Looking Both Ways
This item originally appeared on Dailysportscar
2010 has turned out to be a memorable year for RML AD Group, and a remarkable turn round in fortunes for the team that seemed to dominate LMP2 throughout the early years of the Le Mans Series. Runners-up in 2005 and 2006 - when they also won the class at Le Mans - the squad looked truly unbeatable in 2007. That season Thomas Erdos set pole in every race the team’s MG Lola started, and it was no surprise when they clinched the title.
Then the luck dried up. Few could compete against the pace of the Porsche Spyders in 2008, but fewer still could have imagined the total drought of results the team faced in 2009. Clocking up more engine failures than the number of races the team started, RML AD Group ended the year as far from a title as it was possible to get. Minus fourteen points might be a respectable score on QI, but was salt in the wound for a squad that had still done everything right. Race after race the Lola Coupé was up there at the front, fighting for the podium, but time after time that pace and hard work went unrewarded.
Late last year the team announced a new partnership with Honda Performance Development for the supply of the proven HPD naturally aspirated V8, as well as the revival of a long-standing relationship with Dunlop. Wrapped up in a well-sorted Lola chassis, and graced by the svelte coupé bodyshell, RML was determined to put the team’s most disappointing year behind them. Just over a week ago, at Silverstone, they made good that promise by taking the 2010 Le Mans Series LMP2 drivers’ and team titles.
“None of last year‘s many failures could be attributed to RML,“ insists the team’s pacey Brazilian, Thomas Erdos. “The team worked so hard in 2009 and simply didn’t get the results they deserved. The only differences this season have been the incredibly reliable HPD engine and some great tyres from Dunlop. All the other factors have remained exactly the same, and thanks to the way the guys at RML put the whole package together, we’ve won a title. It‘s no less than they deserve.”
It was never a case of setting the pace, but the team’s success can be put down to meticulous preparation and reliability. “We realised from the time of the Paul Ricard test, that we didn‘t have this year’s fastest car,” admits Phil Barker, RML Team Manager and the team’s strategic mastermind, “We knew that the only way we were going to get the title was by making the least errors, having the fewest accidents, and aiming for total reliability. That put the emphasis on the quality of our preparation and the skills of our drivers. I’m just delighted that we were able to deliver on both.”
The team’s regular paring of Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos were joined for the opening two rounds at Paul Ricard and Spa by Andy Wallace, finishing third and second in class respectively. Andy shared driving duties again at Le Mans in June, where the Lola HPD collected another third-place podium. During the second half of the season Andy’s place was filled by Ben Collins, perhaps best known now as Top Gear’s Stig. His arrival in the squad was rewarded with a race win in the Algarve, and then two fourths at the Hungaroring and Silverstone.
Although never as dominant in outright pace as Strakka Racing’s HPD ARX-01c, the RML Lola HPD made up for that with consistency, reliability and a driver squad that never put a foot wrong. Rarely has the old adage; to finish first, first you have to finish, been more apt. But what next for RML, and their long-standing partnership with Mike Newton’s AD Group? Adverts for the team’s Lola Coupé have already appeared in the motoring press, so we know there’s something fresh in the air, but what is that most likely to be? We caught up with Mike, and posed a few questions of our own:
Mike, can you tell us about the team’s plans for 2011 ?
Mike: Well, now that we’ve secured the win in the Series this season, the first thing to state is that we want to come back and defend the title next year. If Strakka also makes a return, it will be interesting to see if the chassis equalisation measures proposed by the ACO are truly effective. It would be good to see how the fight develops on a more level playing field.
So you've put the Coupé up for sale. What's the thinking behind that?
Mike: “As you probably recall, we stayed with the open car for an extra season in 2008 because, from a personal point of view, I was reluctant to go back into an enclosed car. To be fair to Lola, the issues with heat and driver changes have been fine - but I still miss the open-air driving. Now that there’s a realistic opportunity to go into a new era with an open car again, it's definitely one I want to pursue.”
“On the other hand, the Coupé is now a well proven package with the HPD unit, and for anyone looking to move into LMP1 next season, it has to be an appealing proposition. Alternatively, the LMP2 engine is an easy update, and it's another well proven combination with great reliability. I believe RLR have felt the benefit of going into their first season with a well-sorted car, having bought our MG Lola EX265, and I'm sure someone else could gain an advantage in much the same way with the Coupé. These considerations suggest to me that now is a good time for us to sell.”
With the Coupé leaving, will you be looking for another Lola, or are you considering a complete change for 2011? After all, you’ve been faithful to Lola since you first started in prototypes in 2003.
Mike: “We have a terrific relationship with Lola, and ours has been a very successful and rewarding partnership for the last eight years. That makes the 2011 'Cost Capped' B11/40 Lola one of the obvious candidates, and we will certainly be looking into that option over the winter. We also have the potential to use one of our existing B05/40 chassis, with appropriate running gear, as an evaluation platform, and that may help the decision-making process. However, there are other alternatives out there, so we will be keeping an open mind about them all.”
As to the engine, will you be staying with HPD ?
Mike: “Clearly, after the amazing run we’ve had this year - from both the RML team and HPD perspectives - it has to be very high on our list of choices. However, until the engine equivalency rules become clear, it is always going to be difficult to make a firm commitment. So even that remains an open question, unfortunately.”
Finally, there were some raised eyebrows when you announced the name of your newest team member half-way through the year. How have you enjoyed working with 'The Stig' ?
Mike: “When we first approached Ben, it was long before his seven-year role as The Stig became public knowledge. Like almost everyone else in the paddock, we knew about his “secret identity“, but it always seemed a shame that it was something we had to keep quiet about. Nevertheless, we did, so the profile Ben has received, and the interest it generated in the team, has been something of an unexpected bonus.”
“More importantly though, on the driving side, he's done a terrific job. We knew from his previous time with RML that he would be a great team player, and he has adapted to the car really well. He was certainly dropped into some very difficult circumstances. Until Silverstone, all his stints had been at night, and having to learn not only the car, but also both the Algarve and Hungaroring circuits in the dark was exceptional. We will be working with Ben over the winter, and I'm confident that we will be able to settle things so that he’ll be able to remain with us for next year - and fulfil Ben's wish to be in a potentially class-winning team at Le Mans.”
Ben’s autobiography, The Man in the White Suit, was published last Wednesday (15th September) by HarperCollins, and we hope to be offering our own review of this much publicised book shortly.