2002 MG LOLA EX257
MG LOLA USINE of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2001 & 2002
One of the most competitive prototypes of the period.
Qualified in 5th position at the 2002 Le Mans 24 Hours
Nicknamed the AUDI KILLER
Fully restored - Ready to run
MG LOLA EX257 #HU MG-LMP003
A sweet perfume of Englishness pervaded the 2001 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Thanks to the presence of Bentley and MG, there were a good number of the Queen's subjects of the time aiming to conquer the twice-around-the-clock French event. While Bentley chose the LMGTP category for the challenge, MG opted for the LMP 675 class. It was a deliberate choice, based on a detailed study of the regulations. The result was a light, agile prototype, in a black and green livery, which has long been remembered by the fans of Le Mans and its competitors for its pace, worthy of the Audi R8s, the kings of endurance racing at that time. The MG LOLA EX 257 had it all, and could have dethroned Audi.
MG's return to the Le Mans 24 Hours
The links between MG and the 24 Hours of Le Mans go right back to the 1930s. The English firm were racing its cars there as early as 1930, competing against its compatriots Aston-Martin and Bentley. The MGs stood out from the others by often being the cars with the lowest cylinder capacity, and a compact, light design. This hallmark was also there in the 50s and 60s, with the MGAs and MGBs in particular.
In September 2000, when the MG brand changed hands, an ambitious sports programme was launched. BMW had sold part of the Rover Group to a group of investors called the Phoenix Consortium, led in particular by John Towers, formerly one of the key MG figures. To boost declining sales, their ambition was to launch a triple programme: for the domestic tourism championship - the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) - MG developed the MG ZS EX259. In the search for enhanced international recognition, endurance racing and rallying were the disciplines selected. MG thus embarked on developing the MG ZR Super 1600 for rallying, and the MG EX257 for endurance racing, in association with LOLA. This was logical because there were already real existing bridges between the two entities MG and LOLA. Nick Stephenson was director of both Rover Group and LOLA Cars. David Bowes, a member of the Phoenix Consortium, was also employed by LOLA. Chamberlain Motorsport was the firm chosen to take care of the technical side of racing the cars (Dough Beeb, ex-Oreca, was the man in charge of the #HU MG-LMP003 for its first race-entry in 2001).
The very first LMP675
The carbon chassis developed for this project by LOLA was fitted with an engine that was also developed specifically for the new car, by Advanced Engine Research (AER). It was a 2-litre engine with 4 inline cylinders turbo-compressed by a Garrett turbo, developing 500 HP. The engine subsequently achieved considerable success and was chosen by many private firms to power their endurance prototypes.
Julian Cooper, head of the engineering department, said of the project that "LOLA took far greater risks than with any other client", and in particular more risks than for the traditional development of a car designed to be sold to private teams.
The decision was made from the start to build the future car to comply with LMP 675 regulations. At the time, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) left competitors considerable latitude, and three categories were designed by the organizers to fight for the overall victory on an equal footing: the LMGTP, LMP 900 and LMP 675 categories. This point of the regulations is often overlooked but it is nevertheless crucial - in the following years (from 2004), the creation of the LMP2 category clearly aimed to develop a category of cars that were less expensive and slower than the LMP1s (formerly LMP900). The minimum officially approved weight of an LMP2 was 750 kg, and the air intakes were made narrower. Theoretically then, an LMP2 was no match for an LMP1 whereas in 2001 and 2002 an LMGTP or an LMP 675 could compete against an LMP 900 on even terms. And in fact, the MG LOLA did not take long to prove this ...
After a major study phase, LOLA MG decided to opt for the regulations of the LMP 675 prototype category, with the car having to display this minimum weight of 675 kg. In this way, the EX257 became the very first car to be designed specifically for this regulation. Rob Oldaker, product development director at MG, explained this choice: "With LOLA, we came to the conclusion that a good, well-designed LMP 675 could compete with the LMP 900s, which are certainly more powerful, but are also heavier. It’s also a choice which is perfectly suited to the MG’s DNA. It fits perfectly with the spirit of our brand to produce light, compact cars.” Frank Dernie, former F1 designer, was involved in the programme through LOLA's participation: "Everyone wanted an LMP 900, but that's not what my calculations were saying. At Audi (which designed the R8 to LMP 900 specifications) I knew engineers who had also concluded that the LMP 675 category was the best one.”
Nothing was left to chance in the design and construction of the MG LOLA, to obtain a light, efficient car with a weight as close as possible to the statutory minimum of 675 kg. Carbon fibre was used to make the whole of the chassis, the entire body and the brake discs. The 2-litre 4-cylinder turbo-charged AER engine was also lightweight.
The MG-LOLA programme was a genuine official programme, and there was no shortage of work to prepare for the first trip to Le Mans. Between the start of the programme and the first laps on May 6, 2001 on the main circuit, just over nine months elapsed (the green light was given in September 2000). The car’s first shakedown did not take place until April, with tests at Jerez and Albacete (in Spain) and then at Snetterton (in England) before arriving in France for the preliminary tests.
While the design of the chassis was already satisfactory, it was on the mechanical side that things quickly got complicated (with the XP-20 2-litre turbo engine). Problems with the AER engine effectively prevented MG from driving for a month, thus delaying the first tests. The EX 257 proudly posted 500 HP, roughly 100 less than the Audi R8, but also with a weight of 200 kg less... thus promising a real confrontation in terms of pure performance.
The MG LOLA EX257 #HU MG-LMP003
As its name suggests, the MG LOLA EX257 #HU MG-LMP003 chassis was the third chassis to be assembled.
Chassis #HU MG-LMP001 was seen at the 2001 unofficial practice sessions (# 34), setting the best time for the English. It then left for the United States to enjoy a rich career, and took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans several times, up till 2004. In 2003, the car was damaged in a crash at Sears Point in the American Le Mans Series, after being entered by the Intersport Racing team.
The #HU MG-LMP002, the “brother” chassis of the #HU MG-LMP003, raced at Le Mans in 2001 and 2002, before continuing its career mainly in Europe, in the Le Mans Series.
The #HU MG-LMP003 being offered for sale now by Ascott Collection is the only MG EX257 chassis to have taken part in both the 2001 and 2002 Le Mans 24 Hours events, as well as in the day of unofficial practice in 2002. It was always the same drivers who took turns at the wheel, namely Kevin McGarrity / Mark Blundell / Julian Bailey. This 100% English racing team was sponsored by Mark Blundell! Having just been released from his commitments to Champ Car with PacWest, the Englishman had received several offers to compete in the world’s greatest endurance event and finally chose MG. Already a winner in 1992 (in a Peugeot 905 Evo 1B with Yannick Dalmas and Derek Warwick), his mission was to keep the enthusiasm of Kevin McGarrity and Julian Bailey in check!
24 Heures of Le Mans 2001
After a complicated unofficial practice session due to electrical problems, the week at Le Mans brought a measure of satisfaction.
In the race itself, the car started with Mark Blundell at the wheel. At the very beginning of this truly memorable rain-plagued edition, Blundell had to go back to the pits to have suitable tyres put on. For a while, with successive cars stopping to refuel, he held third place, and remembers: “When I came into the pits for the first refuelling stop, there were lots of people, with loads of photographers.[i] We were hot news because I was third, fighting with the Audis on even terms” says the driver. “That car was outstanding”, went on Mark Blundell. “It was very light, much more so than the other LMPs. It had an exceptional power-to-weight ratio.”
He handed the wheel over to Julian Bailey shortly before 6:00 p.m., but he crashed on his first lap after the change-over. He was replaced at the wheel by Kevin McGarrity, just as problems started to pop up. The exhaust system had to be checked, and the cooling liquid was giving cause for concern. The starter was changed just before 10 p.m. The car was then in eighth place overall. At 1:30 a.m., an oil-tank leak was repaired ... before the engine started showing signs of fatigue with an abnormally high temperature due to damage caused when the car had left the track earlier on. The car’s retirement was officially announced in the middle of the night.
24 Heures of Le Mans 2002
For the 2002 Le Mans 24 Hours, it was the same configuration (or almost). In the intervening year, the testing programme was not that dense, partly because of a lack of funds. As a result, the MG LOLA EX257 which came to race at the Le Mans had been made more reliable but still had certain points of fragility. It had completed a 30-hour endurance test in mid-May at Spa-Francorchamps (interrupted overnight due to fog) and the whole team expected to gain a few seconds on the big Le Mans track.
With its 689 kilos, it was timed in 3’33'414 with Mark Blundell, the fifth best time of the practice session, better than Bentley! A net gain of 20 seconds in a year was registered in the unofficial practice session. In qualifying, its time was 3’33’’254, comparable with the time of the pole position (the Audi R8 N° 2 of Capello, Herbert and Pescatori, in 3’30’’296). The MG-LOLA lost just 3 seconds a lap to the R8, then at the top of its game. In the Le Mans pits, there was a certain amount of excitement around the MG LOLA which had just so clearly made a big statement. Ahead of it were three Audi R8s, one of the Dallara SP1s of the Oreca team and the Dome S101 of Jan Lammers. Behind it, an armada of no fewer than fifteen LMP900s: Audi R8, Dallara SP1, Panoz, Courage, LOLA, Cadillac etc… and the Bentleys which were LMGTPs. The engineers who had opted to build an LMP 675 were proved right: the car could play alongside the frontrunners at the Le Mans 24 Hours. It was already a fabulous performance for the small British firm.
The early stages of the race saw the MG-LOLA following in the wake of the LMP 900s, and pestering Cadillac. But consumption was high at those speeds, and even the car’s reduced weight did not allow it to extend the length of its stints on the track. With a fastest lap of 3’37’’282 in the race (compared to 3’33’’483 for the N° 1 Audi R8), the MG confirmed its fine form. Everything was going well and the roadmap was modelled on 2001, with the same driving stints and the same driver changes. Unfortunately, at 7:30 a.m. the engine failed, with the car slowing down before officially retiring at 8:08 a.m. (the 21st official retirement).
The contract between Chamberlain and MG was ending on the evening of the Le Mans 24 Hours, and was not renewed. It was the end of the official adventure. The MG EX257 was then the basis for the new B05/40 designed for the LMP2 category, which was to win the category at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2005. But before that, successes were registered in the United States.
The little English beauties seek to conquer the United States
The MG EX257s were to enjoy a second life across the Atlantic. LOLA continued to sell chassis and provide support services, in partnership with AER for the engine part, thus explaining why the LOLA EX257 competed in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) with the Intersport Racing and Dyson Racing teams, and then with Highcroft Racing. In Europe, Chamberlain Engineering and RML also raced the cars.
The EX257’s American adventure was particularly remarkable. In 2003, the cars raced by Intersport Racing and Dyson Racing shared all the victories in the LMP 675 category. Better still, James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger (of Dyson Racing) won at Sonoma, beating the official Audi R8. In 2004, the LMP 675 and LMP 900 categories were replaced by the LMP2 and LMP1 categories. The LOLA EX257s became LMP1s and Dyson Racing again managed to take first place overall at Mosport, in the ALMS, ahead the official Audi R8.
At Le Mans, the RML team won the LMP2 category in 2005 and 2006 with a modified chassis and a Judd engine, which explains its switch to the LMP2 category. The car thus became an MG-LOLA EX264 (B05/40). The last time any EX257s were to be seen on the track was in 2007. The Autocon Motorsports team in particular took part in several rounds of the ALMS with a car that was very close to its original 2001 configuration, in its MG livery.
Restoration of the #HU MG-LMP003 by RML and a return to the track with Nicolas Minassian
Having retired in 2003, the #HU MG-LMP003 has now been complete restored by RML and MJ Tech, in other words the specialists who had always looked after the car since it was built. The engine overhaul was carried out by Advanced Engine Research, who had built the engine. Once restored, the MG LOLA was tested and given the green light by Nicolas Minassian at Donington. It was then acquired in early 2019 by a collector who did not have it driven. It is thus now being offered for sale with all its mechanical components, affording maximum potential.
This MG LOLA has become eligible for numerous races, both in Europe and in the United States, in the Masters Endurance Legends series. In the series organized by Peter Auto, Endurance Racing Legends and Le Mans Classic, it’s a car that can win the scratch race since, with the eligibility date being fixed at 2005, there’s little competition to fear. Added to that, it has an advantage in terms of operating costs that are much lower than for most LMP 900/LMP1 works cars with comparable performances. Easily identifiable among all other prototypes, the superb silhouette and the brightly coloured livery of this MG LOLA EX 257 give it a superb visual presence. Its return to the track will undoubtedly be an event for endurance racing enthusiasts and, of course, for Le Mans fans. All these factors guarantee that its next owner should take the greatest possible pleasure behind its wheel.