GT racing in Europe can be very confusing for us humble Corvette owners, who are really more interested in our Corvettes than the subtleties of the various classes where our cars can be seen racing. the Le Mans Series, FIA GT1, FIA GT3, the Citation Cup, British GTs, and the Belgian Belcar series have or have had Corvette C5s, C6s, and/or their R-suffix variants competing, and that is truly wonderful for us all. Until the advent of the C5R, there were virtually no Corvettes racing in nonhistoric events in Europe, and their entry to the fields has improved them all, and added to our European circuits that awesome deep bass rumbling exhaust crackle that is unique to the LS engine.
In early May, I went to watch the second round FIA GT series at the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit, still home to the Formula One British GP and a superb driver's track. This is the same Silverstone that lent its name to the 1968-only color option 986 Silverstone Silver.
For this trip, I joined the caravan organized by the Classic Corvette Club U.K. (CCCUK) in a bright red '90 ZR1 lent to me by its owner, who now has an '07 Z06 and felt the older car needed a few miles put on it. He also has a Ford GT in his stable and rates the ZR1 as one of the best cars he has ever owned.
At Clackett Lane Services, I joined five Corvettes from our local group: four C5s and a Polo Green '94. After 30 miles, we picked up another group of four and cruised passed Heathrow airport on the M25 and then up the almost empty M40 at a steady 80 mph, averaging exactly 24 mpg. Not bad considering the often-troublesome valet switch on this ZR1 has been bypassed to leave all 16 injectors running all the time. Michelin Pilots have replaced the original Goodyear Gatorbacks for a great ride, but otherwise this car is original and just perfect. By 9:15 a.m., more than 40 CCCUK members were assembled at the Cherwell Valley Services and ready for the final caravan to the circuit. The oldest of the group was a blue '64 coupe, and the youngest was a new Z06, also in blue. My favorite was another red '90 ZR1 perfectly detailed and fitted with a 530hp Haibeck 368 LT5, particularly impressive when it passed most of the caravan on full throttle on the final run into the circuit, where we enjoyed dedicated parking in Supercar Row. We happily outnumbered the Porsche Club, but there were acres of new Aston Martins, whose owners were clearly anticipating a victory. Aston Martin is no longer part of Ford, and ownership has moved from Dearborn to Dubai and Kuwait.
Mindful of the need to engage with the fan base, the organizers now encourage paddock access and a pit lane walkabout immediately before the main two-hour race. The excitement in the pits just before the race is infectious-drivers trying to look relaxed, team managers nervously entertaining their mystified sponsors, mechanics checking everything, tires in heating jackets, and always the laptops open on desks with screens full of data. And the cars are so purposeful with their immense brakes, flexible cooling ducts, carbon-fiber panels, and a cockpit from a fighter jet.
The GT1 field included four Corvettes (two each of C5R and C6R), five Aston Martin DBR9s, six Maserati MC12s, two Lamborghini Murcielagos, and two Ferrari Maranellos. Also in the race were nine Porsche 997s and Ferrari 430s to make up the GT2 class.
Any one of these could be racing in the Le Mans 24 hours in June, but the cars that really would be there were racing that same afternoon at the Le Mans series 1,000km race at Valencia in Spain. At that race, more GT1s, including Corvettes, were mixing it up with the Le Mans prototype class of Peugeots, Pescarolos, Lolas, and last year's winning Audi diesels.
The race for the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy was first run on the offshore Isle of Man in 1905 because then, as now, it was the only place in the U.K. where it was legal to close public roads for racing. Even today, this partly self-governing, wet, and misty island still has no speed limit.
The start at Silverstone was superb and magnificently noisy with the yellow Carsport Holland C6R soon taking the lead in the hands of Swiss driver Jean-Denis Deletraz. As his tires wore away he spun and lost the lead, but recovered and handed the car over to his Swiss co-driver, Mike Hezemans, while running third. He couldn't stay to watch him regain another place to finish second to the championship-leading Maserati because he immediately jumped into a plane and flew the 900 miles to Valencia in Spain to do the third drive in the 1,000 km in an Alphand Corvette C6R.
The Belgian PK Carsport C5R finished third, keeping the Aston Martins off the podium and sending those acres of Aston fans home disappointed once again. Of course, Aston Martins are fine cars, but it is great to see our Corvettes now rated worldwide as a true supercar. Twenty years ago when I told people I drove a Corvette, the common response was, "Wasn't that the car Ralph Nader condemned as unsafe at any speed?" I would tell them they were thinking of the Corvair. Now when I tell them I drive a Corvette, they are more likely to say, "Yes, I know what Corvettes are; I saw them racing on TV." Racing really does work, improving not just the breed, but also the brand.
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