Cool, overcast conditions greeted the teams for the first qualifying of the penultimate round of the French GT Championships. A strong performance from PSI boys, Markus Palttala and Pertti Kuismanen, was critical if they were to retain any hope of stealing the championship from the Oreca Racing Saleen S7R. But with 80 kg of ballast from their successful Albi weekend, and a track that played to the Saleen's aerodynamic advantage, that would be a difficult task.
The Saleen looked almost untouchable right from the start, easily taking pole for Race 1 with Bruno Hernandez at the helm. A superb effort by new SRT wheelman Kennis Guyno took Second, while Kuismanen could do no better than Fifth in the PSI C6. PSI's C5 qualified Seventh, and the second SRT C5 ended up in 15th.
The race began with high drama as the top three ran line-abreast into the first chicane. The Saleen came off badly, emerging from the gravel in third, but not as badly as Kuismanen, who ended up 11th at the end of Lap 1. That gave a bit of breathing space to the Viper of Cyril Helias and the SRT Vette of Kennis Guyno, with the pair putting in some brisk laps to edge away from the S7R. Stuck back in traffic, both PSI cars were hurting, losing upwards of 2 seconds a lap to the leaders. Fortunately, the action in the midfield was intense enough to put the front-runners off their strides, and Kuismanen moved up to eighth.
Traffic by now was to play a part. Guyno got a run on Helias, slipped through, and immediately broke away, lapping 1-2 seconds quicker. Going into the pit stops, the Saleen benefited from quick crew work to emerge ahead of the SRT Vette. the Paltalla/Kuismanen team had also benefited from slick pit work, and the car emerged in sixth. The lead Viper of Helias had yet to pit.
Now into his rhythm, Palttala was easily the quickest on the track. While he would complain after the race of a lack of grip, that didn't prevent him from beginning to take chunks of time out of the cars ahead. With 5 minutes remaining, he had surmounted the Vipers of Fred Makowiecki, Arnuad Peyrolles, and Olivier Thevenin. With the race shortened to 52 minutes to fit into the DTM schedule, that was as good as it would get; the Guyno/Cayrolle C5 just pipping the PSI C6 to take Second. While it was a terrific recovery by the Finnish duo, full credit must also go to SRT's Kennis Guyno in his first time in a Vette.
The Vettes had been encouragingly close to the Saleen in race 2, and Markus Palttala felt that with some improvements to the setup the cars could challenge for the win. That seemed unlikely after qualifying, though. Ayari easily took pole, and after Paltalla clashed with an errant Viper, the C6 was forced to start from the 11th spot. The best of the Vettes was the second PSI car, with Jean-Luc Blanchemain half a second off the pace in Fourth. SRT struggled, winding up 10th and 15th.
There was a somewhat less dramatic start to the second race, though the Saleen was once again jumped on the run down to the chicane. At the end of Lap 1, the Ferrari 550 Maranello of Jrme Policand and the Mirabeau Viper of Jean-Claude Police led the S7R. The PSI C5 of Blanchemain was running marginally behind in fourth, while Cayrolle's C5 and Palttala's C6 were in 10th and 11th. Still, with the leaders heavily engaged in their own battles, the pair were just 13 seconds off the lead and still had a shot.
Fifteen minutes in, and it all began to come to life. Palttala put the move on Cayrolle to move into ninth, and the next time around both Vettes made up a further position. Meanwhile, up front, Ayari, perhaps sensing the danger, moved the Saleen into second and began putting serious pressure on the leading Viper.
Really into his stride now, Palttala was flying, and there was little those ahead could do to resist. By the 25th minute, the Finn was in sixth, and when Ayari brought the Saleen in for an early stop to fix a loose bonnet, that sixth became fifth. Fastest by more than a second a lap, Paltalla was closing rapidly on the lead group, which included the PSI C5 in third place.
Pit work would seldom be more important, as the top five all dived into the pit almost as one with 25 minutes remaining. Great work saw the PSI C5 blast out of the pit and into the lead. Four places back, the Saleen, now in the hands of Bruno Hernandez, just squeezed past Kuismanen as the PSI C6 emerged in sixth.
It didn't take long to establish these two as the quickest on the track, with the Saleen looking mighty as Hernandez disposed of both the Ferrari and the Viper within a lap. Kuismanen wasn't having it quite so easy, but using the C6's extra grunt, he was able to pick off those two before long. All the while Hernandez was putting great pressure onto Sbastien Dumez in the C5, and finally, with 10 minutes to go, he forced his way past to take the lead.
Kuismanen, not one to settle for a position, quickly closed down the C5, going ahead with 5 minutes remaining. There was little chance of chasing down the Saleen, especially as the Vette ran the last lap on the reserve tank, but it was still a great drive by the Finns on a track that suited the opposition far better.
While Palttala and Kuismanen had fought tooth-and-nail all weekend, clawing back from 11th in both races, the double win had sealed the French GT Championship title for Bruno Hernandez and Soheil Ayari. the points gained at Le Mans had also sealed Second overall for Palttala and Kuismanen, and all that remained was to head to Magny-Cours for the final round and try to round off the season in style.
Home of the French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours hosted the final round of the GT Championship. While the grand prize had already gone to the Oreca Team Saleen and pilots Bruno Hernandez and Soheil Ayari, PSI Racing was determined to round out their first season in France with a bang. Unfortunately, they would do just that.
The weekend started badly when Palttala got caught up in someone else's accident during free practice. The damage was severe enough to limit track time, so it was a great effort by Kuismanen to qualify the C6.R third for Race 1. In sixth and onto its third driver pairing in as many races (Romain Brandela and Thierry Stepec moving over from SRT for this one) was the PSI C5-R. SRT could do no better than ninth and eleventh, their roundabout of drivers continuing with Christophe Bouchut returning to accompany Roland Berville in the second car.
Just 45 minutes before the start, the mother of all rain storms swept across the circuit. The race was started under the safety car in appalling conditions, with the dangers highlighted graphically on Lap 3 when Kuismanen aquaplaned off the back straight at around 140 mph and thumped the retaining wall. Unfortunately, the damage was severe enough to sideline the C6 for the remainder of the weekend. It was a sad end to a very promising first season in the French GT Championship.
All the while a race was going on, and for the first time this year the Vipers came into their own, with the MTO Mirabeau team taking First and Second to give some consolation to the marque. Having driven consistently in the top four from the start, Roland Berville and Christophe Bouchut grabbed Third in the SRT C5.
The SRT team brought some cheer back to the Vette fans in Race 2, with Eric Cayrolle qualifying in Second and Christophe Bouchut in Fourth. But once again on pole, and determined to round off their successful season with a win, was the Saleen of Hernandez and Ayari.
At least it was dry this time, and after the chaotic race the day before, it all seemed, well, like the end of the season. After an initial break, Ayari was closed upon by Bouchut, but it never looked likely that the Vette would be able to get past. Running in Third was the second SRT C5, but behind the wheel Eric Cayrolle was having to work hard to keep up. Too hard, thought race officials, and after a number of minor excursions by Cayrolle, they issued the No. 26 car a drive-through for "nonrespect" of the course. Bouchut kept up the pressure until he, too, was awarded a drive-through-this time for overtaking a backmarker under yellow.
Though his lead over the third-place Ferrari 550 Maranello of Olivier Thevenin was sufficient to keep the position, the penalty was also sufficient to end the race as a contest. Thus it was that the Saleen ended the season as it started. Bouchut and Berville were equally comfortable in Second, ahead of the Ferrari, while Cayrolle and Soave were able to recover to Fourth.
Vettes in France 2006
There's little doubt the best team won the championship in 2006. The Oreca Saleen was always beautifully prepped and presented, and one would expect nothing less from a team of such pedigree. Bruno Hernandez and Soheil Ayari drove better overall than their competitors. They were always fast, particularly in qualifying, seldom made mistakes in the races, and were able to make use of some inspired calls from the pit wall.
That said, the PSI Exprience crew were new to the championship and were quick to make an impression with their two Vettes. Markus Palttala and Pertti Kuismanen were inevitably at the sharp end in the C6.R, and it was only a series of errors midseason that really cost them. Dijon and Val-de-Vienne were disasters of PSI's own making, and without those two rounds, they could have put in a much stronger challenge to the Saleen. The teams' C5-R fared less well, and unexpected changes to the driver lineup disrupted their continuity, though David Hallyday and Phillipe Alliot were always quick when they did race.
It's worth noting, though, that the team's best result, the Albi double, was when they were down to one car. The experience gained from this year will definitely stand them in good stead, and Vette fans can look forward to a strong challenge for the title next season.
The C5-Rs of Dutch squad SRT improved markedly over the course of the year. Never quite on the ultimate pace, the down-to-earth team worked hard, using a number of drivers over the course of the season. A succession of podiums in the last two rounds were just reward for their efforts. Of the drivers, the fiery Christophe Bouchut always gave 100 percent and frequently more.
French GT fans were given a real treat this year. A Saleen or Corvette had never run a full championship until 2006, and when they did, the usual horde of Vipers and Ferrari 550s were found wanting. With this in mind, there is already talk of a second Saleen and another C6.R in 2007. We can't wait.