Monza 1000 Kms
Heading For A Good Finish Until...

LMP1 in Europe has taken a mighty leap forward with the debut at Monza of the factory Peugeots. There is strength in depth too as almost every car in what will soon become a 14 car class entry has been substantially improved or upgraded, with more, famous names in the driving seats and a subsequent stepping up of the pace.

What chance then for the Three Musketeers at Chamberlain-Synergy Motorsport in their #19 Lola B06/10 AER?

Well that’s exactly what the cynics have been saying ever since Gareth Evans, Peter Owen and Bob Berridge took to the tracks together in the series three years ago.

Since then the trio have netted the LMP2 title (for Evans in 2005), a class win and a pair of further podium finishes in LMP2 plus a further podium on their LMP1 debut last season, followed by a string of points finishes that took them as close as its possible to get to second place in the premier LMP1 class in 2006.

So just how do these three post consistently impressive results against the cream of Europe’s sportscar racers?

“We do it properly,” said Gareth Evans (with Dave Lampitt, below) before the 2007 season opening 1000kms of Monza got underway. “Hugh and the boys give us a car that is absolutely beautifully prepared inside and out, we decide on a race strategy and a race pace for each of us and we stick to it.”

It’s a simple formula in theory but it does require a blend of speed, self control and yes, that most elusive of racing ingredients, luck.

“The reality is that whilst there might be some who observe that we aren’t as fast as some of the others out there, we still get the results. And I’m entirely convinced that if we had the opportunity to get more time behind the wheel we’d be a whole lot closer to the ultimate pace.”

The reality is though that many ‘gentleman drivers’ have no real opportunity to test outside of the race meetings, the reality of having to earn the funds that pay for their racing taking precedence.

“That’s absolutely right, unfortunately I have to spend the bulk of my time in the office, so getting the time in the car is at a real premium. The interesting thing is that whenever we get time in the car the times come down steadily. Bob of course is faster than either Peter or I, but for myself, I know that the more time I get in the car the easier it gets to keep to a faster and faster pace.”

Monza would again show that the theory could provide impressive results, but this time the racing luck would desert the #19 crew.

Throughout the Friday and Saturday practice sessions, Bob Berridge would keep the #19 car very close to the leading pack’s pace, and ahead of the quick-fire qualifying session the car had posted the 7th fastest time overall, behind a select group including the new diesel powered Peugeots and the 2006 title-winning Pescarolo. Evans and Owen meanwhile would be kept busy bringing down their lap times and re-acquainting themselves with the track where the team posted a second place in the LMP2 class on the championship’s last visit here two years ago.

The first flying laps of the 20 minute qualifying session would actually see Berridge top the timing sheets overall, but the pace would be upped, and upped again, and by the end of the all too brief qualifying period the #19 car would lie in ninth spot for the inside line into the very busy first chicane.

The first prediction of the weekend was that the Prima Variante, the first chicane, at the end of the full tilt dash down the main straight, would see the pent up frustration of the close season explode into a rash move or a fumbled move at the season’s very first corner. The pundits were wrong and everyone, all 46 starters, made it through cleanly.

Bob Berridge had started in #19 and he was right with the LMP1 pack, and it wasn’t long before he started to make progress.

Chamberlain-Synergy’s preparation was paying off as others began to hit early race troubles. Berridge was more than holding his own and was ready to pounce if those ahead stumbled.

First to be humbled was the very rapid Charouz Lola, which clashed with another LMP1 car and had to pit out of sequence: the Chamberlain-Synergy car meanwhile was preserving tyres and fuel and by the time the LMP1 field started to make their regular stops, Berridge was well in touch.

He finally pitted somewhat later than the leading speed merchants from a hugely encouraging fourth place, stayed aboard and the same tactics were repeated, the only signs of wear and tear on the pristine yellow Lola were the louvres over the front wheels, both sides having been pulverised by chunks of racing rubber thrown up by the Lola’s Michelin slicks. The well-drilled pit crew had already prepared a pad of race tape to fix the errant panels back down.

Hour two and the Lola was secure in a top five position, having pitted from third place overall, a wonderful run.

Things were looking very good indeed for the #19 crew, with the other Lola now long gone and both factory Courages, the very fast Racing for Holland Dome and the second of the factory Peugeots having fallen behind, with a catalogue of mechanical problems between them.

It was Gareth Evans’ turn to climb aboard next and he had clearly been reading the Chamberlain-Synergy script very carefully – his lap times were not quite as fast as those of Bob Berridge but they were still quick and more importantly they were super-consistent, Gareth able to defend his position very effectively from the rapid pack of LMP2 cars behind.

He was now fending off a couple of recovering LMP1 runners, with Stephane Sarrazin blasting past in the factory Peugeot and Jean-Marc Gounon looming large in the surviving factory Courage.

Evans’ first stint was bang on the money and as his second got underway, Peter Owen revealed that the #19 car’s pace had been hobbled by “a wastegate problem since the very start of the race. That means we had no real pick-up out of the corners so it has been costing us huge chunks of time. It’s fine above 6000 revs but below that the car is very sluggish.”

The progress made by both drivers then had been all the more remarkable but as Peter Owen made his final preparations to take over for the closing segment of the race, there were gasps from the mechanics watching the TV monitors: Gareth had gone off the circuit and into the gravel. From the TV pictures the car seemed almost undamaged, despite a brush with the tyre wall, but cruelly it seemed that the marshals were determined, despite Gareth’s protestation, to remove the Lola to a place of safety rather than assist with a restart.

A very downhearted Gareth Evans appeared back in the pits a while later with the refreshingly honest analysis that the accident had been caused by a minor mistake from himself. The infamous pocket book of racing excuses not required in the Chamberlain-Synergy camp!

“What people don’t really realise sometimes is that these are serious pieces of kit and they aren’t easy to drive, or to drive quickly,” Gareth had observed the previous day. It was an entirely accurate assessment but unfortunately, one that fate had decided would blow up in his face this time out.

Nil Points then from the Monza jury – you can be assured that Valencia’s round two of the Le Mans Series will see the Musketeers looking to turn their luck around.

 

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