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Exclusive Q&A with GPM organisers

During Thursday afternoon's free practice for Sunday's Grand Prix Masters, it became apparent that a batch of newly-modified engines suffered lubrication problems. Subsequently, the engines were returned to their previous tried-and-tested specification to ensure that the show goes on Sunday afternoon. Dieter Rencken interviewed series CEO Scott Poulter, Nicholson McLaren Engines chairman John Nicholson, and GPM race operations director Bob Berridge at Silverstone about the situation.

DR: Scott, where are we on engines at the moment?

Scott Poulter: "Presently, the guys on the floor have been working flat-out, we've done 32 engine changes in 48 hours, we've had 10 (Nicholson McLaren Engines-built) engines go.

"As a consequence, it has put us into a very tough situation. They have not given us a genuine, clear answer on the actual situation, but presently the diagnosis is that we have a crankshaft issue.

"The crankshafts were taken out post-Qatar and the engines were built to another specification unbeknown to us. As a consequence, we have blown 10 engines in the last 48 hours."

DR: You said 32 engine changes, but you've blown 10 - have the rest been precautionary or repeat engine changes?

SP: "Both."

DR: Can the situation be recovered in time for the race?

SP: "Obviously we are looking at every option we have. Also, Cosworth have been incredibly supportive and pro-active and, in fact, have been on the phone and offered us all the support they can.

"But, at this present moment we have to be reliant on Nicholson McLaren to actually come through for us, although obviously we appreciated Cosworth's gesture."

DR: How is Cosworth involved in that case?

SP: "Only on the basis that that's where the engines originated from. They are Cosworth-built engines we're running, but managed and run by NME. So it's purely a professional and business courtesy."

DR: What is NME's attitude?

SP: "I spoke to John Nicholson of Nicholson McLaren yesterday, and they haven't give us any clarity on the situation, but the guys on the floor and in the machine shop have been working 24/7 to try and support us."

DR: But the race will go ahead?

SP: "The race will go ahead."

DR: John, what went wrong with the engines?

John Nicholson: "Well something happened here on Thursday, with three or four engines - and I can't be more precise about how many there were - and they were taken out quickly after the oil pressure showed a drop.

"I saw them on Thursday night, and they'd suffered some severe damage in the main bearing thrust department and the rear main bearing itself. But there wasn't enough data available or we considered enough time to analyze any further so the priority was put on to make some more engines."

DR: How many more have you made?

JN: "Well, I guess I put right the three or four that came back originally; the three or four that came in for checking because they had also done a similar thing; and then I think they'll get two or three done tonight. So it adds up to quite a few."

DR: That adds up to about nine...

JN: "Probably, but we'll have to check up on the schedule precisely how many that might have been. But that's irrelevant; we have to put right what went wrong on Thursday.

"But we have no idea (what caused it), we had two extremely reliable races, and all of a sudden this had happened, and the engines are damaged.

"Quite honestly, the engines took a long time to get back from Qatar, a long time..."

DR: What do you call a long time?

JN: "About six weeks."

DR: How long should they have taken?

JN: "We thought maybe two weeks, so that lost us four weeks, and when those engines were first taken apart, we found three or four cracked crankshafts. We put that down to a torsional (vibration) period at the lower ten thousands (revs) they were geared to, and they had been on the limiter quite a lot at that speed.

"So that's when different crankshafts were made with a slightly different balance factor. They hadn't been tried or tested before, but frankly there is so little difference to what was in there.

"They're in fact made from forgings not billets, so we would have thought that would have been an improvement.

"But unless you get these engines back often enough, you don't find things like this. Two reliable races, end of second race, cracked crankshaft; what do we have to do?

"So to get out of the torsional as well we increased the rpm by towards about a thousand rpm, so we drive through the torsional and way above it. And that's what they've got here now.

"They've also found 25 - 30 horsepower, which I think they all enjoy. This afternoon in Qualifying it seems like those that were out there all made it, and I hope we'll have a good race tomorrow."

DR: So what do you think was the problem?

JN: "As I said, we haven't got all the data from the cars at all, we've just got some badly damaged engines. We've just put it right for now, and we'll just get this race tomorrow over, and then we'll go back and see if we can't pinpoint precisely what the technical problem might have been."

DR: And what have you done to put it right for now?

JN: "The three or four blocks I saw were damaged beyond repair. We simply put other blocks in. As far as crankshafts are concerned, we fitted crankshafts. Just whatever we've got.

"None of them are new, just whatever we have got, there are not loads of spares for all sorts of reasons, and the boys will have to use what we've got in stock."

DR: Are the engines then two totally different specifications?

JN: "No, not at all."

DR: So the cranks are all to the same spec?

JN: "The cranks are what we used, of which three or four have already cracked. There are no others to fit."

DR: What is the original engine?

JN: "Cosworth XE, from Nigel's (CART) day, originally. We've increased the capacity, normally aspirated, to 3.3 litres (from 2650cc), we've done that on the crank alone.

"We left the same piston and bore size for cost and commercial reasons, but 3.3 and 600 horsepower. It fitted the bill, so that's what it is."

DR: Anything you would like to add?

JN: "I'd like to speak with Bob Berridge and company next week, and no doubt we'll sit around a table and see what has happened and where we are, and hopefully we'll have a good race tomorrow."

DR: Bob, your take on the engine situation, please.

Bob Berridge: "I don't know officially, because I have not seen either John Nicholson or Mike Pearson (the managing directorof NME).

"But from the guys on the shop floor I am told that they changed the specification of the crankshaft which varied something to do with the oil feed against the Cosworth design - which is what I think - as a result of which we have blown 12 engines out of 16, and tonight will be another four.

"So what we have been doing is rotating the engines back to Nicholson McLaren to put the old crankshafts back in, and the guys on the shop floor (at NME) have put in a monumental effort, and it's been no different for about 20 of our lads here who have not slept since Wednesday night.

DR: You say you have not been able to speak to anybody from NME, are they here?

BB: "I don't know, I have never seen them, and we have no NME representative here, can you believe..."

DR: Why were the engines late back from Qatar, if they were?

BB: "They weren't, they got them back sort of second or third week in May."

DR: And the race was when?

BB: "End of April, yes, and they got them back within two weeks or so. But that wasn't the issue, the issue was that when we tested in June we blew two engines to smithereens, so they then decided they had better do something about it, so we then had to can the test we had scheduled for July. And, you know, the rest is history.

"But they had all the engines within three days of them getting back from Qatar, I think it was about the third week in May. But that was never the issue."

DR: So, what was the real issue as you see it?

BB: "The issue was when we tested in June, we blew two engines, and with the engines we blew in Qatar, they then decided to do something about it."

DR: Which is why they changed the crankshafts?

BB: "Yes."

By Qualifying on Saturday 12 cars had been converted, with the balance scheduled for completion by Sunday morning. In the best tradition, the show will go on.

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