Another year, another Championship?
2006 started really well, dipped in the middle, but ended in the right way, with a second consecutive American Le Mans Series GT1 Championship victory for the two 'Ollies', Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta.
It wasn't an easy year for any of the drivers, trying to carve out their various claims to the Championship amidst a season packed with politics and performance balancing, and the British/Monégasque pairing had to fight all the way for the 2006 title.
They were up against not just their Aston Martin Racing competitors, Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy in the 009 car and Darren Turner and Tomas Enge in the 007 DBR9, but also their team mates, Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell in the #3 sister Corvette. The season finished with 30 points separating the first eight drivers in the Drivers' Championship, with the 'Ollies' topping Sarrazin by 13 points thanks to a strong finishing record in the final few rounds.
As the year drew to a close and Oliver Gavin was at last able to spend a few weeks at home and put his feet up (with three small children, that's purely hypothetical of course), the 34-year-old from Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire reflected on the ups and downs of his fourth full season with Corvette Racing.
So, how well prepared was Gavin and his team going into the first race of the year, the notoriously tough 12 Hours of Sebring, given that they were up against their 2003 nemesis, Prodrive, this year competing in the form of Aston Martin Racing?
"To be honest it was a bit of the unknown coming into Sebring, especially compared to previous years, as we weren't sure of the speed of the Astons on their Pirelli tyres. We'd seen Pirelli in the 2005 ALMS but perhaps not necessarily with a good team or a good car and this year the whole package was potentially there. However, right from the start of the weekend we realised we had a certain advantage over them, especially when it was hot. We almost had to just follow them round and wait for their tyres to go away, and that's when our advantage - on our Michelins which were, as always, super reliable - was most noticeable.
"As it turned out in the race we got lucky with the caution periods, the nr.3 car had a problem, a gearbox issue midway through the race, and we ended up a lap in front of the competition. That makes it sound as though it was easy but it was a hard, hard race especially during the heat of the day. As the temperatures cooled off the Astons got faster and we were running at about the same pace but we still had a lap in hand so were okay. It was hugely satisfying as we'd been trying to tie up a Sebring victory for the last three years, Olivier, Jan and myself, but we'd always had back luck for one reason or another. This year it seemed to all fall into place. It was the one race victory that was missing from our CV and it kind of completed the set."
Next up on the ALMS trail was a visit to Risi Competizione's home town, Houston, and an all-new, temporary street circuit to test the mettle of the drivers. A weight penalty amounting to 176 lbs (the team had pin badges made to wind up the opposition!) was awarded to the Corvettes for this round, as well as a smaller restrictor, and the well-honed boys in yellow had their work cut out from the word go.
"Houston was a new experience for everyone, and unusual in that it was very, very bumpy, particularly at Turn 4, and quite fast. The engineers had done and lot of computer simulation work before the race, to see how the Corvettes would manage with the extra weight and the tight track, including issues like brake wear and temperature, and our qualifying pace was looking good. Conditions were very hot, just like at Sebring and we knew the race would be on.
"It was very tight between us and the #3 C6.R, who had the edge over us for the first half of the race, but we managed to leapfrog Johnny O'Connell for the lead thanks to the timing of our stop and a strong in-lap and out-lap. I was pushing like mad on that out-lap and nearly crashed three times but it was worth it for the final result. Stephane Sarrazin in the 009 Aston then put us under pressure in the closing stages and we thought there'd be a grandstand finish, but he had a spin and dropped back so both Corvettes were unchallenged at the chequered flag. This was our 7th win in a row, starting from Portland in 2005, and we knew that further success at Mid- Ohio would give us a chance to equal the ALMS record for the most consecutive wins."
The fact that the GT1 Corvette finished 2nd overall behind the Championship- winning LMP1 Audi R10 (and indeed all four GT1 cars were in the top five) shows just how merciless the street track was and once again highlighted the strength and reliability of the GT racers.
Still bearing the weight and restrictor adjustments, the team headed for their 'home' race at Mid Ohio. Before Detroit was added to the 2007 calendar, the scenic 2.25 mile course at Lexington, Ohio was always the closest in proximity to Pratt and Miller and General Motors' bases and the Corvette team always drew a big crowd of friends, families and factory workers here.
Aware that the track was likely to suit the Aston Martins rather better than Houston, Oliver was under no illusions about how difficult this race would be. "Racing here would be as close as it was ever going to be." In qualifying he was pipped to pole position by Tomas Enge and by just three hundredths of a second, but rain and a new track surface meant that all bets were off at the start of the race.
"When we woke up race morning and saw the heavy rain, we were convinced it was going to be a wet race," remembers Gavin. "The eventual dry track was quite a relief, it could have been a nightmare in the wet - slick and slippery. The track surface here was strange because it's so new and smooth, and it did strange things with the tyres. Sometimes it felt like there was lots of grip and next time around there was none, plus it felt different on new tyres to old. If you got off line, and picked up rubbish, it took a long time to clean them off again.
"I managed to make a good start and we had a good lead going into the first lot of pit stops but then there was a caution period which Olivier got caught up in plus Tomas [Enge] was right on it at the re-start. He would have been away for sure - as they definitely had a faster car than us here - but got a puncture which put them out of contention.
"Our next battle was with Ron in the #3 car but Olivier drove brilliantly and luck happened to be against our team mates on that day, and we took the class win and made it a record-breaking 8th in a row. It made our championship position very much stronger and, most importantly going into Le Mans, confidence was up. All this time our car crew were performing extremely well in stops and strategy, and our engineer, Steve Cole, was giving us a very good race car. We were fast all the time and that's a great way to head off to the world's biggest sportscar race."
Le Mans Test:
In comparison with the trials and tribulations of the 2005 Le Mans test, which left the Corvette engineers with a good deal of head scratching and work to do in the short time between the test and the race, this year proved to be "one of the most solid tests we've ever had in all my years with the team." The fact that Prodrive and their Aston Martins were quick at Le Mans was no surprise to anyone, least of all Corvette Racing.
Oliver again: "We seemed to start a little bit on the back foot, but we came away from the test as confident as we've ever been, and convinced we could keep pace with the green cars and not have to sit around and wait for them to break!" The boys working under the giant Stars and Stripes banner were all very happy at the end of the official test weekend and many of the mechanics headed off to Spain for a few days R&R and to try and stay out of trouble. That they came back reasonably refreshed, but with lots of stories of nights out, drinking and with tales of sampling the Spanish lifestyle, would seem to suggest they only partly succeeded!
24 Hours of Le Mans:
And so into what Corvette's programme manager, Doug Fehan, calls the "Holy Grail of sportscar racing". The 24 Hours of Le Mans.
"It's such a long week" is a cry heard from many a driver up and down the pit lane and it doesn't get any shorter the more you take part in the race. Oliver Gavin finds his planning, preparations and reality never quite match up. "It's always the same, every year. I say to myself, 'this year I am going to try and relax, prepare properly for the race and not get too wound up with things. Try and stay focused on the driving and not all the peripheral stuff that goes on.' But every year you are always running around like a mad thing on Friday night, doing some form of appearance or similar.
"This year was good for me as my brother had come down together with my father, Helen and the children. A good friend from school was also with us as well as two other important members of my support network, Nick Moss and Fiona Miller. I managed to get the chance to eat with Helen and the children and unwind before the start of the race, though they slept in a motorhome outside the paddock and I stayed in the Corvette driver cabins. All our drivers did!"
Corvette Racing's build up to the race didn't go quite as smoothly as planned when Wednesday's practice sessions were hit by rain. Fehan made the decision that track time in the wet was effectively useless and a minimum number of laps were turned. This meant that all the set up and preparation work had to be crammed into Thursday and, as all Le Mans drivers know, there is never enough individual track time when you are trying to get three people acclimatised and comfortable, and work through a long list of technical requirements.
But, as Gavin recalls, by the time the race started - this year at the later time of 5pm thanks to the Football World Cup - it was business as usual. "We had the two green cars and two yellow cars going round together in what looked to be a very strong GT1 field. It promised to be a long, hard race and it turned out to be exactly that for almost 22 hours, with the lead yo-yoing up and down between us. At night Astons were a lot faster than us, something we are looking at for next year to try and counter it. Conversely when temperatures rise again we are quicker. Everyone is trying to figure it out, whether it's a mechanical grip, aerodynamic or tyre issue, and get on top of it for 2007.
"In the end the Aston Martins had problems again so it wasn't tooth and nail to the very end. The last couple of hours are the longest of the race though, especially if you are leading, and lots of silly things go through your head. You hear noises that probably aren't there, feel vibrations that don't exist. To win was a fantastic result for everyone on the 64 car; three wins in a row was great for Corvette and for Jan, Olivier and me."
The team was feted on their return to North America, including a special parade through the streets of Detroit, ending up with presentations by dignitaries from the city, General Motors and the team's main sponsor, Compuware.
Going from the biggest race track of the year to the smallest is a particular challenge, and it's one that - by his own admission - wasn't wholly embraced by Oliver Gavin. "It was most probably our worst race of the season," he says. "The car was okay, and we did a reasonable job in practice, but as soon as the race began it all started to unravel. Olivier had a huge amount of misfortune and got tangled up with 2/3 different people culminating in a collision with Chris Dyson which took both cars off track and Olivier into the barriers." A lot of heavy rain prior to the July 4th weekend race meant that the outskirts of the track closely resembled swamps, and that was where the unfortunate Beretta got stuck.
"Even though we had the minimum amount of time in the pits (about 17 minutes to change the whole front end), and the car re-joined as good as new - a great testament to the team - all the time we'd been losing valuable laps to the leaders in class. At that point it was just a case of reeling the remaining laps off and getting through to the finish so at least we could score points for 4th. Yes, I think you could say Lime Rock was a bad weekend for us."
Salt Lake City:
Another new track for the ALMS in 2006, and the biggest of the domestic circuits, Miller Motorsports Park in Utah was universally welcomed as a venue even if the Ollies and Corvette went there knowing they had little chance of winning. Scorching heat, high altitude and performance handicaps all played their part and, as Gavin says, "we really felt we didn't stand a chance in either qualifying or the race. It wasn't just that we weren't as quick as the Astons on the straights, but we'd also lost our capacity to get round the GT2 cars as quickly as we used to and that knocked us back even further in the race. We were nowhere and came away extremely frustrated."
By the time the circus reached Oregon, the powers-that-be had looked again at the GT1 performance balancing and adjustments were made for Portland that evened things out a bit. What could have been a tight race between the two great rivals was effectively negated by a bad day in the pits for Aston Martin.
Oliver Gavin: "The over-riding factor that comes to mind about Portland this year was the heat. It was well over 100o F the whole time and, with Lime Rock and Salt Lake, we seemed to have followed the record temperatures around the country. Dealing with the heat became quite an issue, and the AC, blower devices and other cooling mechanisms the team put into the car all helped us perform better. The start time was also moved to later in the day to help combat dealing with the heat, and we ran almost into darkness."
It wasn't a completely uncontentious race as Beretta was nudged by Pedro Lamy's Aston three times on the pit straight, "giving him the hurry up", and positioning in the pit lane was the subject of much discussion. However, as it turned out it was a relatively "easy win" for the #4 car. "After two 4th place finishes, it was good to come back with a win", says Gavin, "especially at one of the hottest races of the year on a very slippery track."
Oliver Gavin came to Road America off the back of a two week holiday with his family in Connecticut. Unfortunately five days of that time had been spent with his baby son in hospital so, as he wryly says now, "it maybe wasn't the best preparation. Whenever I take my family on holiday to America we always seem to have one drama after another!"
The pleasure of racing at what the Briton names as one of the best tracks in North America soon set him in the right frame of mind and, after practice, it appeared that the forthcoming race was shaping up to be a really great track battle.
"I had a fantastic race with Darren Turner at the start," recalls Gavin. "His Pirelli tyres were very good for what seemed to be the first half of the stint and then the Michelins had the edge. He was driving really well; I was trying to size up two places to pass him - one was going to be turn 8 at the bottom of the hill and other was coming into turn 14 on the last section before the pit straight. I decided the latter was going to be the best option and dived up the inside but he blocked a bit. We ended up smacking into each other - a pure racing incident, we both agreed afterwards - and the long and short of it was that we had a bit of damage to the front of the car which eventually started to rub on the tyre. The Aston's straight line speed really showed here, and Darren managed to catch me and come fully past me but I managed to out brake him into the first corner and make the track position stick. The vibration from the damage was beginning to be a bit of a worry, and there was a lot of smoke in the car from the burning rubber so we had to pit. We were on a different strategy to the #3 car and theirs counted at the time the safety car came out. They cruised to win - one we would have liked to have but it was a good second place and important for our Championship bid."
The Canadian round of the Series turned out to be another frustrating event for the Corvettes because performance adjustments had started to tip against them again. With 199 lbs more weight and a reduction in air restrictors which equated to a drop of about 35 horsepower, it was always going to be a tough race. The boys from Detroit also knew from 2005, when the Masarati had run on Pirellis, that the Italian brand worked well here. As Oliver wryly notes, "They had been very strong at Mosport and we knew Aston Martin would really exploit that. And so they did, their car was like a rocket ship."
The tail end of tropical storm Ernesto put paid to a qualifying attempt by all parties as the session was cancelled due to treacherous track conditions. Although the forecast was gloomy for race day, it turned out to be a dry track which greeted the 22 cars on the grid.
Some hard driving and a sharp pit strategy saw the "Ollies" eventually finish in 2nd place, albeit one lap down on class winner the 009 Aston Martin. Gavin, who finished the race, recalls how demoralising it was to see the green cars blast past them. "We decided to try and draw out the Astons and see how fast they could go so we developed this code for the radio. We know they listen to our radio chat. It didn't take long for them to bite and we soon saw the 009 car going consistently two seconds a lap faster. It was most probably one of the most frustrating weekends of the season but we stuck to our plan, we had a pretty good car in the race, and the boys did a great job in the pits. It was more points though and we knew, above all, that if we could keep scoring well the Championship would come."
Petit Le Mans:
"This was a big one for us - one of the big three alongside Sebring and Le Mans. Jan, Olivier and I wanted to try and win all three in the one year which would have finished 2006 off nicely." Oliver Gavin's wish, it soon became apparent, would be harder to fulfil than they'd hoped.
The Aston Martins' performance was superior to the Corvettes in terms of outright speed, something which became very clear in the race itself. "009 seemed to be quite a bit quicker than 007 and we knew that was the car we (#4) would have to be racing. It seemed that #3 and 007 were joined at the hip for most of the race, having a pretty big, ding dong battle - some of it not pretty. I was quite glad we were out of that and were running around on our own.
"It became quite clear after about 4.5 hours we were suffering from excessive brake wear. We had known it was going to be an issue before the race but the engineers had calculated we could do 750 laps on the brakes we'd got, more than twice the race distance. A rogue pad was our downfall. We knew we were in trouble by looking at the side of the car covered in brake dust - you could hardly see the number. The wear on the inside left front was particularly high and we knew we'd have to change it. It had to be done under green flag conditions and it shows how well drilled the boys are as we only lost two laps. That was enough, however, to lose the advantage we had over the 007 car. A lot of people came away scratching their heads at how we'd managed to be caught out like that, or were we just unlucky?"
It was a disappointing race for Oliver and third place seemed like scant reward for some hard racing. What it did do though was set up a nail- biting Championship finale in Laguna Seca as the points' positions had closed enough to allow all sorts of possible permutations in the Manufacturers' title bid and that ratcheted up the tension considerably.
There was a lot of tension amongst the team whose main focus was to get the minimum second place needed to win the Manufacturers' title. At the back of the minds of Oliver and Olivier, however, was the goal of their second, consecutive Drivers' title.
"We just needed to complete 70% of the race distance and score a minimum of fourth place points," remembers Oliver. One of the track updates that had taken place during the summer months at Laguna was re-surfacing and that made it a lot more abrasive which, Gavin feels, played into the hands of the Pirellis.
"Last year Aston Martin couldn't get their car to work well on the Michelins but this year they were strong and very fast and it was shaping up to be a real dog fight. One good thing was it seemed that the performance balancing finally seemed to be right and the two marques were very equal the whole way. It looked like, in the final stint, that Olivier was going to be able to just about catch Stephane Sarrazin (009) and challenge for the lead but he just ran out of time and came away with the second place we needed to secure the Championships for both the team and ourselves.
"It was very, very satisfying to win two years running, and to win the Manufacturers' Championship for General Motors for the sixth year in a row. From Olivier's and my point of view, it was for all the guys on the car, our engineer Steve Cole and our crew chief, Ray Gongla who had done a fantastic job all year. A huge thanks to them, and to Gary and Robin Pratt for creating such a good team to work for."
A three day tyre test in November at Sebring was frustratingly hampered by rain although it did give Gavin a chance to try out next year's car. With a contract in his pocket for 2007 he's looking forward to his fifth full season with the team although there is still no confirmation yet from Corvette Racing as to where they will be competing. It's hard to imagine they will be anywhere but in the American Le Mans Series.
In the meantime Oliver will be returning to Daytona for the Rolex 24 Hours with Dyson Racing in a Crawford. He will be driving with Rob and Chris Dyson and Guy Smith in the #16 car, and is looking forward to the test early January and then the race at the end of the month. A further three day Corvette test follows in February and the season starts all over again but a few weeks later at Sebring.
"Sebring will definitely be our first race of the year but after that we'll have to wait and see which direction the team decides to take as to where they will race for the remainder of the season. Will they stay at home or come to Europe and do some races? All I know is that Olivier is the best team mate I've ever had and I don't mind where we race as long as we do it together!"
Wherever and whenever Oliver races in the USA in 2007, he will be without his regular travelling companion, James Weaver, someone he got to know very well over the last six years. The two Britons travelled backwards and forwards across the Atlantic more times that they care to think about over the years, and many good times were had along the way.
"It was an education! He's such an honest and open guy, who's always willing to help. He was unparalleled as someone to travel with as he always had this amazing ability to charm the socks off anyone at check in at any of the airports we went to. He has a very English manner, the perfect English gentleman in fact, and somehow we always ended up getting better seats that we should have done, or got into a lounge we shouldn't have been able to, or even got upgraded. James used to say to me, 'Olly, don't talk at check-in as you're only going to cock it up, let me do all the talking'. It's been such a pleasure to travel with him over the years and now I'll have to see if I've learnt anything!
"Another great thing about James is that, no matter what subject you are discussing, he always has a slightly different slant or take on it than everyone else. It doesn't mean your opinion, or his, is wrong but he has a different way of thinking to everyone else. I don't think there is anyone better in the pit lane at setting up a race car. He has such an amazing knowledge and great experience, and it all seemed to be second nature to him.
"There are many, many stories we could each tell which reflect his great character and uniqueness. The Series will sorely miss him as well as Dyson Racing. There were two people you could almost guarantee would ask a question in the Drivers' Briefings - Emmanuele Pirro and James. Pirro would be quite serious but James would make everybody laugh, everybody, even though his question would be often very pertinent and sometimes on a matter which would leave you thinking, 'why didn't I think of that?' He had a great way of looking in from the outside which was a huge help to many drivers in the Series. He's an artist."