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 and2006 ended late on the Saturday evening, after nearly eight hours of racing, when theteam’s MG Lola EX265 took to the skies. In terms of height and distance the car’s flightdid 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, founderof RML remarked, “We joined the flying club this weekend,” and in doing so became oneof 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 forthe Wellingborough-based squad. Thomas Erdos, taking the start in RML MG LolaEX265, had been rising steadily though the LMP2 class order. From a relatively lowlygrid position of sixth, Tommy had picked off the MG’s rivals one by one, and inside thefirst twenty minutes had risen to third. His pace appeared consistently good, and theBritish-domiciled Brazilian commented on how stable and inspiring the car’s handlinghad been. Then, almost on the half-hour, and just moments after he had moved throughto 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 backalmost five miles to the pitlane, where the RML engineers effected a full repair in underthirty minutes. That was some achievement in itself, and Tommy was soon lapping evenquicker than he had previously, but there was a considerable amount of ground to makeup. Co-drivers Mike Newton and Andy Wallace continued the trend, each completingfaultless double-stints, and by nine o’clock the MG had regained seventeen placesoverall.
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 hecame through to the famous Porsche Curves. His approach to the sweeping curve wasnothing unusual, but the result was. The car snapped suddenly to the right, side-on tothe direction of travel, and as the air pressure built up under the edge, the car lifted clearof the ground. It kept on rising, and revolving. “I can recall looking across, and seeing theground coming in towards me,” said Newton later. Almost at the point when the car wasupside down, the front corner dug in, spinning the car violently back the other way, untilthe left rear hit the ground in turn. The car bucked again before finally settling back on itswheels. Miraculously, Mike was able to bring the MG slowly back to the pitlane and intothe garage. Thanks to AD Group's video recording technology, installed in the MG Lolain the form of the RML X-PRO Recorder, Mike was able to show Phil Barker, RML TeamManager, exactly what the car - and driver - had just experienced. This assisted Phil indirecting the team to focus the repair work on the areas of impact and subsequentdamage as the RML pit crew stripped down the MG and then put it all back togetheragain.
This second rebuild took two hours, but when Andy Wallace took the car out again hereported problems with the handling. Three times the team made adjustments, but itsoon became apparent that there was additional underlying damage that wascompromising the team’s capacity to achieve a driveable set-up for the chassis. Theteam also faced a second dilemma. In order to achieve a classified finish a car mustcomplete 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 muchas was humanly possible, but the challenge was simply too great. "The truth is, wesimply 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 oflaps 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 theteam did a remarkable job in getting the car back together again, we have been unableto recover the chassis settings that would enable our drivers to race competitively, orsafely. 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 downon the #25 RML MG Lola. Tommy Erdos was already resting, unaware of what wastaking place. Andy Wallace, last to drive the car, was preparing to head back to "an earlynight", if two in the morning could ever be called that. Later, after analysing the videofootage of his crash alongside the telemetry data, Mike could see that he had beentravelling at over 270 kph when the car took flight. Not only did the video recordersurvive the crash, but the spectacular footage also took the breath away from all whosaw 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.