Everyone at RML AD Group knows what it feels like to win at Le Mans. The team has taken the LMP2 title twice in recent years, and they have experienced the rich swell of emotion, pride and satisfaction that comes with seeing their own drivers standing on that famous podium. On Sunday, in the 79th edition of the 24 Hours, the team's trio of Mike Newton, Thomas Erdos and Ben Collins, battled through to fourth in the LMP2, yet it felt almost as good as winning all over again.
RML AD Group came to Le Mans with high hopes but realistic aspirations. Just four weeks previously the team had seen their Honda Performance Development HPD ARX-01d almost destroyed in a huge accident at Spa. Team Manager Phil Barker and his crew overcame a logistical minefield to source the replacement parts and rebuild the car in time. "In practice and qualifying we concentrated on establishing the best possible set-up for the race itself."said Mike Newton, CEO of AD Group. "We recognise that we have disadvantages, under the current regulations, of extra ballast, a lower power output and a restricted refuelling flow, so being confident that we could be competitive in the race was vitally important. For that reason we never went for a qualifying time, although I'm pleased to have gone quicker in the race than I did in practice, and Ben wrung out a time that was well beyond anything we'd expected to achieve."
Thomas Erdos took the rolling start from 8th on the LMP2 grid, and had picked up a couple of places before the first of two horrific accidents brought out the safety cars. This initial period lasted an hour. The second, late on Saturday evening, lasted more than two, and Tommy was in the car for both. He completed a triple-stint to open the race, handing over to Mike at almost three hours distance. Mike completed his own two-hour stint, holding fifth in class throughout, before handing on to Ben, who maintained the momentum. Tommy resumed driving duties at nine-thirty, but had only been in the car minutes when one of the car's two turbos failed.
"We suspected the turbos might be a weak point, and one of our mechanics, Adam Hughes, came up with a solution," explained Phil Barker, Team Manager at RML. "It normally takes about an hour to replace a turbo unit, but Adam designed a quick-fix system that allowed us to complete the work in less than 20 minutes. In fact, the first turbo cost us 17 minutes, and when we had to replace a second, six hours later that was installed in 13 minutes." Luckily, the second turbo lasted for the remainder of the race.
Although much quicker than the alternative hour, the turbo replacement still sent the #36 HPD spiralling down the order. It finally emerged in 29th position overall. Tommy's hopes of regaining lost ground went when a second major accident resulted in the day's longest safety car deployment of two hours twenty minutes. Mike took over at one in the morning, completing a single stint that lifted the car to 23rd before passing the baton to Ben. The second turbo failure, more quickly repaired, cost fewer places, and a steady recovery ensued - despite a succession of punctures.
By dawn on Sunday the #36 HPD had risen to 22nd, and then to 18th as the race entered its 20th hour. Tommy hauled the car up to 15th by midday, where it remained until the final minutes of the race. In difficult conditions, with changeable weather, tired cars and drivers, and the emotional intensity of a race like Le Mans, Ben Collins took the final stint. He set some of the car's fastest laps to turn around a two minute deficit on the #51 AF Corse GT to take 13th overall, and then 12th by passing the #49 Oak Racing Pescarolo on the final lap, and thereby clinching 4th in LMP2.
Thomas Erdos faced some of the most demanding stints in the team's 24 hours, ranging from all those hours behind the safety car, five punctures, and a disagreement with a patch of oil, to some of the worst of the weather. "It seemed that every time I got into the car, the safety car came out, and that's not really my idea of racing!" he said. "Even so, I'm really delighted by the end result. We've won this race twice, and finished third last year, but considering the issues we've had, and the penalties we've overcome, fourth in 2011 seems an incredible result. The team's efforts came to the fore and the guys did a great job. Ben also did a great job of clawing back so much of the lost time."
This one nearly got the better of me, admitted Phil Barker. "I don't usually get quite so emotional, but when you see the delight on the faces of these guys, who've all worked so hard to achieve this finish, you can't help but feel pleased for them and emotional yourself.
"This has been my first finish at Le Mans, so I suppose it's third time lucky," said Ben Collins, the newest recruit to the driver line-up and the one-time Top Gear Stig. "I was blessed with smooth, free-running stints and I loved it. I feel honoured to work with these guys, and very grateful for the way they kept us going. To have finished is just unbelievable. On the last lap someone on the Mulsanne waved a chequered flag at me, and that made me realise what we were about to achieve. The emotion of crossing the line at Le Mans is like nothing else, amplified by the lack of sleep perhaps, and it's just a fantastic feeling - more so than any other race I've ever done. What made this result so memorable was the scale of the work that the team accomplished, to bring a new car online at the 11th hour; one that ran without a single operational fault. What a crew."
"We were all inspired by the sheer determination of the whole team this weekend and the way they pulled together to overcome every challenge of the race," said Pauline Norstrom, Board Director and Director of Motorsport and Marketing at AD Group. "Meticulous planning and anticipation ensured that there was an engineered solution already prepared to help master each situation. Bringing the car home fourth in class, 12th overall, feels like a fantastic achievement accomplished in the face of adversity."
"We were well prepared for the possibility of turbo failures, but even so, the time we lost to those issues might have put us on the podium, perhaps as high as second," said Ray Mallock, Founder and CEO of RML, "but it is such an achievement simply to get to the finish at Le Mans. It's so satisfying to see the chequered flag and know you've got to the end. Once again the Le Mans 24 Hours has shown us why it is such an emotional and charismatic event. This was a great effort by the team, and we will be back!"