Team LNT – Valencia 1000 Km
A Tough One

#81 Tom Kimber-Smith / Danny Watts
#82 Richard Dean / Tom Milner

The new man at Team LNT for the Spanish round of the Le Mans Series was Tom Milner – but he wasn’t completely new.

“I joined the team at Estoril a week or so ago, for a three day Pirelli tyre test,” said Tom, “and then flew back to the US to test the Rahal Letterman Porsche at Road Atlanta – and now I’m back in Europe again. It’s been a busy time for me.”

Busy, but very productive, testing at Estoril having proceeded very well, as Tom Kimber-Smith explains.
“We were working on tyres and set-ups at Estoril, and we’ve definitely improved the pace of the car. We’re going to be closer (to the outright pace) here than we were in Italy, although the Panoz is more of a long distance car than a one lap machine.”

Tom (K-S) described the Valencia track, with 46 prototypes and GTs on the circuit, as “like racing Formula Fords round the Indy Circuit at Brands hatch.” That was a reference to both the traffic – and the way certain entries seemed to find the gravel traps at every opportunity, at least in practice. Yellow flags were waved repeatedly, and finding a clear lap, especially one without yellows, was all but impossible.

After the end of the first session on Friday, “we’ve worked out which tyre we’re going to use,” pointed out TK-S. “Danny (Watts) and I like the same set-up, identical in every way – the only difference between us in our size.”

The TK-S / Danny Watts car was fifth fastest in GT2 after the first session on Friday, with a 1:38.579, within seven-tenths of the fastest GT2 car, and although the Richard Dean / Tom Milner #82 was in the 1:40s on day 1, times improved on Saturday morning, in the final session before qualifying. Richard and Tom were in the 1:39s, while Tom and Danny were down to a 1:38.2.

But an engine problem had reared its ugly head on the #82 car, and the team was faced with a frantic engine change before qualifying. Chip Lewis from Elan Technologies was on hand to explore the engine issue, which had cropped up on the #82 car before, notably in the Monza race three weeks earlier.

“I got out for qualifying with a few minutes left, but had to do an installation lap first,” remarked Richard Dean. “My first flying lap was a 1:41, and just before I passed under the clock on the start-finish straight, I saw “2 seconds” of the session left, so I barely started another lap in time. That one was a 1:39.804, which wasn’t bad in the circumstances.”

Tom Kimber-Smith set the 1:38.514 in the other car, good enough for ninth on the GT2 part of the grid – but Tom was still punching in the laps right at the end of the session, looking for a quicker one.

“Overtaking other GT2 cars here is going to be tough,” he reasoned. “But in some ways this is the best circuit for us, because of its stop-start nature. We’re really good on the brakes, and our traction is really good too.”

So from ninth and 14th on the grid, the two cars would have plenty of potential victims up ahead – if they could get past round this stop-start circuit. The two Toms would start the race – but Richard Dean was a worried man.

“The Elan guys are certainly making progress with understanding the engine problems we seem to be suffering, but we’re acutely aware that the next race is the Le Mans 24 Hours. We need the engines to be bullet-proof there” – just as the engine in the class-winning car was in 2006.

“Tom and Danny don’t seem to be having any problems though. Their engine did the whole Monza race and the Estoril tyre test and it’s been fine.”

Fateful words, as it turned out…

So, later than usual (a 13.30 start, rather than the usual midday) it was a huge field of 46 cars that took the rolling start – after a very slow parade lap.

TK-S was up to seventh immediately, and that’s where he positioned himself, running hard, looking strong. Meanwhile, Tom Milner wasn’t going to settle for the nether regions of GT2, and within a handful of laps, he’d charged up to ninth, the two Esperantes separated only by the #98 Ferrari.

But lap 11 saw Tom Milner heading for the pit lane – and into the garage.

“The engine is down on power, but we think they’ve sorted it,” shouted Richard Dean – above the sound of the V8 being fired up, which sounded perfect again.

A spectating Lawrence Tomlinson (above) indicated that “they’ve changed coils. Our race pace is looking really good. We’re doing our qualifying pace in the race, and Tom (Kimber-Smith) is on the back of the lead group.”

The Milner / Dean car had lost about 12 minutes though.

But famed Panoz reliability looked as though it would pay dividends again, for the TK-S / Watts car at least. More so when TK-S slipped past the #78 Ferrari, which soon pitted for tyres.

Tom lost a place to a charging Johnny Mowlem in another Ferrari, but was still running sixth as the first scheduled stops approached. TK-S pitted slightly early…

With Danny Watts in the car, the endurance nature of the racing was established, with the Esperante running in a strong seventh: nothing much changed as Watts charged on after the Ferraris and Porsches, pitting for TK-S to resume at the wheel again. Lap 83 and #81 was still right there, in eighth, chasing the Belgian Ferrari.

Lap 84 and #81 was in the pits. Richard Dean: “It’s an engine problem. There’s something about the 2007 spec. engine. The mechanics are looking at the fuel system, because both cars aren’t picking up all the fuel. Maybe there’s something they can do to our car to help us with the same problem.”

Richard Dean was frustrated that “we’re miles behind, but Tom’s doing a great job. We’re really, really pleased with him.”

Making progress up the order was a real challenge after that early delay for this car, but Milner and Dean raced on – as far as lap 154.

Tom Milner: “A fuel pressure issue put us out.”

So a rare event for Team LNT and its Esperantes: both cars eliminated, no points scored. With Le Mans as the next event, there will be a lot of head scratching going on to find a solution.

 

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