Le Mans 24 Hours -- Race Start and First Hour 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...
Le Mans 24 Hours -- Race Start and First Hour
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 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 in Chamberlain's LMP2 Lola.
By the end of the first lap the RML MG was tucked 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. By the end of 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 were 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.
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.