Team LNT – The 715 Km of Istanbul
Bingo - First LNT Panoz Podium

dailysportscar continued its chase of Team LNT and its Panoz Esperantes (Sebring – Silverstone – Paul Ricard) by following the team’s truck (not yet the brand new, all singing and dancing truck, that’s still a few weeks away from its first appearance) to Istanbul, for the opening race of the 2006 Le Mans Series (April 9).

This event would also (allegedly) see the debut of the matching swimming trunks of Team LNT team owner Lawrence Tomlinson and team MD Richard Dean, of Dean’s very smart new, striped racing seat – and of Warren Hughes’ rather dapper new racing boots, in a fetching shade of silver. Oh, and Rob Bell would be appearing for the team for the first time too, partnering Hughes. They apparently talk with the same dialect, so they have to drive together – because only they understand each other (and would the idiot who thought Rob came from Scotland please admit to his calamitous error… oh, he has).

So, down to business. “I think we’re now up to test day number 26,” commented Lawrence Tomlinson (right) on Friday morning. “We’ve essentially been working on reliability (for the Le Mans 24 Hours), and there’s always a trade-off between speed and reliability – but we’re very pleased with how reliable the cars have been.”

Richard Dean (on new man Rob Bell): “He fits in really well – he’s a proper bloke. OK, he’s come from single seaters, but in open wheeled cars, you can’t touch anyone, otherwise you’re probably out of the race. He’s been consistently fast in every test, but we’d have liked to have had him out testing more often – but his Grand Am commitments have got in the way.”

Rob Bell: “I was running an easy second in the recent Homestead race, and really enjoying driving a Porsche. The Panoz is something else again though.”

Rod Farrell (below) had already worked out where the Le Mans Series opposition would be coming from: “It will be very interesting to see how well the Ferrari 430s go, and Autorlando too.” These would be the main rivals in the race.

The single, one hour session on Friday afternoon saw Lawrence Tomlinson out first in #81, Warren Hughes in #82. Unfortunately, the little-used track was incredibly dusty, and lap times suffered accordingly.

Warren Hughes (left): “I only did three laps, because we wanted to get Rob into the car – although when we were here in November, I only completed nine laps in the whole meeting!”

Tomlinson and Dean were delighted with the on-going reliability of the two Esperantes, but there were a couple of related problems. “The cars are ‘hopping’ at Turn 1,” said Lawrence, “and I think I’ve cracked my ribs again.”

Ribs that haven’t had time to heal since Sebring…..

“We’ve had it (a high frequency bounce) at some tracks we’ve tested at but not others,” commented Warren Hughes. “There’s a lot more (pace) to come.”

The Esperantes were fifth and seventh fastest, both in the 1:59s – and there was indeed a lot more pace to come.

Friday’s fine, warm weather was followed by a more overcast Saturday morning – and rain was due to hit the area before the end of the day.

“We’ve got Chip Lewis here from Elan Motorsport Technologies,” explained Richard Dean (right). “He’s really here just to oversee our first event with the Panozes in Europe: he’s looking after the engine mapping, with our guy Lee.

“Lawrence did a long run in that (first, one hour) session – he’s got a new seat for today, and he’s fine. And Allan (Mugglestone) has altered the set-up to cure the bouncing, which has all gone. I did two laps right at the end, to run the car out of fuel – so that we know it will use it all up.”

The really encouraging news is that with such reliable cars, the team can concentrate on development – rather than, as happened last year, seeming to spend all their time changing TVR engines. The progress with the cars has been reflected in the team spirit: smiles everywhere, everyone’s happy – Richard Dean’s only moan being the cost of a season ticket to watch his beloved Leeds United.

“They dropped a division this year and doubled the season ticket price – so I didn’t buy one.”

Concentrating on reliability or speed? The Warren Hughes / Rob Bell car was fastest in GT2 in the first session on Saturday – with a 1:56.445 from the new man in the team, during a long run. Warren was content not to go out. Didn’t want to get his new boots dirty? Lawrence was into the 1:57s in the early session – and that new seat was doing its job. When did they have time to make a new seat last season?

The lunchtime (pre qualifying) session turned out to have little real meaning – because there were more than a few spots of rain on the far side of the circuit. The better placed Panoz was fifth in class.

One of the (rival) Porsche drivers reckoned that “the Panoz seems fast on the straight, the new Ferrari is good in the fast corners.” So which would take pole in GT2 – or would it be a Porsche?

There was a hint of rain about when the GT session started, but the wide tyres soon dried it off nicely – and with moments of the session left it was Richard Dean fastest, with fellow Yorkshireman Tim Sugden next, in the best of the Ferraris. Peter who? Sundberg. He’s Swedish. He stayed out right to the end of the session in the ‘Spanish’ Ferrari, and snatched pole at the death. There would still be a Panoz on the ‘GT2 front row”, but the Yorkshire domination hadn’t lasted.

The North East wasn’t quite as happy as ‘Yorkshire’.

Rob Bell (above): “We changed the diff. before the lunchtinme session, which is why we were late out. But the slippery track masked any improvement – and in qualifying, it turned out it wasn’t an improvement. We’ll probably put the set-up from the other car on our car.” Rob qualified sixth, six-tenths slower than the sister machine.

Chip Lewis on Team LNT: “I’m so impressed with these guys – easy to work with, friendly, dedicated. We want this event to be as big a success for Panoz as Sebring was.”

Rob Bell on the (European) Pirellis: “They’re extremely consistent. I did a 1:56.7 this morning, on tyres that had already done an hour and a half.” That was quicker than Rob’s qualifying time – so race pace looked to be very good indeed.

And then – confirmed after an hour and three quarters of the race – the approximately five and a half hour Istanbul 1000 Km became the Istanbul 715 Km. But for Warren Hughes and Rob Bell, it was all immaterial. Rob: “We think a driveshaft broke: I didn’t even get in it.”

Warren Hughes had obviously started the #81 car, and was seventh at one hour – and that was as far as the car was going to travel on this day.

Time to focus on the Richard Dean / Lawrence Tomlinson Esperante.

Richard had started the race – and just as at Sebring, he was off like a shot, and leaving the Ferraris behind. The pole car went backwards, the Virgo Ferrari too, neither on suitable rubber, but R. Dean was on intermediate tyres: “We went for the safe option. I thought that it would dry out fairly quickly though – and it did.”

Lap 2 and he had a six second lead, although that then shrank a little, over Christophe Bouchut in the French-entered Porsche. Lap 10 and the Panoz was in a remarkable eleventh overall – but now it was the GPC Ferrari 430 that was second in class, and closing, because the Italians had fitted slicks.

Lap 11 and the Panoz dropped to second place: Richard was already thinking about a pit stop for slick Pirellis, and at 13 laps he was down pitlane.

That stop was one factor in the strategy that played itself out over the next three and a half hours or so, the other being the organisers’ 'announcement’ that the race would be shortened to four hours, because of a fuel shortage. By the time the announcement was made, via the timing screens, Richard was a spectator, fully expecting to be watching the race for a double stint.

He’d completed that short, opening stint, then a full one of well over an hour – and was running in a very strong fourth place.

“My ribs were fine,” said the team owner, after his stint, “the adrenaline takes over once you’re in the car.”

At two hours into the race, Lawrence Tomlinson was running fifth, splitting the Spykers, which had made only one stop (after starting on slicks). At two and a half hours, the Spykers had made their second stops, and the race pattern was falling into place. The Panoz was third in class, with one stop left. Ahead were the Porsches of the Autorlando and IMSA teams (behind the Panoz, below), but the latter would make two more pit stops, putting it down a place.

The trouble was to come from behind though. Fabrizio de Simone was in the GPC Ferrari, and he would need only a splash of fuel before the end.

Lawrence took the Panoz to the 2 hour 50 minute mark, leaving Richard with a full stint to the chequered flag. He resumed in fifth in GT2, about 100 seconds behind race leader Marc Lieb. The Dutch Spyker had saved a fuel stop by starting on slicks, so Richard had to deal with that car – and, without doing more than passing it while it pitted, the IMSA Porsche.

He was fourth with 13 minutes left, but a spin for the Spyker sealed third for the Team LNT Panoz Esperante – third place on the car’s debut in Europe, third place in a class that some believe is as tough as GT2 in the ALMS. Time to take some photographs... of the podium celebrations.

“We’re disappointed that the race finished early,” summed up Richard Dean, “and I’m hoping this isn’t our best result of the year.”

A full 1000 km might have tested the winning Ferrari to the limit and beyond, this a car only delivered to the team within the previous week.

“We started on the wrong tyres, but Richard did a great job,” was the LNT team owner’s conclusion. Now if the teams had known that this was to be a four hour sprint, how different their strategies might have been. It was a bizarre way for the race to evolve – and almost certainly a first in endurance racing… certainly in the way that the race duration was reduced, while it was going on.

Spa next for the Le Mans Series - and we know what happened there in 2005…. but we'll be chasing Team LNT to Outon Park first, for the Easter weekend British GT event.

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