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Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC"It always rains at Le Mans"

In March this year a film was released entitled "Truth in 24". It tells the story of Audi's 2008 Le Mans campaign, and has been widely recognised as one of the finest documentaries about the Le Mans 24 Hours yet produced. It begins with the gravelly voice of actor Jason Statham stating: "It always rains at Le Mans". This short phrase was met with a certain degree of derision when "Truth in 24" first aired, but after the opening two days of this year's Le Mans week, the scriptwriter's throwaway line has taken on a prophetic quality. Scrutineering for the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours will for ever be remembered as "The one when it rained", in biblical proportions.

Of the two days, Monday was the better blessed, with only occasional heavy showers. Even so, the proceedings over-ran by several hours, and the last car wasn't cleared until nearly half-eight in the evening. Much of this was thanks to Audi - well, not the team exactly, but the intense scrutiny that was applied to their three cars. Scheduled to enter the circus at around half-two, the last car didn't clear the team photograph arena until after five o'clock, and everything thereafter ran late.

Under any normal circumstances the process typically takes about an hour for each car, but such has been the controversy over Audi's new R15 TDI that the ACO was under pressure to ensure that every element of the car's homologation and compliance was examined to the enth degree. Although passed as fit for purpose by the scrutineers, Peugeot is expected to lodge a protest, and a meeting is scheduled for Wednesday morning when it is hoped the issue can be resolved. The primary bone of contention appears to be the car's front splitter arrangement, and certain detail elements in the air-intake area, which some have interpreted as having an aerofoil profile. This is against the technical regulations, but Audi has made changes to the car since winning the Sebring 12 Hours (largely in an attempt to achieve a low-downforce configuration that is better suited to the Le Mans circuit) that appear to have addressed this point, but a number of other LMP1 teams appear to feel that the adjustments have not gone far enough. More in due course, no doubt.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

RML AD Group's Lola Mazda Coupé was scheduled to be one of the first through scrutineering on Tuesday afternoon, and duly arrived in the square at just after two-o'clock. Unloaded from the back of a flatbed transporter, the timing could not have been better. After several hours of torrential rain, the skies had cleared moments before, and the first sunshine of the day blessed the car's arrival, bathing the scene with intense colour, highlighted by the glistening raindrops which covered every flat surface. Adam Hughes had to unload the car single-handed, but soon had willing helpers from the crowd as he hauled the Lola back towards the display area, where he was joined by the rest of the crew.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

The arrival of the RML entry never fails to impress. There are good looking cars all through the grid, but the svelte Lola with its distinctive colour scheme is still considered to be one of the prettiest. It only ever takes a few moments for a crowd five or six deep to surround her, cameras clicking and hands outstretched for the team's new HeroCard. This year's card has been specially created for Le Mans 2009, and will be described in more detail later.

While the car and engineers waited in the sunshine for their turn to enter the first scrutineering bay, the three drivers headed for the main administration buildings in the centre of the square, where suits, helmets and licences were checked and boxes ticked. Mike and Tommy had flown into the circuit on Monday afternoon, arriving at the neighbouring airfield direct from Liverpool. Chris Dyson arrived in Paris from the States early on Tuesday morning.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCThe most concerning "team news" of the day became evident when Team Manager Phil Barker arrived, limping and stick in hand. On his way into the circuit this morning, he had tripped over an uneven wooden step on the way from the #7 car park and turned his ankle. He had soldiered on for about forty minutes before the pain became too distracting. He initially requested a massage from the team's physiotherapist, but a quick examination suggested that the damage was more serious than that, so he was taken to the circuit's Medical Centre at around 11:00. There he was seen by the appropriately named Dr Alain Kind, who agreed that there was a possibility that Phil had broken his ankle, and arranged for an ambulance to transfer his patient to the local Paul Sud hospital for a more thorough examination.

The X-ray revealed that Phil had indeed broken his ankle . . . but not today. Luckily, his morning excursion up the steps had only resulted in a very painful sprain, but the X-ray did reveal that Phil must have broken a bone some years ago, but without having it diagnosed at the time. Dosed up with pain killers, and with his ankle tightly bound, Phil returned to work. The team would like to express its thanks and appreciation to the staff at the Medical Centre and the hospital for their efficiency, speed and diligence.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCMeanwhile, the drivers were being interviewed by the journalists, and the team's Lola Mazda had moved into the first of five scrutineering bays. The format has not changed much over the years, although the intensity and timescale has tended to increase. The first small marquee is where the car's paperwork is checked - just to make sure that the right car is being presented for scrutineering - before it is pushed forwards into the larger two-part bay where the car's physical compliance is checked. Wooden frames and aluminium straight-edges are offered up to the car to check such things as rear wing sizes, overhangs, flat floors, splitter dimensions and so on, some of these examined while the car is raised on an elevated platform.

This year, for example, as a result of a protest from Porsche, every GT2 Ferrari 430 GTC failed this part of the process when the scrutineers decreed that part of each tyre's tread was visible outside the wheelarch. All ten affected teams were instructed to make adjustments to the bodywork to ensure that the rubber was completely obscured. The scrutineers will return to each team's garage before first practice to check that acceptable modifications have been applied. For RML, there were no such issues, and the car sailed through without a hitch.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

While this was taking lace the three drivers had been called up onto the main stage to be interviewed by Bruno Vanderstick. This is as much a part of the day's tradition as signing autographs and posing for photographs. Most of the time the questions are a little predictable, but occasionally the crowd is party to a serious discussion about some technical aspect of a car, or a personal story about driving experiences from past races at Le Mans.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCMike was initially quizzed on the team's decision to swap engine supplier from MG to Mazda. The name of RML has become closely associated with the historic MG brand, having raced an MG-homologated Lola in the 24 Hours every year since 2004. With consecutive class wins in 2005 and 2006, RML probably did more to keep the MG name alive during the period between the factory's demise and the marque's resurrection with Shanghai Automotive last year than anything else. Sadly, as Mike pointed out, the promised support from China never materialised, and the team was given no option but to look elsewhere for engines. However, the association with Mazda has already proved to be much more sympathetic, and Mike expressed his delight that the team was developing such a mutually beneficial working relationship with such a major international company.

Bruno followed up with a question about the concurrent move from an open-topped Lola to the new coupé, and Mike conceded that he actually preferred to drive an open-topped car, but that the enclosed cockpit did have its advantages, especially in wet weather!

Tommy was asked about the team's prospects in a highly competitive LMP2 category, and expressed his wish that we have "seen the last of the rain" for a while. Regrettably, that seems unlikely, since the forecast is for more rain on Wednesday and Thursday before the skies clear for a warm and sunny weekend, although there is rumoured to be a high probability of rain again on Sunday afternoon.

The subject then moved around to the engine, and in particular, the team's likely strategy with regard to the fitting of the race engine. In past years, when Wednesday and Thursday have both been qualifying days, some teams have opted to fit the race engine for the second day and ensure it is race-ready for Saturday's warm up. Most, however, have always favoured a Friday fitting, and thereby ensured that the unit is fully fresh for the race. With Thursday now being the only day for qualifying, this now seems the only real option, and Mike confirmed that RML would be fitting the Lola's Mazda MZR-R on Friday.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCBruno then welcomed Chris Dyson, and asked the American how it was he came to be co-driving the RML Lola Mazda at Le Mans this year. Chris explained that while Dyson Racing was racing a very similar chassis in the ALMS in the States, RML's programme in Europe was "vast" and that, looking to the longer term, sharing the RML car in 2009 offered a good grounding for Chris and Dyson Racing should they be in a position to bring a team of their own to Le Mans in the future.

Asked what he felt was the state of the American Le Mans Series at the moment (where entries are much reduced on previous years) Chris took the question from a personal point of view, and pointed out that he had missed the class win last time out by just half a second, but he was looking forward to the second half of the season and the chance, perhaps, of winning a few races. Did he have a chance at the title this year? "J'espere," he admitted. I hope so.

The microphone returned to Mike for the next question, relating to Mazda's involvement in the RML prototype programme. Back in the 1980s, the name behind Mazda's success at Le Mans, culminating in outright victory in 1991, was Mazdaspeed (see our news item here from Spa). Was Mazdaspeed also involved with RML? Mike confirmed that, yes, Mazdaspeed in the United States was directly involved in the programme, and that the team was working closely not only with Mazda, but also with Chris and Dyson Racing.

Tommy was then asked about the team's preparations for the Le Mans 24 Hours this year. He explained that, with the absence of Monza from the Le Mans Series calendar, and the cancellation of the official test weekend here at La Sarthe (which he regrets), there had been no opportunity for the teams to prepare their low-downforce configurations."I love the cornering of the car at high downforce circuits like the Nurburgring and the Algarve, which is a fantastic track," he said. The Lola is particularly good, and very competitive, on the very tight and twisty tracks. "But this is the circuit I really love," he admitted. "The Lola Mazda is a great package, and I'm very fortunate to be involved."

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

The final series of questions focused on Brazilian participation in this year's race, and the presence here of Bruno Senna in one of the LMP1 prototypes. "Every year we see a few Brazilians here at Le Mans," said Tommy. "This year Bruno makes his first appearance, and he has a very good chance with Oreca. But we're racing everyone here this weekend, and if we can finish ahead of him, we will !"

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

The interview was wrapped up in time for the three drivers to join the rest of the team in the final element of scrutineering, and then move through into the corner arena for the official photograph. With dark clouds and more heavy rain bowling in from the west, the team had just enough time for a shirtsleeves pose for the photographers before the heavens opened once again. By then, the crew were safely back in the team minibus and the car, under wraps, and being low-loaded back to the circuit, although Mike was keen to stay behind and sign as many autographs as he could . . .

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

Of all the teams being processed on Tuesday, RML AD Group was one of the more fortunate. Although it did rain part-way through the scrutineering process, it cleared up when it mattered.

The sun always shines . . .

All photographs today by Marcus Potts / CMC

The Le Mans 2009 gallery can be accessed here

Le Mans 24 Hours 2009

Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France
Scrutineering - June 9th 2009