Le Mans 2006
Qualifying - June 14-15
Sticking To The Plan

With the slow, hot and fairly routine surroundings of scrutineering out of the way, the Wednesday and Thursday qualifying sessions were to prove altogether different for the Chamberlain-Synergy LMP1 crew. However, the team kept its laps to the minimum throughout most of the qualifying periods, leaving the equipment fresh for the ‘jaunt’ at the weekend.

A year ago the team suffered a major set-back during the opening, wet qualifying session after Peter Owen hit the wall on the exit of the second Mulsanne chicane.

As the opening session started for this year’s event, at 19.00 on Wednesday, the heavens had just opened and a cautious and steady plan was taken by Hugh Chamberlain to keep the Lola in the garage, at least until the team could see what the weather was really going to do.

As it turned out, it stayed wet. Very, very wet by the middle of the session and with the night laps to get in, as well as what was hoped to be a dry session on Thursday, Hugh Chamberlain decided that, “We’ll do some light laps in the night session, get the guys their laps in and then go to the bar! I really don’t see any point in going out in these conditions.”

So, zero laps on the board for the Lola after the first two hour and only nine by the end of day one of track action at Le Mans 2006. But, the team was in better shape than 12 months prior and the drivers were all glad that Hugh had kept them on the leash, until getting out at the end of the night session for those three laps each.

“It was absolutely bloody dreadful,” said Peter Owen. “I mean, really, really bad. I wouldn’t want to go out in it again.”

“It was frightening in places,” exclaimed Gareth Evans. “Hugh made the right decisions keeping us out of that in the opening session. We weren’t going to achieve anything, so it was definitely the right call.”

So, a cautious and low-key start for the team. For some of the other teams, a ‘Chamberlain-type’ approach would have paid dividends: there was considerable damage to some of the other cars, including an LMP1 rivals, one of the Courages.

Thursday evening was an altogether different prospect, though.

Gareth Evans was walking around the garage with a bandage on his right hand. How did he do that then? He managed to cut himself, twice, while practising driver changes on Wednesday.

“I hadn’t realised that I’d done it at first and by the time I had, I’d done it again!” he said. “It’s fine and won’t interfere with driving though.”

He also told us, with his tongue firmly in cheek, that he and Peter Owen had managed to upset Bob Berridge already this week.

“He looked at the signature cards we’ve had done and when he realised he wasn’t driving the car in the pictures, he decided he didn’t like them.

We quite liked that!” he joked. So here's Bob at the wheel.

Sunshine and a hot, dry track greeted the teams as the pit-lane opened at 7pm: Bob Berridge was third in line and immediately took the number 19 car up to a provisional P5 behind the Audis and Pescarolos.

P5 became P7 within a few minutes, as Jamie Campbell-Walter went faster in the Creation Hybrid and the (repaired) number 13 Courage vaulted ahead of the Lola.

With 25 minutes of the session gone it was Gareth Evans’ turn to take to the wheel and get acclimatized to the heat and dry track. Peter Owen was then installed in the car with an hour of the session remaining on the clock.

Both Owen and Evans complained that the engine was feeling flat, with Gareth even struggling to pass supposedly slower cars during his stint.

The fault was found and cured easily, the wrong engine map being switched on as they swapped drivers.

“The engine was flat when I went out,” said Gareth Evans. “In fourth gear I put my foot flat down and it just wouldn’t pull. The engine guys went the wrong way with the engine map. It’s sorted now and we should be quite a bit faster, but it was a struggle to begin with, I was finding it hard to pass the LMP2 cars initially.”

“They went the wrong direction on switching it over and turned it back the other way, but we should gain quite a bit of time now,” added Hugh Chamberlain.

“The tyres weren’t great when I got in the car and with the problem with the map I was struggling,” said Peter Owen. “Although, I shouldn’t complain too much as I was only a second off our aimed target, so it’s not all bad!”

The decision was made for all of the drivers to have a short stint in the final night-time session, for one last turn behind the wheel in the dark before getting into the race.

Bob Berridge was able to have one good crack at a better time in the cooler temperatures and turned in a 3m40.467s, to break into the top ten that the team was hoping for back at scrutineering two days earlier.

“I got caught in traffic at the Porsche Curves and lost about three seconds on my fastest lap,” admitted Berridge. “But that’s how it goes. It’s part of being here. It’s where we want to be so that’s ok,” he added.

With the engine on full song, Bob chased an Audi all the way down Mulsanne, and the R10 didn't get away from him.

Unfortunately, by the end of the night they would have to settle for 11th on the grid, as the Zytek and Swiss Spirit Courage put in late laps to demote them just outside the desired starting slot.

However, Peter Owen was over the moon with his stint in the French darkness, ending up faster than he had during the daylight session.

“I gained about four seconds!” he smiled. “The other two went slower than they did before. So I’m understandably happy about that!”

So, Chamberlain-Synergy LMP1 won’t be starting from its hoped for top ten starting position on Saturday afternoon. But, so far the team has had the trouble free run it was looking for and with the experience of Hugh Chamberlain guiding them through, they’ve kept the mileage down too, working to a steady and methodical plan.

The free day on Friday – with just the drivers parade to do – will give the drivers time to relax before heading into what might be, if the plan keeps going, a great result by Sunday afternoon.

 

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