The opening round of the French GT Championship kicked off this spring at the scenic Paul Armagnac Circuit in Nogaro. Comprising a pair of hour-long races over two days, the championship has become a mecca for American muscle. Around a dozen Chrysler Viper GTS-Rs typically appear at every round, together with the odd Vette and Saleen. But this year things are a little different, with an additional Saleen S7-R and not one, but four Corvettes. These include Belgium's PSI Exprience team, with a C5-R driven by David Hallyday and Phillipe Alliot, and a C6.R driven by Finnish pairing Markus Palttala and Pertti Kuismanen. Dutch squad SRT Racing, meanwhile, fields a C5-R for Yvan Lebon and Christophe Bouchut and another for Thierry Soave and Eric Cayrolle.
Something of a pro-am championship, the series uses driver pairings consisting of a professional racer sharing a car with his amateur copilot. The driver change can happen no earlier than the 23rd minute and no later than the 36th minute, and must also be a minimum of 45 seconds long. To further equalize the field, a standard Pirelli tire is used, and successful cars have ballast added to neutralize any great advantage.
It's a formula that almost always guarantees close racing.
Hallyday took little time to stamp his influence on the damp and tricky surface, recording a 1:28.057 on his third flying lap. That got everyone's attention, but soon the track started to dry, times started to fall, and the Vettes struggled. The Kuismanen-driven C6 ended up in 10th Place, Thierry Soave was 11th, and the second SRT C5 was a very disappointing 14th, some 4 seconds off the pace. Third Place was a fine reward for a great lap by Hallyday, who fell in just behind the mighty Oreca Saleen S7-R, with Bruno Hernandez at the wheel, and the Gabriel Balthazard-driven Larbre Competition Ferrari 550 Maranello
The season opener was a battle royal from the start between the Ferrari, the S7-R, and the No. 24 C5-R of Hallyday. By the 20-minute mark these three had established a 10-second lead over the fourth-place car, the Kuismanen-driven No. 25 C6-R, which had charged through the field with serious intent. It appeared that a Vette win could be in the cards, though not from Soave and Cayrolle, whose tangle with a GT2 Porsche proved severe enough to relegate them to spectators for the remainder of the weekend.
With the obligatory pit stops complete, the order remained the same, but in the hands of French star Soheil Ayari, the Saleen was disappearing up the road at a second a lap. Meanwhile, the second Saleen in the field, piloted by Franois Fiat, was storming through the pack, picking off both Vettes in just a few laps.
And thus it remained, the Oreca Saleen a comfortable winner ahead of the Larbre Competition Ferrari, which just held on to Second ahead of the Fiat-driven Protek Racing Saleen. A great drive by Kuismanen and Palttala to Fourth was tempered by the realization that with a better qualifying position, a podium spot was theirs for the taking.
With the PSI C6-R finding a more encouraging pace, a fourth-place spot on the grid promised to give Palttala and Kuismanen a great shot at the podium. Palttala's 1:27.877 was just 0.003 second behind third-place Anthony Beltoise in a Viper GTS-R, and 0.3 second off the Viper of Frdric Makowiecki. Soheil Ayari continued to look unstoppable, qualifying the Oreca Saleen on pole with a 1:27.134. Christophe Bouchut, meanwhile, grabbed the first SRT C5 by the scruff of the neck and hauled it to an impressive Fifth Place, while Philippe Alliot struggled to end up a disappointing Ninth.
Despite the addition of 176.4 pounds worth of "success ballast," there would again be no stopping the Saleen, though Markus Palttala in the No. 25 PSI car had every intention of doing just that. The Finn drove the wheels off the C6 to take Second Place within half a lap, but all this early effort was to prove costly later. With the Ferrari eliminated early by a tire puncture, and the lead Viper of Frdric Makowiecki retiring with fuel-pressure problems, the race to the pit stops was dominated by the two Saleens and the Corvettes of Palttala and Bouchut.
Disastrously, problems with the belts and steering in the pit stop turned second place and a 10-second deficit into Fifth Place and a 30-second deficit for the No. 25 Vette. Kuismanen had his work cut out to salvage the situation, as Palttala's early charge had left the car with severe tire woes. A bit of luck came in the form of a clash between the lead Vipers of Eric Debard and Jean Luc Blanchemain. This eliminated the Blanchemain car from the equation immediately; Debard coasted to a halt soon after with fuel pick-up problems. The Corvette contingent then charged to the flag in Second, Third, and Fourth Places-albeit a yawning 16 seconds behind the cruising Saleen.
It was an intriguing start to the championship. There is no doubt that the Oreca-prepped Saleen, in the hands of an extremely capable pair of drivers, is the class of the field. Fortunately for its rivals, some of the Saleen's advantage will be taken away in the form of success ballast. The Corvettes, too, have put down a marker, and the PSI C6-R in particular looks to have potential the team has yet to exploit. As Markus Palttala explained, "This is the first time that we've run on the Pirelli tires, and we need to learn how to use them better because I definitely used them too hard at the beginning. But we've come here to win races . . . [the] circuits will have to get the Finnish national anthem because we're motivated, and we have the means to achieve victories."