Team LNT – Spa 1000 Km
Third Last Time, Second This Time - It Keeps getting Better

Team LNT’s distinctive orange Panoz Esperante GT-LMs are a difficult pair to miss on this year’s Le Mans Series grid. If anyone had failed to notice them get a podium at Istanbul, it would be impossible to ignore them after a fine performance in a six-hour battle against Porsche, Ferrari, Spyker and TVR at the spectacular Belgian circuit.

Friday
“Testing is all about getting ourselves ready for the race,” may seem like an obvious enough truth, but whilst some teams spent the practice sessions grappling with car troubles and set-up dilemmas, team owner and driver Lawrence Tomlinson’s strategy was more relaxed. “We’ve got great reliability with the Panoz, and as we’ve seen and already [by the end of Friday] we’ve got good speed. It’s a long race so we’re not really bothered about having the fastest car in practice or qualifying. For us it is about keeping a good balance and a consistent pace and we should be able to do that.”

It was encouraging to see the team owner in a calmly focused mood as the heat of Friday ebbed into a brewing thunderstorm, because Team LNT did not have a trouble-free day with the #81 car. “We had a throttle imbalance on the #81 car and it took a while to work out what was wrong but the boys did a good job to find it and sort it out. It turned out to be the throttle bodies not being set correctly from when the engine came off the dyno. It’s running fine now though.”

It was indeed running fine in the second session. A 2:27.259 leap-frogged the Tomlinson and Richard Dean car and meant #81 ended the day with the sixth fastest time in the LMGT2 class, behind only the highly competitive new Ferrari F430 GTCs of GPC, Virgo and Icer Brakes and two of the strongest Porsche entries. It was also encouraging to know that the cars had not been pushed to the limit yet, not least because of an unusual pollen phenomena – layers of the stuff plastered cars, tyres, kerbs and the track itself, robbing the cars of grip. Warren Hughes had the lion’s share of seat-time in #81 and was mainly focusing on “dialling myself into the car. We definitely haven’t maximised it yet, there was a better time in the car that is yet to come. Whether it is a 2:24 on the day I’m not sure, but we’ll soon see what we’ve got.”

The #82 car ran well in both sessions, with Dean and Tomlinson getting some Spa miles, or rather kilometres, under the tyres. Their quickest time of the day was set in the morning session – a 2:27.932 being the fifth best in class at the time, but as the competition found a little time in the later session, #82 ended the day ninth.

Saturday – Free Practice
The meeting’s third practice session took place on Saturday morning, on a damp track, but one that had at least been cleansed of its layer of pollen.

Heading out onto the shiny tarmac under a grey sky, Richard Dean (right) “started on intermediates because it was still quite wet, but it was enough to know that we had gone the right direction on set-up. It’s still not quite right in the wet, but we were quite competitive.”

Tom Kimber-Smith, LNT’s ‘secret’ weapon, was also deployed late in the session, doing a handful of laps on the intermediates before three laps on slicks, the last of which was the best time for the car for the meeting so far – a 2:27.669.

Lawrence Tomlinson explained (well, almost) Kimber-Smith’s role “although he has been referred to as the reserve driver, he is 90% certain to drive at some point in the race, but I can’t say anything more than that without giving our strategy away!”

Kimber-Smith’s talent and ability in a Panoz have already been displayed, at the first meeting of the British GT Championship. To secure the fifth fastest time in the class in just a few laps of a circuit he only knows from a computer game was yet further evidence of those inherent skills.

Lawrence Tomlinson “didn’t go out in today’s session, I was happy with my times and data from yesterday. It is such a long track that an hour goes pretty quickly and you lose too much time swapping the drivers around. We’ve tried a few set-ups this morning as we went through the transition from wet to dry and I’m very happy with the times that both cars ran.”

In the #81 car Rob Bell had the luxury of an entire session to himself and was pleased to report that “all the work we have done on the balance of the car seems to have paid off and it seems to be a step forward from yesterday. We wanted to do a durability test on the wet tyres: the conditions weren’t right for wets but it was something we needed to do. Once we’d done that, we put some slicks on. It was still wet into the Bus Stop and at Les Combes, but with the pollen gone the track felt much cleaner and we were faster than yesterday, even though it was fully dry then.”

Again neither Panoz had yet revealed its optimum laptime, but a 2:27.243 for #81 in tricky conditions was fifth fastest in class.

Qualifying
The GT qualifying session took place on a drying track, the drying process having been greatly assisted by the prototype qualifying session that had taken place five minutes earlier.

Two GT2 teams took a gamble on slicks and it paid off for one of them – IMSA Matmut – whose star driver, Christophe Bouchut, qualified in an impressive 16th place overall.

With the 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight, Lawrence Tomlinson acknowledged that “the tyre to be on was slicks, but we had both cars on intermediates. Overall I’m quite happy with the times, but the problem is that Bouchut has quite an advantage as he is so much further up the grid, with eight cars between him and the next GT2 car. Tom did a great job, so did Warren. I think if we’d have had slicks on we could have had a car for pole, but we didn’t, so we haven’t, and that’s just the way it goes.”

Tom Kimber-Smith and Warren Hughes swapped places on an almost lap by lap basis throughout the 20 minute session, as the track continued to dry and the drivers started to explore and push the limits. Hughes “didn’t think the time set by either Panoz was actually representative. I knew there was a lot more time in the car and it felt really quite nice. I got held up on my last lap, but times were getting quicker every single lap, so it was a problem for me not to get that one in. I think I could have got into the 33s. We had arranged before the session that the crew would give me a shout to make sure we could get one last quick lap in just before the chequered flag - and they were trying to tell me, but the radio wasn’t working so I had no idea what was going on.”

As a result, Warren lost the chance to grab sixth place from TK-S, and would instead start the race in seventh with a 2:35.549, just 5/100ths of a second off Tom’s best. The youngster was “happy to have qualified up there with Warren’s time after just 15 laps of the circuit.” Yes, that is 15 laps in total, he had never driven a car around Spa before this weekend. “Well, unless you count the F1 game on the Playstation, but it’s all flat in that, and it definitely isn’t in real life! It was a difficult session and I spun at the top of Eau Rouge on my first lap, which really knocked my confidence. I knew it was drying and really wanted to keep it on the island for that last lap, which I knew would be the best chance, but I did lose a bit of time through the two fastest corners, which you could see pretty clearly from the data compared with Warren. I put that down to losing confidence after the spin, but I am a bit annoyed with myself as I reckon I could have been third on the grid, which would have looked a lot better.”

Anyone who has ever seen a car get out of shape at Eau Rouge would forgive a Spa novice like Kimber-Smith a couple of seconds, so at the end of the day the only person in the team who was harsh about his qualifying performance was the man himself.

Sunday – Warm-Up
Race day dawned with the wooded hills around the circuit shrouded in fog. At Les Combes, which is the highest point of the circuit, it was drifting right down to the track surface, but was not so thick as to impede visibility to a dangerous degree.

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The circuit was damp in places, but drier than yesterday’s qualifying session, so there were yet more conditions to try out and check the suitability of the set-up on the cars. Lawrence Tomlinson was at the helm of the #82 machine and “the car felt really nice this morning and the balance is really good. We had a brake installation problem on my car but that will be rectified for the race.”

Despite the timing screens suggesting it was Rob Bell in the other car heading the GT2 times by more than a second, the pilot was actually Warren Hughes. “Whoops, I forgot to reset the driver,” he said as Rob chuckled in the background, preparing to take all the praise. “I only did one lap and there was quite a lot of grip, but it wasn’t dry. The visibility is OK as far as you need to see, it is nowhere near as bad as this race last year! If we’d have had conditions like this before qualifying yesterday then now we know how much grip the car has, we would definitely have gone for slicks. The car felt very well balanced though. It gets better every session. I’m confident of a strong race as I don’t think any of us are pushing at anywhere near the limit yet.”

Race
Rob Bell started #81, with Richard Dean in #82 just in front. Both cars moved up a position before they had even taken the green light, after Christophe Bouchut’s big qualifying advantage was undone in an instant as his team missed the pitlane opening window, meaning he would have to start from the back of the grid.

With all the team members, grid-girls and hangers-on cleared from the grid, it was time for the installation lap behind the pace car, ready for an explosion of power across the start line.

The explosion of power was dramatic as the cars dived down the long, long hill to the bottom of Eau Rouge, but even more drama awaited the drivers at the top.

Dean arrived first and with carnage unfolding in front of him. “There were stopped cars and debris everywhere and I had to choose left or right. I chose right, not because it was easier or anything but it just happened out of instinct. I ended up running over a lot of debris and picked up a cut tyre, so I had to pit.” He completed that lap amid clouds of tyre smoke.

Rob Bell, arriving at almost the same time as Dean, chose left probably for very similar reasons to Dean. “I had to brake hard and ended up getting hit up the rear, which caused some damage to the rear bumper.”

In what seemed to be two separate incidents, the LMP1 ProTran and LMP2 G-Force Courage had spun in the middle of the pack and were collected at full chat by the #78 Autorlando Porsche and #73 Ice Pol Ferrari respectively. All four cars were eliminated on the spot with significant damage.

There was then an “outrageously slow” safety car period, as the train of cars tried to thread their way past the wreckage, marshals and recovery trucks. Richard Dean emerged from the pits to rejoin the train, but the red flag was wisely shown once it proved impossible to clear the wreckage with the cars circulating.

The clock continued to tick down and by the time the track was cleared for the restart, there were just less than five of those original six hours left. The first lap chaos had the LNT cars effectively making their starts from 32nd and 35th place, 11th and 13th in class. A frustrated Richard Dean felt that “the whole of qualifying and our race strategy was right out of the window, as it was to be a shorter race again.”

The LNT cars both began a rapid rise through the field though and soon Dean was in 24th and Bell 26th.

Rosa was the first LMGT2 front-runner to make a routine stop in his GPC Ferrari, and the order became #99 Virgo Ferrari, # 85 Spyker, #90 Porsche, then Dean closing in, with the recovering Bouchut sandwiched between him and Rob Bell.

Bell hung on to the storming Bouchut for several laps, but then took his first stop. Bouchut passed Dean and the duo began chasing down Bleekemolen in the Dutch Spyker, the #90 Farnbacher Porsche having ground to a halt in the pitlane.

It was an impressive early pace from both cars, proving they are contenders for outright speed as well as reliability.

Richard Dean began to drop back slightly from Bouchut and was then to come under attack from the other top-line Porsche of Marc Lieb.

Rob Bell was making his way back up through the order after his stop, one of the easiest places he made up was the other Spyker, Jonny Kane having spun into the gravel trap.

The Virgo Ferrari and circulating Spyker pitted before the chasing pack,so Bouchut and Lieb led Dean, the Panoz moving into a podium spot for the first time.

It was a brief spell at the top before the depleted fuel tank dictated a pitstop for Dean too. De Simone, Eagling and Hezemans all re-passed him, so it was sixth and seventh for LNT with 3 hours 40 to go.

The orange cars were not distant from those in front, and even in endurance racing terms, 3 hours 40 was still a long time to go. Lapping at a consistent pace, both cars had stretched away from all of those behind, which doubtless took some of the pressure away.

Spyker’s bad day continued as Hezemans was forced to pit again with a problem. Lieb made a routine stop to hand over to Carnathias and Bouchut to Narac.

Now was the time for Team LNT to make some in-roads into the leading Porsches, both of the fresh Porsche pilots were good, but would not put themselves in the same league as their team-mates.

De Simone led Carnathias and Narac from Eagling and Bell, whilst Dean handed over to Lawrence Tomlinson. It was only a matter of time before Eagling took Narac and both of those closed in on and passed Carnathias.

A further safety car period brought about by a crash for the LMP1 Lister helped close things up even more. The leading Ferrari pitted to change drivers from De Simone to Drudi and Rob Bell also came in for Warren Hughes, as Lawrence Tomlinson moved up to fourth.

The Safety Car’s passenger was waving cars through until it picked up the leader, so there was not the same amount of bunching as you would normally expect, though pit-lane escapee Hughes found himself nicely placed behind Drudi.

Both LNT cars looked strong on the restart, Warren Hughes taking Drudi relatively easily whilst Lawrence Tomlinson made in-roads into Carnathias’ lead.

Warren picks up the story of the next fateful lap. “After I’d passed Drudi I was held up at Eau Rouge a little and he got a run by me. We were either side of a red Porsche and he managed to get in front again. We passed quite a few cars together and were lapping at pretty much the same speed – I hadn’t realised I was battling him for position. We even passed someone into Blanchimont, so I was happy running at his pace. As we came into the Bus-stop he braked much earlier than I was expecting. The closing speed was so much that I would either have to hit him or dive way up on the inside of the kerb, hoping he would see me and not turn in. I tried it, but he didn’t see me and I ended up hitting him at ninety degrees, which took us both out of the race. I’m just so sorry for the team.”

Warren Hughes managed to limp back to the pits, but the broken wheel was the least of the problems: the damage to the front corner was too severe to continue.

The team’s focus was now purely upon Lawrence Tomlinson, who initially found himself ahead of Virgo’s Tim Sugden and third in class, an impressive16th overall, but Sugden’s Ferrari had a little more pace and regained the position.

The Panoz with 2 hours 15 minutes to go and handed over to Tom Kimber-Smith who despite the handover managed to hold that hard-earned fourth position. The Panoz was eight seconds behind Narac, 58 seconds behind Lieb and a lap down on class leader Sugden. TK-S showed what he could do from the off, made easier because “when I got in the car it felt exactly the same as when I first got in the car on Friday. Richard and Lawrence had looked after it for me and it hadn’t suffered at all.”

Narac was easily despatched and now the Panoz was holding third place by right, not due to the sequence of pitstops. The revised LNT strategy and consistent speed of all three drivers had started to pay dividends in this final third of the race.

With a second wind and a solid car underneath him, TK-S had posted the fastest lap in his car of 2:26.863 in order to keep maximum pressure on Sugden, but went on to chip a further tenth off that time, lapping at the same pace as Bouchut and Lieb – two (three) very strong drivers in two (three) very good cars.

The fact that he was lapping at Bouchut’s pace was emphasised by the fact that the Panoz was almost a lap ahead, practically following the Porsche’s wheeltracks.

Those late stage tactical dividends turned into jackpots as Virgo had to make another quick “splash and dash” fuel stop. Sugden had already lost the lead to Autorlando’s Lieb as a result of an unfortunate coincidence between their previous stop and a safety car period, but the splash and dash dropped them another place, to the benefit of Team LNT. Tom Kimber-Smith moved up into an excellent second place in class that he was not to lose, a remarkable 16th place overall, taking the chequered flag some 13 seconds ahead of Sugden in the Virgo Ferrari.

TK-S was aware of the situation with Virgo: “I was in contact with my engineer and we had a suspicion that Virgo needed a splash and dash. I would have been happy with third in class until I knew that, so we kept the pressure on Sugden hoping he would make a mistake. In the end, when he came out of his pitstop I had got ahead anyway, but then he made a mistake on his outlap. So the pressure paid off. It was difficult at the end to pace myself as I didn’t need to drive flat out but I didn’t want to go too far off the pace in case I made a mistake. Richard and Lawrence both did a fantastic job and second here is a great result.”

A modest, unflustered but clearly delighted Lawrence Tomlinson summed up the weekend (once he'd stoppped laughing). “Second is pretty much where we expected to be, and we still haven’t got the balance quite right, so we know we can be faster. The best thing is that the car felt like a brand new one right at the end of the race, it was ready for another six hours at least which has to be a pointer in the right direction for Le Mans.” Indeed, not to mention the three remaining Le Mans Series races.
Paul Slinger


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