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.