Absolutely sweltering late-summer conditions greeted the competitors as the French GT Championship arrived in the southern town of Albi. And to match the conditions, the PSI Exprience team was red hot right from the start. Down to just one car after withdrawing its faithful C5-R for budgetary reasons, the team used the opportunity to focus on the Markus Palttala/Pertti Kuismanen C6.R and came away with an almost perfect weekend.
Free practice indicated that the Vettes would be right on the pace, with both the PSI car and the SRT Racing C5s looking good. Within two laps of qualifying, we had confirmation as Kuismanen went straight to the top of the timesheets with SRT's Yvan Lebon marginally behind. Although momentarily displaced by the Chrysler Viper GTS-R of Patrick Bornhauser, Kuismanen sealed the pole with a superb lap of 1:14.636. Bornhauser was able to hang onto second, with Lebon's 1:15.644 good enough for third. The second SRT car rounded off a strong Vette qualifying session in fifth, just behind the championship-leading Oreca Saleen S7-R of Bruno Hernandez.
The stage was set right from the start, as Pertti Kuismanen established a searing pace at the front, hounded by the revitalized Viper of reigning champ Bornhauser. Such was the pace that by Lap 5, back-markers were already a problem, and a momentary hesitation by Kuismanen allowed Bornhauser through on Lap 7. Just behind, the SRT C5s were hanging onto third and fifth, split by the Oreca Saleen. Bornhauser was giving his all to keep the Viper ahead, but with just one lap to his stop, Kuismanen slipped the Vette up the inside into the fast hicane. Point proved, into the pit he came.
Hernandez, too, had used the traffic to his advantage, working his way up to third and leaving the C5s running in fifth and sixth. At this point, Christophe Bouchut once again found himself at the center of controversy. Taking over from Lebon, Bouchut pulled away aggressively from his pit box and struck a passing Viper and two mechanics, causing enough damage to retire the Vette on the spot.
Paltalla had emerged with 10 seconds over the now-second-place Saleen, but that margin was disappearing fast. Seven seconds on one lap alone were lost behind back-markers, and when a bolt sheared in the Vette's suspension, the subsequent handling and braking problems looked to have handed the race once again to Ayari.
Not one to throw in the towel, Paltalla was vigorously defending his position when-with just 10 minutes to run and the Saleen swarming all over the Vette-the safety car appeared. The second Saleen in the field had left the track at some velocity, and while the shaken driver was being tended to, the red flag was shown. While it deprived the spectators of a great last few laps, it meant a win for PSI, and as Pertti Kuismanen remarked afterwards, "A victory is a victory-it doesn't matter how it comes."
Cooler conditions on Sunday morning created more-comfortable conditions for the drivers, but the timesheets made less-comfortable reading for the Vette teams. While Markus Paltalla had the second-fastest time with a 1:13.397, this was still 0.4 off Ayari's Saleen. The SRT C5s really struggled, lining up just eighth and fourteenth on the grid. Paltalla was nevertheless confident, explaining that he could have been quicker and pointing out that despite all the previous day's setbacks, the PSI Vette had still managed to beat the Saleen. It all pointed to an exciting afternoon.
Despite 80 kilograms of "success ballast," Paltalla pressured Ayari right from the start. Once again traffic was to play a role. When Ayari was briefly balked by a GT2 Porsche, Paltalla seized his chance and blasted past, down the back straight. As the tactics had been to shadow the Saleen until pit-stop time, this was a great opportunity, and Markus made the most of it. Absolutely ruthless in the traffic, he quickly built a lead that grew to 8.4 seconds at one stage.
Meanwhile, the No. 27 SRT Vette was on a charge, Bouchut having a great drive as he hauled the C5 up to fourth-a mere 0.2 seconds behind the Larbre Competition Ferrari 550 Maranello of Jrome Policand.
With 35 minutes gone, the top four cars headed into the pits. It was nail-biting stuff, with this one stop potentially deciding the outcome of the race. Slightly tardy, the PSI car was underway mere seconds ahead of the Saleen. Just behind them, good work by SRT got the No. 27 C5 into third, marginally ahead of the Ferrari.
Next time around, the gap was obvious-2.7 seconds separated Kuismanen and Hernandez. This was going to be tight. A lap later, the gap was down to 0.7, and for the next 15 laps, the two were never more than a half-second apart. In the end, Pertti proved utterly unflappable and defensively perfect, taking the flag to complete a fantastic double.
And yet it could have been better. Lebon and Bouchut crossed the finish line in Third but were relegated to Eleventh Place after a last-lap clash with the Larbre Ferrari. The second SRT car, meanwhile, had a less dramatic run to Sixth. Perhaps the next round at Magny-Cours will find more than one of the Corvette teams mounting the winners' podium.