During the '08 Labor Day weekend, the Detroit Grand Prix made its triumphant return with the roar of Corvette C6R thunder. The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) had decided to make Detroit a regular stop in its yearly season schedule. The Detroit event has now become a home race for the main parties involved in the Corvette Racing program. These included Detroit-based General Motors, Corvette Racing's Pratt & Miller group, and C6R engine builder Kaytech Engineering.
For the many people involved in the Corvette Racing program, the Detroit Grand Prix was a wonderful opportunity to actually see the C6R run in competition. This year, due to the ALMS go-green initiative, the C6R Corvettes are running E85R racing fuel. A concept E85-fueled Corvette Z06 was the official pace car for the ALMS race. Driving the pace car was former Formula 1 and Indy Car legend Emerson Fittipaldi. As was the case in 2007, the '08 event was held during the Labor Day weekend on beautiful Belle Isle Park.
This picturesque island, surrounded by the aqua-blue waters of the Detroit River, is located approximately two miles east of the city's downtown area. The American Le Mans Series and the Indy Racing League shared in the festivities last year. Added to this year's schedule was the Speed World Challenge GT Series. The three-day event took place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the holiday weekend.
Friday was free-admission day, which included practice for ALMS, IRL, and the Speed World Challenge. This was followed by afternoon qualifying for the ALMS. Saturday included the American Le Mans Series race, also known as The Detroit Sports Car Challenge. And finally, Sunday featured the Speed World Challenge and IRL races. For Corvette owners looking for a great weekend destination, the Detroit Grand Prix would be worth considering. This was evident by the many Corvette owners and fans that made the pilgrimage to Detroit for the inaugural event in 2007 as well as this year.
Fans were entertained throughout the weekend. Event activities included a family fun center and free concerts. Attending Corvette fans were treated to three days of racing and camaraderie. Situated close to the race action was the Corvette Corral, providing special "on island" parking for Corvette owners. This special designated area was the only spectator parking available on the island. All other fans attending the race were transported to and from the island via designated bus service from various locations around the city.
The purchase of a corral parking pass included grandstand tickets and an opportunity to parade your Corvette around the actual race circuit. The parade lap was a big hit among the participating Corvette owners. Thanks to an invitation by the Corvette Club of Michigan, I was offered the opportunity to experience the actual track conditions during one of the parade laps. While riding as a passenger with club member Ken Sumner in his Torch Red '02 Z06, I immediately noticed the challenges that faced the C6R drivers. Although traveling at parade lap speeds (for the most part), in Ken's street legal C5 Z06, the dips and bumps in the circuit were evident. Not only did the narrow street circuit offer little room for error, but limited run-off areas would make passing difficult. In fact, the only place that offered sufficient passing room was on the back straight along the Detroit River. The front straight seemed wide enough, but not long enough for overtaking. Aggressive braking around rough corners made the task of driving at race speeds quite challenging. These conditions would be a true test for the C6R's endurance, as tires, chassis, and suspension components were pushed to the limits on this course.
The original Detroit Grand Prix had its roots planted in 1982, when the prestigious Formula One World Championship held a race through the downtown streets of the motor capital of the world. This event was an immediate success. The sound of screaming Formula One engines echoing off the city's tall buildings was truly an experience to behold. Race fans and celebrities from around the globe were drawn to Detroit for this world class event. It immediately brought an international atmosphere to the city. Formula One included Detroit as part of its regular season schedule through the '88 season.
Unfortunately, additional requirements and demands from Formula One's sanctioning body, the Federation International de Automobile (FIA), put an end to Detroit's involvement in world racing. Several factors appear to have led to this decision. For example, demands were made by the FIA to construct a permanent garage structure. In addition, there were also numerous driver complaints regarding rough track-surface conditions. Apparently, the city streets proved to be too much for the delicate F1 cars and drivers to endure. Compliance with these demands would prove costly for the city of Detroit. Therefore, city officials decided the cost of accommodating the FIA was not worth the investment. This ultimately led to Formula One's withdrawal from Detroit after the '88 season.
In 1989 the U.S. based CART series took over. Racing continued on the downtown street circuit until 1992 when the venue was moved to its current location on Belle Isle Park. The last Detroit Grand Prix prior to the '07 version was held in 2001. Talks began in 2006 to revive the event. Roger Penske, owner of teams in both the ALMS and IRL series, proved instrumental in bringing the Detroit Grand Prix back to life. Mr. Penske is no stranger to organizing a major event in Detroit. It was Penske who chaired and helped make the '05 season NFL Super Bowl XL a huge success for the city. Once again, his leadership and organizational skills proved to be invaluable given the success of the Detroit Grand Prix. It was so successful that it's now contracted to be held on Labor Day weekend for the next five years.
The stage was now set for the '08 Detroit Grand Prix. In the ALMS Detroit Sports Car Challenge GT1 class, the race would be a battle between the two C6R Corvettes and Aston Martin DB9R No. 007. Corvette No. 3 was piloted by Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen. Heading into the Detroit race, O'Connell and Magnussen were riding on a seven-race win streak. With the three races remaining in the '08 season, the duo faced the possibility of breaking the ALMS single-season record of nine victories. They needed victories in all of the three remaining races to break the record. Driving Corvette No. 4 were teammates Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta. Gavin and Beretta hold the overall single-season victory record of nine, a record they would prefer not to relinquish.
The green flag dropped at 9:00 on Friday morning to begin the first practice session. Although the weather conditions would improve later in the day, speeds started out very slow due to rain and fog. Because of this, the Corvette team limited its practice time in the morning session. Driver Olivier Beretta spoke about the team strategy. "We're going to make a check-down on the car to make sure we're OK with the gearbox. Once that's finished, we will wait for this afternoon." The Aston Martin team did use the entire morning session to acclimate itself to the circuit. This was the first appearance for the DB9R in Detroit.
Friday's afternoon practice session began with the threat of more rain. Early on, Corvette No. 4, piloted by Olivier Beretta, recorded fastest lap time in GT1 with a 1:30.617. Two minutes later, the skies opened up with more rain. At the time of the downpour, all cars on the circuit were running slick, dry-weather tires. This contributed to an incident involving the No. 40 Ford GT-R. The Ford hit and moved a portion of the wall just after Turn 14 entering into the front straight. Out came the red flags, allowing the track workers to quickly move the wall back into place. Within seven minutes of the incident, the course was back to green. The rain continued for another 14 minutes, at which time clear skies prevailed for the rest of the weekend. When the checkered flag dropped at the end of the final practice session, it was Olivier Beretta in Corvette No. 4 on top with a 5.061-second advantage over Corvette No. 3, driven by Jan Magnussen. The Aston Martin DB9R was 13.243 seconds behind the lead Corvette.
The stage was set for the 20-minute qualifying session on Friday afternoon. Now under sunny skies, the track surface was quickly improving. There were still a few remaining water puddles when the green flag dropped to begin the competition for pole position. Times gradually increased as the track dried and more rubber accumulated on the race line. During the session, pole position switched three times between Beretta and Magnussen. On his fifth and last qualifying lap, it was Jan Magnussen in Corvette No. 3, edging out Beretta in the No. 4 car by 1.024 seconds.
The Danish driver spoke of his accomplishment of taking pole position at Belle Isle for the second year in a row: "The first dry lap I had all day was the first lap of qualifying. The track was getting better and better, and we needed a few laps to get the Michelins up to operating temperature. The C6R worked very well under the circumstances. It was very, very tough. It was a matter of thinking about how I drove the track last year, remembering my braking points and so on. Everybody was trying to find the right line. I didn't get a clear lap, but I don't think anyone did. I'm happy with the result; this makes the race a little easier."
Corvette Racing Team Manager Gary Pratt discussed his team's qualifying strategy: "The track was drying and it wasn't as good in the beginning of the session as it was at the end. We sent the drivers out to get a time and then brought them back in. If the drivers don't get a qualifying time and the session ends early because of a red flag, the cars would start at the back of the grid. Our strategy was to put a time down, let the track dry out, and then run when the conditions were better." The stage was now set for the actual race.
Saturday elevated the anticipation and excitement of the upcoming race to a fever pitch. The Corvette Racing paddock was a flurry of activity. Last-minute checks and adjustments were made to the cars. Emerson Fittipaldi stopped by to wish the teams luck before strapping into the E85 Concept Z06 Corvette Pace Car. Corvette race fans were in for a treat.
The start of the race saw Jan Magnussen in the No. 3 Corvette in pole position. Separated by three GT2 cars, behind Magnussen was Olivier Beretta in the No. 4 car. It took 10 laps for Beretta to clear the pack and position the No. 4 car behind Magnussen. The two Corvettes were now in a dogfight. Corvette No. 3 co-driver Johnny O'Connell shared his thoughts before the start of the race: "Speed is how close you are to crashing, and we're awfully close to crashing here in Detroit." During the heat of the battle, 40 minutes into the race, the yellow caution flags came out. A car hit and damaged the tire barrier in Turn 13. The track-repair crew was sent out to make the required repairs.
Both Corvettes immediately pulled in simultaneously for a pit stop. The team strategy for the leading Corvette No. 3 was for tires, fuel, and driver change. Corvette No. 4 chose to keep Beretta behind the wheel for another stint while changing to fresh tires and adding fuel. In this case, the race between the pit crews was won by the Corvette No. 4 team. Beretta came out of the pits ahead of Corvette No. 3, which was now being driven by Johnny O'Connell. Corvette No. 4 was now leading the race in the GT1 class. At this point, only seconds separated the two Corvettes.
With an hour remaining in this two-hour and 45-minute race, both Corvettes came in together for what would be their final scheduled pit stop. This time fuel, tires, and driver change was the plan for both cars. Again, the pit crew for the No. 4 car prevailed. Oliver Gavin was now charged with the task of bringing Corvette No. 4 home to victory. Jan Magnussen, now taking over driving duties for O'Connell in the No. 3 car, was on a mission. The Dane was in the process of reeling in the sister No. 4 car when misfortune struck.
With approximately 20 minutes remaining in the race, the No. 21 GT2 Panoz spun, hit the wall, and left debris behind Turn 7. This brought out the safety car, which, by chance, separated the two Corvettes. Corvette No. 4 ended up in front of the safety car, while the No. 3 car was trapped behind. This allowed Gavin to gain a full lap on Magnussen-a disadvantage that would prove too difficult to overcome with such evenly matched cars. Ironically, the exact same situation happened to Beretta in last year's race in which Magnussen took the win. When the checkered flag dropped for the '08 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, it was Gavin and Beretta with Corvette No. 4 in Victory Circle. Corvette No. 3 finished as runner-up, followed by Aston Martin No. 007 in Third Place.
Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan summed up the race: "It was an awesome event, and once again it came down to pit stops. The fans saw flawless execution, with the No. 4 Corvette just a little quicker than the No. 3 Corvette on that first stop. It's a great day for Oliver, Olivier, and the No. 4 crew. They haven't had many breaks go their way this year, and eventually it had to change. You can't hold great people down, and in the true spirit of Corvette Racing, they never gave up."
In closing, Corvette Racing is now firmly embedded within the prestigious history of the Detroit Grand Prix. Over the years, this event has included some of the world's highest forms of motor sport. The '08 Detroit Grand Prix was a huge success for competitors and fans alike. Not only was it an event to remember, but one to look forward to in the coming years. Labor Day Weekend at the Detroit Grand Prix is now a continuing Corvette tradition in the making.