Embassy Racing – Le Mans Series – Monza 1000 Km – April 15
Part 1 – The Racing

It’s been a long sabbatical year for Embassy Racing but it’s been well worth the wait.

The team’s first stab at their return to the fray, this time in the very hard fought ranks of Le Mans Prototype racing, was with a Pilbeam chassis, with Judd V8 power, plus the additional powerpacks in the cockpit of Embassy stalwart Neil Cunningham and new boy, ex-MG Lola factory driver Warren Hughes, both men promising to provide a perfect blend of experience and speed.

Pre-season testing showed up some development that would be needed before the chassis could be raced for as long and as hard as would be needed to register success in the six race Le Mans Series, half a dozen 1000km races on the classic tracks of Europe.

The team had a choice, withdraw from the first two races of the season and make the required changes to get the Pilbeam up to speed or find an alternative to start the season that was now just a matter of days away.

“It was a really difficult call but the reality is that our year has been built around the full Series and missing a third of it would have been a big blow,” said Team Principal Jonathan France.

Happily there was a solution available – and after a frenetic few days of activity the team took delivery of their new 2007 season car: the ex-Rollcentre Racing Radical SR9 would emerge from the paintshop pristine in black and silver as the #45 Embassy Racing entry.

But for the season opener there was one important difference from the season ‘look’, the Radical carried all-over backing for CLAPA, the Cleft Lip & Palate Association, the car carrying the CLAPA logo (and smiley faces) at Monza, many of the team’s sponsors having agreed to remove their logo decals in order to draw attention to the work of CLAPA, the only UK-wide voluntary organisation specifically helping those with, and affected by, cleft lip and palate. It is a cause close to Jonathan France’s heart as his son William was born with the condition last year. You can find out more on www.clapa.com

Friday lunchtime and it was finally time to take the Radical to the track, the decision to take on the new car so late meant that “it was really a shakedown run,” said Warren Hughes, after running for around 30 minutes. “The biggest problem for me is that I am uncomfortable in the car so we’ll be having another seat fitting session tonight. Beyond that it has been a case of a number of small niggling issues around balance, braking and stability, together with a software problem which gives us far too big a blip on some downshifts. The great thing is though that with those issues we’re still not that far from the pace (4th fastest!).”

Martin Short popped into the Embassy truck for a chat about progress so far and immediately there was recognition of some of the issues and advice on how to best deal with them.

Progress would continue throughout the Friday and Saturday practice sessions as the team got to grips with the Radical and with the almost inevitable minor niggles that come along with thoroughbred racing machinery.

Neil Cunningham got his first chance aboard the Radical on Friday afternoon. “The car is amazing, I need more time, but doesn’t everyone? I’m pretty pleased to be as close as I am to Warren this early and he’s a great guy to work with. We had a minor misfire this morning but we’re on top of that now. We’ll find our race pace as we get more and more seat time, but so far it’s going way better than we expected.”

The Embassy car would remain solidly in the top four quickest through three one hour practice sessions and things were looking very, very good. Perhaps too good?

Qualifying would see Warren Hughes again take to the wheel of the #45 car and whilst the car’s practice session pace was retained, others improved from their earlier form.and Warren’s best lap of 1:41.420 would only be good enough for sixth in class, this though despite the fact that Warren was suffering from a bad cold, the Embassy Team’s hospitality crew were serving coffee, tea and Lem-Sip for most of the weekend!

By race morning Warren was back on form and the car and crew formed up in the pit lane for the first full team photo of 2007, before a short warm-up run.

But there was a problem, as team manager Jody Firth confirmed post session: “We had a rear left suspension member break, not ideal at this stage but at least it’s better than it happening in the race this afternoon.”

The fighting spirit was there of course, the repair was completed in double quick time and, with the support of the very lovely Embassy Girls on the grid, the black and silver SR9 formed up in bright sunshine, with 46 other world class sportscars moving off on the formation lap, and Embassy Racing joining the pack for the very first time. It was a beautiful sight and a very proud moment for all concerned.

Not so beautiful a sight though was the appearance of the #45 car back into the pitlane after the very first lap. “The gearbox won’t change down, it seems to be an electronic issue,” said a disappointed Warren Hughes.

The team worked hard and worked fast but there’s nothing worse than a niggling electrical problem in the heat of a race: the problem recurred and with the race pace leaving the hobbled #45 car with no chance of race success, Embassy decided to continue their run as an extended test session. There was marked success when the car ran cleanly, its best lap time proving faster than all but two of the other class runners, just three tenths of a second off the class best.

Sadly though that was the high point for Embassy’s race, Neil Cunningham finally grinding to a halt just short of the pitlane entry, the Judd V8 having stopped, either a further electronic glitch or an engine fault finally bringing down the curtain on Embassy’s Le Mans Series debut. It had been a plucky start but a frustrating one.

“It’s been a very busy couple of weeks,” said Jonathan France after the race had been completed, the LMP2 class having suffered a far greater attrition rate than usual. “We’ll take some positives from this but we’re all motivated to sort out the problems fast.”

That’s always been the key word behind Embassy Racing – fast – and the next fast action will be to press on with solving the Monza problems in testing prior to next month’s round 2 of the 2007 Le Mans Series at Spain’s Valencia circuit.


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