IN CONVERSATION WITH CORVETTE RACING'S TRIPLE GT1 CHAMPION - OLIVER GAVIN.
Throughout this year's American Le Mans Series season, somewhat inevitably, with the lack of GT1 entries, it seemed to many that focus was too often centred around who the Corvettes were racing rather than what was happening within the team, or how well they were competing.
Britain's Oliver Gavin, who wrapped up his third consecutive GT1 Drivers Championship title, now sheds some light on the intense but amicable rivalry within the all-conquering American team and relates some of the highs (and occasional low) of his year.
"Sebring in March was a great start to the season because we had an Aston Martin up against us," said Oliver, "although it wasn't necessarily the team we wanted to be up against in terms of level of competition. It would have been great if Prodrive had come out, but there we go."
As it turned out, the 12 Hours was all about the two Corvettes and, for Gavin and his record-breaking co-driver Olivier Beretta, it was a huge amount of fun racing against Jan Magnussen for the first time rather than having him with them in their #4 car Corvette C6.R. "After a great battle between our two cars, it was very satisfying to get the season off to a winning start, and the race was definitely one of the highlights," he remembers happily.
Over the next few races in the ALMS there were differing fortunes for both Corvettes, caused by reasons either mechanical, accidental, or down to safety car periods -- some of which fell for, and some against, the Ollies. "Having only two cars in the class, the inter-team rivalry was pretty intense," notes the Briton. "But, I have to say that, at the end of every weekend, we were all fine with each other and just thinking about moving onto the next race rather than what had happened in that one. It's inevitable that, when you've got two groups of drivers and car crews who are competitive and skilled, everyone wants to win. But there's only one winner. Despite that, it generally stayed good natured throughout the whole season."
The first half of Corvette Racing's season was, according to team bosses, a big build up to Le Mans, with everyone working on the newly regulated air conditioning and other modifications, focussing on tyre choices with Michelin, and other systems. As he recalls, "By the time we left Salt Lake City, another really good race for Olivier and me, we were very confident about the package we had and what we would be doing...which made the outcome even more disappointing."
"We knew the competition would be extremely tough this season. Aston had had two attempts at beating us, and they were extremely focussed and ready to take us on, plus they had a very fast car. Likewise with the ORECA Saleen team. On paper it had to be the fastest car in class but, as we know, Le Mans is all about getting the right strategy and doing it right. ORECA certainly seemed to be the ones who were most capable of getting the best out of the Saleen."
As always, the Vettes were not overly concerned about qualifying performance for the 24 hour event. As one who has lifted the GT1 winner's trophy four times in the last six years, Gavin knows only too well that where you start on the grid only means something for the first hour. "After that you settle into the race and your pre-defined strategy. Once the race had started, we could see the opposition would be quick and a great challenge, so what happened to us towards the end of the second hour was extremely disappointing. The driveshaft broke and it left me stranded on the track, despite much verbal discussion over the radio about what might, could, should be done to try and get the car back to the pits. Unfortunately it turned out to be an unfixable problem and the retirement -- a first for Corvette at Le Mans -- was undoubtedly the low point of the year. The only positive from it all is that we understand why it happened and the same failure won't be happening again."
In 2007 the Ollies shared their #4 car with Max Papis and, although he didn't get a chance to drive at Le Mans, he was with them for two of their nine class victories, at Sebring and Petit Le Mans.
"It goes without saying that it was once again fantastic to partner with Olivier during the ALMS season, as well as in two of the races I did in Europe with Luc Alphand Aventures. We won 9 races this season, and you can only do your best against the competition that is there, and your team mates in your sister car could be deemed as being the hardest there is. You've all got the same equipment, data and information, and the same choices are available to you. It's down to how and when you make those choices through a weekend that determines the result. There are two or three people within the team who are fundamental in making those key decisions with us drivers such as Gary Pratt, our engineer Steve Cole and crew chief, Ray Gongla. We couldn't have achieved this third Championship title without them."
As a driver who has achieved a great deal of success in the top end of GT racing, Oliver was not immune to the rumours and speculation about the future of GT1s. "It does seem that, as the season has progressed, the GT1 class has reached a crossroads. Both in the ALMS and LMS there's been lots of talk about where the class is going to go in the future. I personally think it's fantastic; the cars are great to drive, great for spectators to watch and very exciting. But, I also understand they are expensive to run and maybe that's the area that needs to be addressed. We need to find some sort of compromise."
So, while his ALMS highlights were Sebring and Salt Lake City, Oliver was fortunate enough in 2007 to have several others in his racing year, including competing at the Spa 24 Hours for the first time. With the French Luc Alphand Aventures team being one of Corvette's key customers in Europe, and a few lucky breaks in the calendar, "Yardley Hastings' finest" (as he is so affectionately called by ALMS commentator, John Hindhaugh) was delighted to do a deal to join the team for part of their 2007 season, starting with the classic Belgian track at the end of July.
"I enjoyed Spa immensely!" beamed Oliver. "The competition was great, the track was fantastic and it was very reassuring to be driving with Luc Alphand Aventures in a car I knew so well. With the input and presence of certain personnel from Pratt & Miller everything gelled together very well. We were competitive in the race, but ultimately a couple of small failures cost us a great result.
"It rained heavily at both Daytona and Le Mans so I suppose I shouldn't have expected it to do anything different for Spa, but the weather was unbelievable! It poured for about 10 hours of the race which made it a great challenge. It was the most time I've ever spent in a Corvette in the rain and it showed me what a versatile and stable car the C6 is - good in both wet and dry conditions.
"The Luc Alphand team was a lot of fun, and racing with them was -- in the end -- a big part of my season. Being able to drive a Corvette at Silverstone, at home, for the first time and being able to take part in the Mil Milhas at Interlagos in a Corvette was memorable for all the right reasons and they are both fantastic, classic tracks to drive the car around."
Gavin's experiences in Europe have left him wanting more, not least because he is still seeking his first win in the Le Mans Series. "Unfortunately we had a lot of bad luck this year but Luc Alphand Aventures is a young team, very ambitious, with some very good people there, and Olivier and I want to be part of it. To help them achieve success, hopefully Olivier and I will go back and do a number of races for them next season -- as our ALMS commitments will allow."
For now, Oliver Gavin is not sure how many races Corvette Racing will be doing but he is sure they will be going to back to the ALMS. He's also confident they will be racing against the Prodrive-run Aston Martins at Le Mans but whether the green cars come to battle against the Bad Boy Vettes at any other races remains to be seen. "There's talk of a Saleen team coming in," says Oliver "...bring on the competition, any competition! There are also other exciting projects being looked into for the future. Pratt & Miller, like many others, are waiting to see how the shape of the regulations from the ACO and FIA will be from 2010 onwards, and how the LMP, GT1 and GT2 classes will all evolve."
For the first time since 2005 the super-fit British driver will also be able to take up his entry for one of the major international marathons -- London - as it luckily doesn't clash with any races. Finding a window in March, April or May to do a marathon around racing commitments proved to be a mile or so too far in 2007 but it's looking good for 2008.
Let's hope it's another successful year on all levels for Oliver Gavin -- both racing and running!