The Corvettes of Pratt & Miller and GM Racing headed west, arriving at California's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for an old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out confrontation with their season-long rivals from Aston Martin. If the Corvettes could score a Second Place in class or better, they would take home the Manufacturer's title for Chevrolet. Anything less would give the Astons the championship, or at least a share in the title.
Throughout the season, ALMS officials had contrived to intensify the battle by constantly fiddling with the amount of weight carried by the two cars. In further efforts to create a level playing field, series stewards also choked down the amount of air the Corvettes' Katech engines were allowed to breathe. For the last race of the season, the Corvette would be penalized with an air restriction and 50 kilograms (about 110 pounds) of added weight. The Aston DBR9 was only hit with the weight increase.
This year, Monterey's famous 2.238-mile track offered fantastic race weather, with the sun shining and no clouds to be seen. Track temperatures were in the mid-70s for most of the week. Qualifying provided an interesting glimpse at the teams' divergent strategies. The Corvettes charged out to put their best numbers on the board, with Johnny O'Connell pushing the team to the front of the class grid and using most of the available track time to accomplish it.
The Aston Martin team, meanwhile, stayed in the pits until they had seen what the Corvettes were capable of. Then, with just a few minutes left in the only qualifying session, the No. 009 DBR9 went out and established a class pole-position number on its second hot lap of the course. With that accomplished, the team brought the car back in and sent out its stablemate. The No. 007 car settled for a fourth-place starting position in class after just three tours of the newly resurfaced Laguna track.
Prodrive was apparently intent on placing its cars around the Corvettes in an effort to take advantage of any situation that might arise during the opening laps. It was painfully obvious that the team's DBR9s had the horsepower to do anything they wanted, when they wanted-perhaps not surprising in light of the engine restrictions placed on the C6.Rs.
Saturday's four-hour afternoon race started right on time at 2:45 pm. That meant the competition was to be staged in the afternoon's slightly cooler temperatures with a finish in the dark of night. Laguna's relatively short front straight leads uphill to the start/finish line and tends to bunch up the field, leaving many cars to round the initial corner even as the starter's flag falls. Once over the hill, everyone rushes to grab the most advantageous place to get around a very tight Turn 2. This year that task was completed without incident, and as the green flag was displayed to the field, the 007 Aston motored past one Corvette then another with a striking lack of effort.
The GT1 field quickly settled into an Aston/Aston/Corvette/Corvette lineup. During the opening lap, one of the GT2 Ferraris got into the Corvette No. 4 car of Olivier Beretta and ripped open the left-rear quarter-panel. This caused the team to pit the car early for repairs, putting them out of sequence with the rest of the field and the No. 3 car of Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell.
Olivier was not to be denied, however, and went about putting his car back into contention. The race was a pitched battle between the two teams for the next three hours, with everyone getting the chance to run in the class lead. Any lapse in driver concentration, any flaw in the crew's pit-stop performance, or any failure in the car's mechanical integrity would decide the outcome of the match.
During this time, a combination of pit stops, full-course yellows, and a driver change in the No. 3 car (O'Connell subbing for Fellows), allowed No. 4 to slip ahead of its Corvette Racing teammate. The C6.Rs found themselves sitting in the third and fourth positions in GT1, while the Astons held down first and second. With the Manufacturer's title on the line, the teams locked into what would prove to be one of the best races of the year on any racetrack.
With 76 minutes left in the contest, Stephane Sarrazin pitted the 009 Aston for fuel and tires. Two minutes later the cars of Corvette Racing came in for their final pit stop. They were now in synch with each other for the final service appointment. With their last driver substitution accomplished earlier, the No. 3 car was in for fuel and tires only, getting out quickly ahead of No. 4, now piloted by Beretta. This put Johnny O. ahead of Olivier, and the Corvettes were still running a disappointing third and fourth in class.
Finally, fate dealt the Aston team a blow. With 56 minutes remaining, Tomas Enge in the 007 DBR9 suffered a left-front-tire failure and was forced to limp around the course before the team could effect repairs. Sarrazin, in the 009 car, swept past his teammate to assume the lead in class, with the Corvettes inheriting championship-winning second and third positions. By the time Enge reentered the race, his Aston was relegated to a position one lap down to the trailing Corvette.
Johnny O'Connell's job now was to pressure the lead Aston. With aggressive driving, he was able to cut Sarrazin's lead to 0.486 second with just 35 minutes remaining in the contest. Then, with 25 minutes to go, Johnny finally caught Sarrazin and pushed the issue by passing the Aston going into Laguna's lefthander leading onto the front straight. The two raced door-handle-to-door-handle under the starter's tower, over the hill, through the slight Turn 1 kink, and into the track's tight, switchback Turn 2.
Tracking out of the corner, the DBR9 was able to sneak past the Corvette and reestablish the lead. Johnny continued to press the Aston, but the effort of catching up had wiped out his tires. Johnny quickly found himself with little between his car and the road surface and unable to keep pace with the group. He reluctantly allowed Olivier Beretta in the No. 4 car to pass him, ensuring that a Corvette would continue to hold down the all-important second-place position. Johnny settled into survival mode, falling ever farther behind his teammate. The No. 3 car was still well ahead of the Aston 007, however, and the race finished with the Corvettes in Second and Third in class.
They had done it. Corvette Racing had snatched the '06 Manufacturer's and Drivers' titles from the grasp of the British invaders. The team erupted into wild celebration as the reality of what they had accomplished settled in. They had fought as hard as they could, enduring unrelenting rule changes and pushing the edge of the performance envelope all season long.
While the cars circled the track after taking the checkered flag, Oliver Gavin jumped from the pit wall to hug Corvette Racing Manager Doug Fehan and corral team owner Gary Pratt. High-fives and hugs flowed freely among the whole team as the pent-up anxiety of the day gave way to unrestrained jubilation.
It was a tough pill for the No. 3 team, which had endured an unusual spate of bad luck this year. They had been looking forward to a win to finish the season, taking some gratification in the honor of carrying the team to its hard-fought championship. Nonetheless, they were as joyous and excited as the rest of the team, proving once again that this group lives and breathes as a family, with every individual's contributions considered invaluable to ensuring overall success.
For the sixth year in a row, the GM Racing/Pratt & Miller team took home both the Manufacturer's and Drivers' championships in American Le Mans GT1 competition. Factor in the three-peat at Le Mans last summer, and no one can deny that the Corvette and its support personnel represent the class of the series.
Making the scene even more poignant, 2006 marked GM Racing's 50th year in international motor racing, a tradition that began with a win at Sebring in 1956. The reward for the team and the corps of GM engineers responsible for the season's success was a quick turnaround to face the 2007 campaign. By the time you read this, they'll be back at the test track, perfecting the next-generation C6.R, stoking the flame of inspiration and genius, and spreading the word that Corvette is king.
Postscript: The annual ALMS awards banquet followed the season-ending race at Laguna Seca. There, the GM Racing/Pratt & Miller team took home a stash of gold, including the GT1 Team and Manufacturer's championships. Olivier Beretta and Oliver Gavin, meanwhile, were awarded the Drivers' championship. No. 3-car pit boss Dan Binks was honored with the GT1 Crew Chief of the Year award, and Ron Fellows was voted Most Popular Driver by the fans.
Chillin' in the Driver's Seat
Trying to keep a driver cool and comfortable inside an enclosed race car like the C6.R Corvette can be difficult. These pilots are expected to perform at their highest level of competence 100 percent of the time, so getting overheated simply isn't an option.
There is no back window on a C6.R-just a solid bulkhead. The side windows are fixed, with only small cutouts for air entry and escape. Temperatures inside the cockpit are elevated, due to the engine heat that is transmitted into the driver's space. Add to that a triple-layer driver's suit, Nomex underwear, high-top leather driving boots with Nomex socks, leather/Nomex driving gloves, a Nomex balaclava under a full-faced helmet, and ambient temps of 90-100 degrees, and it's easy to see why keeping one's cool can be a challenge.
The Corvette Racing Team tried several approaches to beating the heat, including "coolsuits" (essentially, an undershirt lined with cooling tubes and fed with refrigerated coolant) and different venting schemes. Ultimately, they settled on an air-delivery system that forces cool air onto the driver's back.
The air is taken into the car through the right-rear-window opening, just in front of the B-pillar (Image 1). The round duct at the opening is fitted with an electric fan, which pulls fresh air into the ductwork. The air is then sent to the back of the driver's seat through a grid of escape holes (Image 2).
In Image 3, you can see the effectiveness of the system in the pattern of spots on the back of the driver's race suit. This is created by the brake-dust particles that are pulled into the ductwork along with the fresh air. When a racing seat must be customized with a seatback insert, that insert is drilled with matching holes (Image 4). The drivers report that this system is much more effective than the other methods tried on the C6.R.