Monday - Scrutineering
Scrutineering for this year's Le Mans began on Sunday afternoon, but everyone at RML was relieved to discover that the team's HPD wasn't scheduled to go through the process until the Monday afternoon. It has been a true race against time to have the #36 HPD back together again following the Spa incident, and every extra minute has been gratefully received. The replacement tub didn't arrive until late on the evening of Thursday 26th, leaving less than a week to have the car ready for the shakedown test on Friday 3rd June, and then shipping over to France the following day.
The test was hugely encouraging, not only because the car ran almost faultlessly, but also since it confirmed that Mike doesn't appear to have been in the least fazed by the severity of the accident. He set down a succession of impressive laps that were both quick and consistent, giving his confidence a much-needed boost as well as reassuring everyone else that both car and driver would be race-ready for Le Mans.
After torrential rain delayed proceedings by a good two hours on Sunday, Monday’s scrutineering went far better, although the RML AD Group HPD was still about half an hour late arriving. Luckily the correct slot had been kept open, and no sooner was the car unloaded from the transporter than it was ushered through to begin the meticulous process of being checked and examined.
Every member of the team was present, with a maximum of five permitted to attend the car as it progressed through the three bays where the technical and regulatory inspections were carried out. While the car was checked over by the ACO’s officials, the drivers signed on and had their licences, suits and helmets verified for compliance with the regulations. No problems there.
The usual scrum of photographers and journalists were kettled into the heart of the square, looking to interview drivers and take snapshots. Mike was repeatedly asked how he felt following his accident at Spa. He insists that he's feeling exceptionally well, despite the severity of the impact. Indeed, he seems to have made an amazing recovery and is looking well and sounding very buoyant. There has also been the challenge of sourcing replacement parts for the car and having it rebuilt in time form this week. That has been no mean feat on behalf of Phil Barker, Rick Perry and the rest of the hard-working RML pit crew. (The full list of this year’s personnel is given on the 2011 Team Page).
Scrutineering seemed to go more smoothly and slightly quicker than usual, concluding with the traditional team photograph. For the first time in many years the alignment had been swapped through 180 degrees, and the classic photo of the car, drivers and team personnel in front of the imposing backdrop of Le Mans cathedral was replaced with . . . the local branch of C&A. Hardly an iconic view, although some photographers did suggest that “the light was better”.
Mike, Tommy and Ben were then invited onto the stage to be interviewed by Bruno Vanderstick – the Voice of Le Mans – and David Waldron, the ACO’s official interpreter. They were joined by Anne Morel, RML’s native French speaker and ACO Liaison Officer.
Bruno’s first raft of questions was aimed at Mike, beginning with the now ubiquitous enquiry into his health. Mike declared that he was feeling fine, was very glad to be back, and wanted to thank all the many hundreds of people who’d sent messages of support and kind words for a speedy recovery.
He was then asked for his thoughts on the team’s return to Le Mans in 2011. “Tommy and I have driven here every year since 2003,” said Mike. “starting with a Saleen S7-R.” Since then they’ve returned every June in a succession of different cars, including the MG Lolas, the Mazda-powered coupé, and then the Lola coupé with the HPD engine last year.
Bruno then enquired about the award Mike and Andy Wallace received from the British Racing Drivers Club at the end of last season. “Andy and I won the Wolf Barnato Trophy for being the highest placed finishers in a British car in the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours,” explained Mike, delighted to have his name added to such a prestigious honour.
In 2008 Mike was elected Vice President of the British Motorsport Marshals Club, and Bruno asked Mike how he’d come to be involved in motor racing, having started out on the other side of the barriers. “I started marshalling when I was about seventeen” he admitted. “I’d always longed to have a go as a racing driver, and one year the chance came up, so I leaped at it!” He turned out to be a surprisingly good, so subsequently took up racing seriously. He's now widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished "gentlemen drivers" in the business.
Turning to Tommy, Bruno wondered what the Brazilian thought to being back in an open topped car again. Most people know that Mike much prefers racing in the open air, but how did Tommy feel about driving without a roof. “First of all, I’d just like to say how great it feels to be back here at Le Mans,” was Tommy’s initial response. “As for being in an open-topped car, perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea, looking at the sky here this week! Apart from that, it feels great to be facing the elements again. You need to be out there to appreciate the true sensation of speed that you can really only get here at Le Mans.
Tommy’s partner Sheila gave birth to a son, Luca James Erdos, just three weeks ago, and Bruno wanted to know how the new addition to the family was coping. “He’s very well, and keeping his mother awake at night!” joked Tommy, although it isn’t strictly true. He’s turned out to be a model baby, and is already sleeping through most nights. Was the change in circumstances likely to alter Tommy’s view on racing? He has raced in the 24 Hours a dozen times previously, and remained loyal to RML for the last seven years. What would it take to prise him away?
“That’s a very difficult question,” conceded Tommy. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been at the moment,” he suggested, referring not only to his home life, but his entire racing career as well. “This is my ‘Ferrari’”, he explained, “and I’m very happy where I am, racing with such a wonderful team, looking forward to the future and winning more races. RML is a fantastic team to work with, and it’s also been great driving with Mike for the last ten years. Now we’ve been joined by Ben as well, and I’m just honoured to be here with these guys.”
Ben took over from Andy Wallace as "the third man” in the team's driver line-up mid-way through the 2010 season. Aside from sharing a drive with Mike and Tommy, there is another similarity between the two. Talk of Andy Wallace and his win at Le Mans with Jaguar in 1988 is almost certain to be mentioned. Think of Ben Collins, and his eight year stint as Top Gear’s The Stig will forever be his tagline. Each has a part of their lives that they’ll never truly shake off, and in Ben’s case it’s been brought to a head again this week by the release of the paperback edition of his autobiography. For the benefit of the French fans, Bruno asked Ben to explain something about The Stig.
“He’s an anonymous racing driver in a plain white suit,” was Ben’s succinct appraisal. “Some say he never sleeps, he waits. Well, the waiting is now over, and I’m back here at Le Mans to compete in the world’s most passionate motor race, and my time as The Stig is behind me.” There’s no going back, but neither is there an escape.
Ben then explained a little about the book. “It is about my life as a racing driver, here in the 24 Hours at Le Mans, and my experiences on TV as the Stig with Top Gear.” He will be signing copies during the official autograph session on Tuesday afternoon (from 17:00 pm) and again in the AC Boutique in the Museum on Friday between 14:30 and 15:30.
With Bruno under pressure to attend a press conference the interview was brought to a slightly premature conclusion, leaving the three drivers with time to wander slowly through the crowds, signing autographs and chatting to the thousands of enthusiastic fans who’d gathered in the square to watch the scrutineering. Many were obviously waiting for the two “big guns” to arrive, in the shape of the Peugeot and Audi teams, scheduled for later in the afternoon.
And with that, the trio changed out of their distinctive race suits and headed back to the track - Ben to sort out the final tweaks on an article he's writing, and Mike and Tommy to knuckle down to some "revision" - swotting over data and on-board video recordings from previous years here at Le Mans. There's an impressive archive to draw upon.
Following the Le Mans week
One of the easiest ways to follow the daily developments at Le Mans is to tune in to Radio Le Mans. Although RLM won't be broadcasting live from the town centre during scrutineering, John Hindhaugh and the crew will be there recording interviews with drivers and team principals in readiness for uploading podcasts to the website. Live coverage
will be begin with the Free Practice session, starting at 16:00 (CET) on Wednesday.
Click the button below for access.
For text-based information and photographs, Dailysportscar is offering free-to-view coverage of Le Mans 2011, supported by Dunlop Tyres. Please
also note that we will be providing
regular updates throughout the week here