The final round of the '07 American Le Mans Series found the teams heading to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to enjoy a little California hospitality. The 2.2-mile circuit had been repaved before the event in an effort to get the surface as smooth and race-friendly as possible. Track officials did add one tweak in the form of a square, 4-inch-high chunk of solid concrete inside the apex of each turn as a disincentive to cutting corners too deeply. Since no ramp-up was built into these obstacles, hitting one would surely ruin a car's suspension-not to mention the driver's day.
Corvette Racing, meanwhile, had its own issues to contend with. The No. 3 car had been heavily damaged two weeks earlier in an on-track accident at the Petit Le Mans race. Lacking sufficient time to get the car back into racing condition, the team was forced to use a relatively new C6.R in its place. While crew members did a good job of preparing this spare car for Laguna, it was sure to suffer from a comparative lack of on-track chassis and interior tuning. Jan Magnussen, for one, found the seating position in the replacement car to be less than ideal.
Visually, the biggest change for the GM entries was the one-off livery they sported for this season-ending race. Both yellow cars wore huge skull patterns styled after Corvette Racing's unofficial mascot, "Jake the Skull." (We'll have the full story on Jake in an upcoming issue.) The No. 4 Corvette showed off a yellow skull on a black background, while the No. 3 car used a color-reversed version of the same pattern. There was nothing else like either car to be found in the paddock.
The weather cooperated beautifully over the four-day event, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 70s. All four race categories posted record qualifying times, a testament to the quality of the new track surface, while Magnussen aced Olivier Beretta for pole-position bragging rights in GT1.
The only other match-up of real concern to Corvette Racing came in the last round of the Klein Tools Pit Stop Competition, which took place at Laguna. The semi-finals pitted the two C6.Rs against the two Porsches from Dyson Racing. Both Pratt & Miller crews had drilled all year for this showdown, and they quickly eliminated the Dyson contingent from the competition.
In the final face-off, Oliver Gavin dived too deeply into the pits, requiring the crew to push the No. 4 car back into the correct spot before performing a tire change. In doing so, they violated a competition rule that forbids touching the car while refueling is underway. While the No. 4 crew breezed through the rest of the stop and blazed out of the pit ahead of their mates, the resulting time penalty handed the championship to the No. 3 team. The Klein Tools competition proved a real boon to the Corvette team this year, as they collected the lion's share of the $100,000 prize money handed out over the course of the season.
Saturday's four-hour race was scheduled for a 2:45 p.m. start, virtually guaranteeing a checkered flag by nightfall. GT1 pole sitter Magnussen took the green flag and quickly scooted ahead to take the class lead. This placement held until the first pit stop, when the No. 4 car team was able to outpace its Corvette Racing counterpart and take the GT1 lead.
While the lack of GT1 competition once again guaranteed a Corvette class victory, there were significant battles going on throughout the rest of the ALMS grid. The P1 and P2 cars were duking it out for overall bragging rights, and the top honors in GT2 were up for grabs as well. This meant that everyone, save for the Corvettes, was pushing to the limit and beyond in an attempt to get ahead. On-track contacts were the none-too-surprising result.
Early in the race, the Penske Porsche, driven by an aggressive Sascha Maassen, clipped Magnussen, damaging the body of the No. 3 Corvette. Then, with about an hour-and-a-half to go, Gavin was hit in the rear by the Kron Racing Ferrari, allowing No. 3 to slide past for the class lead. Later on, the No. 4 C6.R was able to reestablish first position by pipping its teammate in the pits.
In the end, the No. 4 team found its groove at Laguna, both on the track and in the pits, and motored away to take the GT1 category. Gavin and Beretta recorded their ninth class victory of the year and their third drivers championship together behind the wheel of a C6.R. The race win marked Beretta's 37th ALMS victory and Gavin's 28th.
Despite the lack of class competition, Corvette Racing did a yeoman job of keeping the Chevy faithful engaged throughout the '07 ALMS season. The two Velocity Yellow C6.Rs pushed each other to another GT1 manufacturers championship, extending their winning streak to seven years in a row. Is it any wonder the other marques continue to cower in the shadows?
The season-ending awards banquet was held at Laguna Seca the day after the race. Taking home top honors for Corvette were:
* GM/Chevrolet, GT1 Manufacturers Championship
* Olivier Beretta and Oliver Gavin, GT1 Drivers Championship
* Ray Gongla, GT1 Crew Chief of the Year
* Ron Fellows, Most Popular Driver of the Year
In addition to Fellows' Most Popular Driver Award, Don Panoz presented Ron and his wife, Lynda, with a specially commissioned Corvette painting in recognition of the couple's efforts at this year's Le Petit Elegance charity fundraiser.
ZR-1 Breaks Cover at Laguna
A prototype version of the much-anticipated Corvette ZR-1 sneaked out into the open for a few moments of public exposure at Laguna Seca. The unannounced appearance gave Corvette fans their first look at the upcoming supercar.
Just before the final practice on Friday afternoon, the ZR-1 was rolled out of the Corvette Racing transporter enveloped in a full-car cover. The plan was to take the car on a one-lap tour of the track and then spirit it back into hiding. As the cover was removed, Corvette Racing driver Johnny O'Connell slipped behind the wheel, accompanied by a GM official sporting a video camera. The ZR-1 was driven to the pre-grid area and then out onto the track to sit in Turn 11, just before the front straight. Tipped off that this was the plan, we waited for Corvette's best-kept secret to make its debut.
The pictures you see here were taken as O'Connell was awaiting approval for his one-lap strike mission. Note the full-width rear spoiler and side vents, all covered in black tape. The hood, meanwhile, was covered with a black mat that was affixed with Velcro strips on either side. Removing the hood cover revealed a mass of tape that hid a see-through window exhibiting the supercharger. The wheels were obviously a one-off ZR-1 design, and the brake calipers were painted blue. Everything else on the car's body looked to be standard-issue Z06, albeit with more bulge to the wheel wells and slightly sculpted front and rear valances.
The ZR-1 eventually made its lap of the race course, a telltale whine giving evidence of its supercharged LS9 engine. O'Connell was obviously giving the car all it could take: At the end of his drive, he headed into the pits with both front brakes on fire. The C6.R ace jumped out of the car as the race team scrambled to respond to the overcooked binders. Soon after, the GM handler climbed into the ZR-1's driver seat and sped away, never to be seen again.