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The subject of the weather is never far from anyone's mind when racing comes to Spa, and this Friday has been no exception. Looming clouds, darkened to a sooty grey, constantly threatened rain but never quite managed to fulfil the promise . . . until a few minutes before the drivers preparing for the first Le Mans Series free-practice session fired up their engines. As they headed out onto the track at half-four in the afternoon, the first hesitant drops started to fall at La Source.

Mike makes a suggestion. Photo: David Lord, DailysportscarElsewhere around the circuit the sun was still battling to break through. Tommy didn't head out until ten minutes into the session, but had not even managed a single flyer before the red flags were out for the first stoppage of the afternoon - the #009 Aston Martin off the track on the exit of Rivage, reputedly with a wheel missing. Darren Turner had just set a fastest lap for the Gulf-liveried car of 2:07.936.

The session officially resumed at 14:53, with the Aston still stranded trackside and a cloudburst soaking the pitlane. Not surprisingly, only a small handful of cars elected to tackle the conditions, even though the downpour cleared within minutes.

With an erratic wiper motor on the Lola Mazda, Tommy waited in the garage while a replacement was fitted, and the rain started to ease.

Photo: David Lord, Dailysportscar

The fastest time in LMP2 at that stage was a pre-wet lap of 2:13.644 set by Fernando Rees in the prodigal Barazi Zytek. As a point of reference, pole for the Van Merksteijn Porsche in last year's Spa 1000 Kilometres was a 2:05.841, while RML's target for the Mazda Lola must be the 2:07.539 set by Tommy in last year's EX265.

Just gone ten-past five and Tommy headed back out again, only to get a mere half-way round the track before another red flag brought further interruption to the session. The good news was, Tommy reported excellent vision from within the Lola cockpit, despite the spray being kicked up by the damp track.

Five twenty-three and the session got under way again, with Tommy heading out for "four timed laps". With conditions still poor, making sense of lap times would became increasingly difficult. Best times from Tommy in the 2:33 to 2:35 bracket were indicative of the inhospitable state of the track.

Photo: Peter May of Dailysportscar

Tommy ended up clocking ten timed laps in total before pitting for a change of tyres. His best of 2:26.254 couldn't compare with the dry-set times, but was very competitive within the context of those other being set at the time. Re-shod, he was back out again a few minutes later, and able to improve yet again, posting 2:24.204 with less than ten minutes of the session remaining. His next lap was building up to being faster still, and when he crossed the line in 2:20.108 he became effectively the fastest LMP2 runner on track after the downpour.

With the track starting to dry, some cars were beginning to show genuine improvements, including Tommy Erdos. His next lap was a 2:16.920 and took the Lola Mazda to third in LMP2, but he followed that with a hugely impressive 2:12.544 to move fastest in LMP2. "Under such changeable conditions, it was all a bit of a lottery out there on track. I saw it drying, and I wanted to put in a good time. The fact I was able to put together a string of quick laps allowed me to set up for a final flyer at the end."

The chequered flag fell with Tommy still on a flyer, and he neatly rounded off the ninety minutes (much interrupted by red flags and delays) with a new quickest lap of 2:11.920. The rush of improvements continued right to the end, with Olivier Pla moving into third in LMP2 with a 2:13.912. To place all these times in context, however, Rees's pre-shower time in the Barazi (set just a few minutes into the session) remained second-quickest in the class. "It’s good for the team to get a morale boost like this," suggested Erdos, pleased to have ended the day top of the timing screens. "The car was good and strong – it all felt really good."

LMP2 Times - Session 1

Pos No. Overall Team Drivers Car
9 RML AD Group Erdos/Newton Lola B08/86 Coupé
2 32 13 Barazi Epsilon Rees/Barazi Ginetta Zytek GZ07S
14 Quifel ASM Amaral/Pla Ginetta Zytek GZ09S
16 Racing Box Biagi/Bobbi/Piccini Lola B08/86 Coupé
5 41 17 GAC Racing Team Ojeh/Gosselin/Peter Ginetta Zytek GZ07S
18 Bruichladdich Bruneau/Greaves/Coleman Radical SR9 AER
20 Racing Box Ceccato/Francioni/Piccini Lola B08/86 Coupé
8 31 21 Team Essex Collard/Elgaard/Poulsen Porsche RS Spyder
24 Oak Racing Nicolet/Hein Pescarolo Mazda
26 WR Salini Salini/Salini/Gommendy WR Zytek
28 Oak Racing Ajlani/Lahaye Pescarolo Mazda
34 Q8 Oils Hache Moncado/Combot Lucchini Judd
37 Pegasus Schell/Thirion Courage AER
40 Ranieri Randaccio Randaccio/Solieri Lucchini McLaren
15 33 42 Speedy Sebah Pompidou/Luenberger/Kane Lola B08/80 Coupé
46 Kruse Schiller Marsh/Noda /Sini Lola B05/40
43 Ibanez Racing Ibanez/da Rocha/Cavailhes Courage AER

In a concession to the teams running turbocharged engines, and in attempt to achieve performance equalisation within LMP2, the ACO has introduced a modest increase in restrictor aperture for those cars fitted with such engines, although they have also imposed a new, lower limit on available turbo boost. The net result is that the engines should, in theory, be able to achieve similar or even improved power output to previously, but with less associated stress on the engine. Hopefully this will improve reliability, although it is unlikely to reinstate complete parity of horsepower between the turbocharged engines and their normally-aspirated rivals. Neither does it address what appears to be an inherent incompatibility of the fuel with turbocharger technology. However, having now driven the car at racing speed, what did Tommy feel the change had achieved?

"The engine’s top-end breathing does seem better now, but we still don’t have the outright speed of the normally-aspirated cars. In fact, we were quicker last year, but that’s because the new restrictor is still smaller than we were using in 2008. The rear wing is also smaller, and to make up for the reduced downforce we’re getting from that we’ve ended up with more drag, so that isn’t helping with our top speed either."

The engine certainly seems to be breathing better. "Now we’re on a better footing in relation to the normally-aspirated cars. However, we’re still left with the issue of reliability, and while we can now generate a little more horsepower, we can’t be sure that the engine isn’t going to go bang. We won’t know the answer to that until we’ve run the engine over a longer timescale, but we still have to be very careful."

The second Free Practice session is scheduled for 09:45 am tomorrow.

High resolution images can be found in the Spa Gallery

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Le Mans Series 2009

Round 2. Spa-Francorchamps 1000 Kilometres
May 8th-10th 2009

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