the MG's extended stop were allayed by the sight of the #39 Lola with the engine cover off, marking the start of several problem pitstops for the Chamberlain car. Come two o'clock Warren would have fallen back to 14th overall, while Andy would be holding ninth and the class lead.
Soon after heading back into the race Andy confirmed that the vibration was much improved, and he was able to press on unhindered towards his next scheduled pitstop at 2:22. Mike, who had been catching up on his beauty sleep in the team motorhome, was given his wake-up call shortly afterwards, giving him a generous half-hour to prepare for his next stint. Some indication of how hot the day before had been came through at quarter to three, when one of the tyre engineers revealed that the track temperature, even at this stage in the early hours of the morning, was still 26 degrees centigrade. Little surprise then that some cars, most notably Thomas Enge in one of the works Aston Martins, had just recorded the car's fastest lap of the race.
Three-fifteen saw only the second Safety Car period of the race, although this one had no obvious cause. Several cars dived straight into the pitlane, including Mike, while the marshals carried out a general tidy-up around the track -- collecting the #98 Porsche on the back of a flatbed, and elsewhere clearing away scatterings of gravel and replacing uprooted bollards. Mike was racing again by 3:17, and caught the tail-end of one of the crocodiles out by Indianapolis. The pause in proceedings lasted just ten minutes, with the green flags waving by twenty-five past three.
The rest of the hour went smoothly for Mike, with the leading Audi coming by to lap the MG at 3:43, and Mike being warned that the next GT runner, the #009 Aston Martin DBR9, was starting to gain on him. Meanwhile, yet another problem for the #39 Lola had allowed the #27 Miracle Motorsports Courage through into second in LMP2, tenth overall, and five laps behind the MG.
Ten past four, and Mike was back into the pitlane for a scheduled pitstop for fuel and a visual check, the latter made at his insistence after he admitted clipping the edge of a kerb. He was quickly sent on his way with the car passed fit and well. It was the start of a smooth and unruffled final stint for the AD Chief Executive, which included a televised tussle with the #16 Pescarolo LMP1, way down the order after earlier problems, but struggling gamely to get back into contention. Mike did not make it easy for the Frenchman, and even once the P1 car had got by, it was some while before a meaningful gap appeared between them