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A New Strategy for Le Mans

With the cancellation earlier in the year of the official practice weekend, previously staged a fortnight before the race itself (or in past years, up to two months before) the Wednesday during Le Mans week has now been reserved for "free practice". Cited as being a cost-cutting effort by the ACO - on behalf of the teams - the cancellation of the full test day has not been widely welcomed, but six hours on Wednesday evening is better than nothing. It will certainly be the only opportunity for many of them, especially those with brand new cars and rookie drivers, to learn the characteristics of this unique circuit, and dial themselves and their cars into a low-downforce environment. Some may find it a challenge in just six, potentially very damp hours.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCTuesday's wet weather persisted into most of Wednesday, but by the time the cars were starting to warm up their engines and collect at the pitlane exit, at just before six, the skies were quite clear, and precipitation had actually ceased. That was not to say that the track was dry, however - far from it - and when the lights at the end of the pitlane turned green, all those cars heading out onto the track were booted up with full wet-weather tyres.

At just gone six, Tommy headed out of the garage. His instructions were clear. This was a single installation lap, and he was quite happy with that. Within a few moments the crew watching the telemetry reported an imbalance in tyre pressures, and Tommy confirmed this from his on-board display. He was heading straight back to the pits anyway, and he was able to suggest that as well as checking that particular set of tyres, he thought the track was also ready for intermediate tyres.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

Fitted with the lightly-grooved inters, Tommy was back out on track again at eleven-past six; Phil Barker reminding him that the new tyres might carry a residue of the releasing agent and to take it easy for the first lap. Examining the tyres that had just come off the car, the team was able to confirm a sensor error, and no puncture. Tommy started the first of his three timed laps.

The first of those laps was carried out in bright sunshine, but the clouds were closing in again. The track was drying however, under the influence of fifty cars, and times were starting to fall. Even so, a strange situation was evident from the timing screens. While the LMP1 prototypes were occupying the top ten positions, the next segment was almost wholly devoted to times from the front-running GT2 cars. This confirmed that the track was not favouring the lighter, higher-torque prototypes, and conditions were still very difficult.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

Tommy's first timed lap was a 4:26.971, which was good enough to register 9th overall, second in LMP2. He followed that with a 4:15.892. It was half-past six. His third lap was a marginal improvement, at 4:15.184.

Despite the relatively good pace, Tommy was finding the car very draggy down the straights. "It was very stable," he said later, "but I was finding it hard to achieve a straight-line speed that allowed me to use top gear. I think we had a little more downforce at that stage than we really needed, but the conditions were very difficult to begin with, so I was perhaps quite grateful for that."

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

With his third timed lap completed, Tommy returned to the pits, satisfied that the car was fine for the other two to climb aboard. The first of those to do so was Chris Dyson (above), who took over from the Brazilian and began his first stint in the cockpit at 6:40. From a very restrained opening few laps, Chris steadily began to increase his pace, and as the dry line improved yet further, was able to quicken his times and post laps in the mid four-oh-fives.

An hour gone and the rain returned, and so did Chris, burbling back down the pitlane with the car having completed 11 timed laps. His best of 4:05.706 was 25th overall, 6th in LMP2. The rain that had returned as a light mist had set in as a heavy drizzle around some areas of the circuit, including the pitlane. Chris suggested that the car felt it lacked a little grip at the back, but that could be largely down to the slippy track. Not having the official test a fortnight ago, which usually involves about ten hours tracktime, has left the circuit very dirty after so many months as a regular roadway. It may take until the later stages of qualifying tomorrow (assuming the track ever dries properly) for truly representative times to be set. He also confirmed Tommy's assessment that the Lola felt a little slow at the top end. "I was driving well within myself, and trying not to do anything stupid!"

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCThe car was refuelled, and Chris sent out again, to do a further five laps. At 7:24 Chris set his best time of the evening; 4:01.378. Five minutes later and it looked unlikely that he'd be able to match that again on Wednesday, with rain growing heavier throughout the area. Phil Barker advised Chris that it was particularly heavy along the pitlane.

Seconds later, and de Pourtales in the #39 KSM Lola demonstrated just how bad the conditions were by losing the back end through the Dunlop Curve, the open-topped Lola spinning through 180 degrees and hitting the adjoining wall heavily on the rear left corner. The impact might have been relatively modest had the car not then slid along the wall and collided, end-on, with the adjoining tyre wall. The car was thrown violently into the air, the engine cover flying free, and debris being scattered across the track. The ironic observation was; this was exactly the same spot where Noda rolled the same car in first qualifying last year. Fate has not been kind to Kai Kruse.

Chris Dyson returned to the pitlane, ten laps completed, but he was out again at 7:50, but with conditions having deteriorated further, his times were significantly slower - typically around 4:40. At 8:17 he returned to the pitlane once more for his final scheduled stop for the evening, climbing out of the cockpit and handing the Lola Mazda over to Mike Newton, who departed the garage at 8:20.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

"It was so very slippy out there, and I took the first few laps very gently," said Mike, who nevertheless, stayed on track for twenty minutes, setting times not dissimilar to Chris's in the later stages of his stint. With four timed laps completed, the CEO of AD Group returned to the garage with a total of 26 laps completed.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCWith the conditions not exactly ideal, and little to be gained during the remaining daylight period, Phil Barker had the Lola Mazda hauled back into the garage so that the crew could carry out some adjustments to the aero. That was completed at a leisurely pace, and Tommy called back to cockpit duties in order to assess whether the changes had achieved the desired effect.

At 9:54 the car was refuelled (left) before Tommy headed out along the pitlane to give the car a single installation lap. He might as well have left a note on the garage door; "Back in five minutes". Half way round the track, the windscreen wiper ceased functioning properly, and with conditions still wet, he had little choice but to return to the garage.

By the time the wiper mechanism was replaced, Phil Barker had decided to call it a day. "There's no point in pressing on this evening. The drivers have all had a stint in the car, Chris has done more than ten laps, and with the conditions the way they are, we don't want to risk the car needlessly. We've achieved a good set-up for the car in the wet, and tomorrow, when the forecast is for dry conditions, we can combine qualifying with refining our dry configuration."

Chris Dyson was happy with the way his laps had gone. "Generally, we've done everything we needed to do today. Unfortunately, we missed the narrow window when a few teams managed to get out on slicks, but to set a four-oh-one on the intermediates was quite satisfying." At the time Chris set that time, he'd been one of the quickest in LMP2.

The team had packed up and gone back to the hotel by half-eleven, ready for an early start tomorrow.

LMP2 Times - Free Practice

Pos No. Overall Team Driver Car
1 31 16 Team Essex Collard/Elgaard/Poulsen Porsche RS Spyder
2 5 17 Team Goh Ara/unimoto/Maassen Porsche RS Spyder
21 Quifel ASM Amaral/Pla/Smith Ginetta Zytek GZ09S
4 33 24 Speedy Sebah Pompidou/Luenberger/Kane Lola B08/80 Coupé
26 Oak Racing Ajlani/Lahaye/Moureau Pescarolo Mazda
27 RML AD Group Erdos/Newton/Dyson Lola B08/86 Coupé
28 Kruse Schiller Marsh/Noda /dePourtales Lola B05/40
39 Racing Box Biagi/Bobbi/Piccini Lola B08/86 Coupé
9 41 41 GAC Racing Team Ojeh/Gosselin/Peter Zytek GZ07S
48 Bruichladdich Bruneau/Greaves/Rostan Radical SR9 AER
50 Oak Racing Nicolet/Hein/Yvon Pescarolo Mazda
12 32 54 Barazi Epsilon Barazi/Berville/Moseley Zytek GZ07S

GAC Racing Team only managed to complete 16 laps towards the end of the session after losing time to an input shaft problem. The #32 Barazi Epsilon Zytek had an equally troubled time, having stopped on its out-lap at the start of the session with low oil pressure, and then only ran 12 laps in the wet.

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
Free Practice - Wednesday June 10th 2009