Team LNT – 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours - The Race

This page will be updated during the 24 Hours, as often as we can manage it.
(as it turned out, we failed on that score - but the task has now been completed - the further the Team LNT Esperante advanced through this extraordinary race, the less anyone wanted to say about propsects for a possibly outstanding finish!)

Warm Up, Race Morning
"The driver parade yesterday was like being David Beckham for the day," commented Richard Dean this morning, after the 09.00 - 09.45 warm up. "There were girls asking us to sign almost any part of them, and others trying to rip your clothes off.

"I was the only one of the three of us who went out this morning - and I set a 4:13, which was pretty close to our qualifying time. We're getting there. That was the first time I've been able to push without thinking that I'm still learning the circuit.

"We've had our set-backs since the test day weekend got going, and in qualifying, we sustained some damage after a trip over the kerbs or the gravel. This morning was proper set-up work for the race.

"The guys had a fairly late night last night, but we'll be OK for the race."

The Race
Making Motorsport History

Ferrari has tried and failed to break the domination of Porsche in the hugely important GT2 class at the biggest race in the world, the Le Mans 24 Hours. So too have TVR, Morgan, Spyker and Callaway Corvette.

Panoz has tried too and they were trying again this year with a factory backed car from Multimatic Motorsport and another car entered by Team LNT from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Yorkshire.

With more than 100,000 race fans along the pit straight, more than double that number around the circuit, and TV viewers that number into the hundreds of millions worldwide, the start of the Le Mans 24 hours is an event on an epic scale.

The race itself is utterly unique – 50 of the world’s very best sportscar racing teams are invited to take part in a competition that is nothing short of a combination of automotive chess and a trial of strength combined.

With bright sunshine leading up to the race start at 5pm, that trial of strength became more difficult still, Richard Dean taking the wheel of the #81 Team LNT Panoz Esperante GTLM as the car took up its place at the traditional echelon formation dummy grid, where the car was covered with the Union Jack, and the driver squads were paraded in open topped Audi road cars in front of the massed ranks of Europe’s enthusiastic race fans.

After the traditional playing of the national anthems of all competing teams and drivers, and the equally traditional good natured competition between the British and French spectators over who can sing theirs the loudest, the grid clears and the cars set off to form up the grid proper. Finally the whole field is led by the safety car, timed to perfection for the lead car to cross the start line as the Rolex clock above ticks onto the appointed hour (this year an hour later to avoid a clash with TV coverage of the World Cup).

Enough of the formula though and onto the race.

Richard made great early progress. From ninth in class he was up to a strong sixth place almost immediately. Part one of the plan was complete - make a fast and safe start, stay out of trouble and take advantage of the mistakes of others ahead. Here's Richard in the first half hour, when the safety cars appeared after a huge crash for one of the Aston Martins.

With the usually bulletproof Porsche runners proving to be rather fragile this year, further progress came reasonable easily.

Easily? Well that’s entirely the wrong word when you are talking about a race where you not only have to battle with a world class field in your own class but, in the case of the GT2 class in particular, also have to deal with the huge closing speeds of the Prototype classes and the big GT1 cars too.

Coupled with that was the heat, and a faulty cool suit didn’t help. Cockpit temperatures can go sky high, particularly with a front-engined car, and the cooling air of nightfall is a huge relief.

Richard Dean’s first stint set the tone and he handed the car over to team owner Lawrence Tomlinson in a superb fifth place in class. The boss then continued the good work, the Panoz retaining its position through to the late evening - the one disappointment being that the team had hoped to draw some advantage over their rivals at their routine pitstops by stretching their need for new Pirelli rubber over two driver stints rather than one. With the rubber selected for the race start, coupled with the prevailing track conditions, that had proved impossible, but when the car was handed over to Tom Kimber-Smith, the decision was taken to try a softer compound of tyre in the cooling air.

It was an immediate success: “The grip was good throughout the stint and the team took a good look at the rubber when I pitted,” said Tom later. “That’s very good news and we’ll now start to double stint the tyres.”

Richard Dean then stayed aboard the #81 car for almost three hours with the same Pirelli rubber bolted on. The tactic during darkness was to double stint Dean and Kimber-Smith in turn with Tomlinson rejoining the fray in the early morning.

“It’s a simple plan but it is working. Just keep going round and round, stick to our own pace and let the rest make their own mistakes,” said Richard Dean

That pace has been around 4 minutes and 12 seconds and it was enough to see the car up to fourth in class by Midnight, seven hours in and just 17 to go! Ahead were a trio of GT2 cars, q top class Porsche, a Dutch Spyker from their factory backed team and the Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari that the LNT boys know so well from their regular races against the very same car in the British GT Championship.

The first problem to strike the team came at about 01:15, Richard Dean having a lurid spin as the car came onto the super fast Mulsanne Straight. Richard managed to keep the car away from the barriers and came slowly back to the pits: suspected broken rear suspension was quickly diagnosed as a broken rear track rod, Alan Mugglestone deciding that since the car needed to be brought into the garage for the part to be replaced, the team should also make a change of front brake discs and pads which would soon be required in any case. More good news out of bad was that the Team LNT boys managed to fix the broken cool box system too, at the same time.

10 minutes lost, and a drop down to sixth in class but now with a re-fettled car better prepared to fight its corner. Sixth soon became fifth as Richard demoted the White Lightning Porsche and set off in pursuit of the next target, the Japanese entered Taisan Advan Porsche.

The fast and steady approach was to pay off once again as the Panoz was caught and passed by Porsche factory driver Jorg Bergmeister only to repass the quick German’s American-owned Porsche when Bergmeister went off into the gravel 30 minutes later.

The team continued to cycle through double stints, with Richard Dean’s effort being followed by a double stint from Tom Kimber-Smith once again, before Richard Dean took over to take the car through to dawn.

By 05:30 Dean was up onto the tail of the Japanese Porsche once again and soon swept through to take fourth in class.

Racers though don’t give in easily and the Japanese car, with two highly experienced Japanese GT racers on its driving squad, fought back retaking the Panoz, so fifth place then?

Well no, the name of the game first and foremost in 24 hour racing is – Finish The Race – and with a stroke of cruel luck the second placed, Audi V8 powered, Spyker dropped a valve, game over for that car.

Next to stumble were LNT’s arch rivals in the British GT Championship, Scuderia Ecosse with their Ferrari 430.

After a routine pitstop Tim Mullen toured around and pitted again, having felt a worrying vibration from the rear of the car: a component failure at top speed at Le Mans is not a risk worth taking. What seemed like a minor problem went from bad to worse when the offending rear wheel refused to budge. The efforts to persuade it to finally do so involved fire extinguishers, hammers, drills and a six foot scaffold pole. By the time the errant alloy had been literally chipped off the hub the damage to the Ferrari’s hopes of a challenge to win the class had been done. Team LNT was through to third in class with six hours of the race still to run.

Finally, in a 90 minute period of high drama, the Japanese Porsche hit gearbox trouble of the terminal variety, catapulting the now extremely nervous Team LNT to second slot in GT2, just the Seikel / Farnbacher Porsche ahead and a fabulous podium finish within their grasp - but still with hours of running to survive.

Meanwhile the Panoz was running like a train, just a faulty bonnet catch which needed the assistance of a large strip of race tape to secure it: the pounding that hour after hour of racing around this unique circuit had taken a small toll on the astonishing Esperante.

Team LNT showed yet again that they have a firm grasp of how the available advantages can be grasped by opting to pit to change brake pads during an early morning safety car period – another routine job attended to at a time when the impact on track time could be kept to a bare minimum.

By now the body language in the Team LNT pit garage was rather different than it had been at the start of the race. Then it had been a case of bravado over the team’s prospects of finishing this car crusher of a racing challenge. Now though there was more than the sniff of a potential podium – any mention of this prospect though was strictly forbidden in the team’s garage. Racing people are a superstitious bunch!

Lawrence Tomlinson though was a very cool headed customer as the morning drew to a close.

“We were hoping for a podium, we felt we had a chance on reliability. We ran the same sort of tactic that we did at Sebring. Find the right pace and stick to it.”

By the time Richard Dean had finished a double stint at midday, handing the #81 car to Lawrence Tomlinson, the nerves were jangling, any comment offered seemed certain to damn the day’s efforts immediately. The team sank within themselves, nobody even wanting to meet the eyes of any outsiders offering best wishes. Torture through goodwill – and still the car had to keep going round and round rather quickly.

“I really don’t want to say anything at all!” said Richard Dean.

Inevitably every snippet of information was seized upon greedily – was the Porsche ahead in gearbox trouble? Was that a slow lap in traffic or was it the first pointer that a class win could be a possibility, was there enough laps in hand to fend off the now circulating Ferrari if there was a minor problem with the Panoz?

Then the impossible happened, the Porsche’s rumoured gearbox problems didn’t manifest themselves but the gearshift itself broke, initially stranding its young German driver out at Mulsanne Corner, then finally struggling back to the pitlane for a repair to be effected.

It was a brave effort and a heartbreaking happening for the long time class leaders. Richard Dean, now back aboard the Panoz had got the message and had pounded out the laps that had separated the two. By the time the Porsche emerged after a frantic repair job, Dean had dispensed with the six lap deficit and had pulled out a three quarters of a lap gap. Next time around he pitted the Esperante for fuel and emerged with almost two minutes still in hand over the chasing 911, with just 26 minutes of the 24 Hours left to run.

It was game over for the Porsche. There was no way that a driver of Richard Dean’s experience was going to lose out in that scenario and indeed, as the clock ticked ever closer to 5pm and the pit crew and drivers were biting their nails to the quick, Richard remained entirely calm and collected, staving off any possible Porsche-shaped threat.

As the car came around to start the final lap the team on the ‘prat-perch’ (‘Rocket Rodney Farrell, Alan Mugglestone and Lee Penn) were still nervous but the rest of the backroom boys rushed over to the pit wall, together with Dr Don Panoz and his son, President of Panoz Automotive Danny Panoz, to cheer the #81 car home.

The unleashing of emotion as Richard took the chequered flag was enormous, grown men with tears streaming down their faces. This was a huge day for Team LNT, its drivers and the Panoz Esperante, but this was also the biggest motorsport day in the lives of the backroom boys, and in this sort of racing their contribution is truly the clincher, a fact recognized by a VIP who arrived for the end of the race.

Don Panoz: “This is the biggest win in our company’s history and to do it on our tenth anniversary makes this a very special day. The guys were spot on with the pit stops and got around the inevitable minor problems that you always encounter in a 24 hour race with real professionalism.”

Lawrence Tomlinson, finally now allowing himself to believe the enormity of it all, was still coming up with the soundbites: “We were third in Istanbul and second at Spa - we just didn’t want to peak too soon!”

Joking aside, this was a hugely significant result. Porsche (and Ferrari, and Spyker) were beaten fair and square by a small team from Yorkshire in the only car ever to have beaten a Porsche in the GT2 class at Le Mans – this was truly a piece of motorsport history.

 

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