Late last year, the FIA announced a new race series called the FIA GT3 European Championship. Team VETTE attended the GT3 press conference at Monte Carlo, where a total of nine manufacturers expressed interest in fielding entries for the series. The teams would be required to enter three cars at each of the '06 season's five races.
According to GT3 Director Stephane Ratel, GT3 would be "a gentlemen's race series." This meant that no professional race drivers would be allowed to compete unless they were over the age of 55. All five events were to include two one-hour races, and teams would be required to perform a driver change during each race.
Callaway Competition, in Leingarten, Germany, was contracted by the Netherlands' Team GLPK Carsport to build six GT3-spec Z06 Corvettes. Connecticut-based Callaway Cars provided engineering and technical support. Work began in late November, and all six cars-dubbed Z06.Rs-were on the grid May 7 for the first race event at England's historic Silverstone circuit. (Three were purchased by France's Team Riverside, while the remaining three are campaigned by a joint effort known as Team Carsport/Callaway.)
Unfortunately, the Silverstone races did not go well for the Vettes, as rain and mechanical gremlins kept the cars out of the top finishing positions. With the season opener behind them, the teams could only hope for a better showing at the series' next round in Oschersleben, Germany.
Oschersleben is a small city located in the farmlands of the former East Germany. The 2.8-mile, nine-turn Oschersleben Motorsports Arena, which opened in 1997, is a tight, twisty course that requires drivers to run over high curbs in order to log quick lap times. Forty-one GT3 entries, including the six Z06.Rs, arrived at the track hoping to qualify for a top spot.
Prior to the race, the FIA had ruled the Z06.Rs were too fast and ordered that the cars run both 260 pounds of ballast and a 10mm inlet restrictor. Oschersleben would be the Corvettes' first race under these new restrictions.
When Carsport/Callaway driver Uli Martini's regular copilot, Klaus Ludwig, was unable to make the race, Berberich and the team offered the open seat to five-time SCCA T-1 National Champion John Heinricy. John, who is the director of GM's Performance Division, was in Germany working on a project and quickly accepted.
The FIA scheduled two 20-minute qualifying runs for the Saturday session-one for that afternoon's race and another for the Sunday morning event. For Race One, Team Riverside qualified 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, while Carsport/Callaway took the 28th and 34th spots. In Race Two qualifying, Riverside secured the first, third, and fifth starting spots, while Carsport/Callaway grabbed seventh and twenty-second.
Forty-one starters took the green flag for Saturday's race under clear skies. The first 20 minutes saw plenty of banging and spinning among the competitors, and the safety car was brought out to clear up the mess. Most cars, including the Corvettes, pitted during the caution and changed drivers. When the race resumed, the No. 19 Riverside car of Rabineau/Ruffier and the No. 16 Berberich/Heinricy Carsport/Callaway were running third and fourth, respectively, overall.
And that is how they finished, with only 2.24 seconds separating First and Fourth place. Martini and Heinricy were all smiles, and spectators were quick to congratulate the American driver on his impressive European debut.
Race Two was held Sunday morning before a record crowd. When the green flag fell, the pole-sitting No. 19 Corvette streaked out to an impressive lead. Heinricy moved from seventh into third place behind an Aston Martin and stayed in that position until he pitted for a driver change. During the driver change it was learned that the Z06.R had lost its clutch at the start. Incredibly, Heinricy had driven the first half of the race without a clutch!
Berberich managed to pull No. 16 to within eighth place before spinning on the last lap while avoiding another car. By the time he got restarted, he had fallen to 13th. The No. 19 Corvette, meanwhile, had pulled out to a 30-second lead, which it held through the end of the race. Unfortunately, the team's crew had to help start the car during the driver change, incurring a 30-second penalty. This dropped No. 19 from First to Third overall, 27 seconds behind the winning Aston Martin DBR9. Corvettes finished in the Third, Ninth, Thirteenth, Twenty-seventh, and Thirty-second places.
In spite of FIA's "performance adjustment" penalty, the Z06.Rs are showing themselves as formidable competitors against the world's best exotic cars. According to Heinricy, "The car has a lot of grip in mid- and high-speed corners. It tends to understeer in slow corners, but that can be easily controlled with the throttle. The weight penalty and the engine restrictor make the engine feel like a stock LS7 with a good aero package and slick tires. It was a blast to drive, and I am ready to do it again."