Following a relatively successful season in the '06 French GT (FFSA) Championship, four Corvettes signed on for the '07 championship battle. Belgian squad PSI Exprience is back with a pair of Vettes-a C6.R and a C5-R-and SRT will once again compete with its own C5-R. New to the fray is French favorite Luc Alphand Adventures, also with a C5-R.
But while the Corvette contingent looks to be as formidable as ever, the competition has gotten even stronger. The '06 championship team has returned with not one, but two of last year's dominant Saleen S7Rs and, for the first time, an Aston Martin DBR9 will compete, backed by the experienced Larbre Competition squad. The season kicked off at Nogaro, with all of the teams jockeying to establish an early points lead.
Qualifying 1Reigning champ Oreca flexed its muscles early in qualifying, with the Raymond Narac-driven Saleen S7R grabbing pole position. A fine effort by Laurent Cazenave in the SRT C5-R saw him secure second, though his qualifying time was a good 0.8 seconds slower than the Saleen's. Team PSI took fifth and sixth (behind the Aston and another Saleen), while Gabriel Balthazard would line up in seventh in the Alphand C5-R to complete a strong Corvette presence at the head of the field.
Race 1Narac wasted little time in building a small, if comfortable, lead over Cazenave, who had his hands full defending his position from the Larbre Competition Aston of Fred Makowiecki and the second Oreca Saleen of Bruno Hernandez. While these four cars set a searing pace up front, a frustrated Yvan Lebon was doing all he could to depose his PSI teammate Jean Claude Police from fifth.
When Lebon finally did make it past, disaster struck: Hernandez, who had spun out while attempting to overtake Makowiecki's Aston, reversed straight back into Lebon while rejoining the pack. The resulting contact broke the C6's left-rear suspension and effectively ended the Saleen's hopes of victory. It looked like a straight fight to the flag between the the No. 1 Saleen, the SRT C5-R, and the Aston Martin, after the driver changes.
Sadly, the race would prove an anticlimax when first the Aston Martin slowed with a puncture caused by excessive tire wear and then retired with spiralling water temperatures. The SRT Vette, meanwhile, began to lose pace dramatically, also as a result of failing tires. PSI's Mathieu Zangarelli moved into second in the C5 he had taken over from Jean Claude Police. All the drama had given the Saleen, now with reigning champ Soheil Ayari at the wheel, a 16-second lead it was unlikely to lose.
Behind, the SRT car's fall down the order was dramatic, with Eric Cayrolle eventually nursing the C5 home in sixth, over a lap down on the Saleen. Some consolation was afforded Vette fans by the Luc Alphand Adventures C5-R of Gabriel Balthazard and Jrome Policand, which finished third after a steady, if unspectacular, race.
Qualifying 2With tire-wear issues at the forefront of many teams' minds, the second qualifying round got off to a slow start, with everyone reluctant to do too many laps. But when they did go, the Makowiecki Aston showed that its overnight engine change had served it well. Its 1:24.046 just edged out Ayari's Saleen, which posted a 1:24.118. Behind, Mathieu Zangarelli confirmed that the Vettes were around a half-second off the pace by lodging a 1:24.688. Zangarelli would line up just ahead of the Luc Alphand Adventures C5, while the PSI C6.R of Christophe Bouchut and the SRT C5 of Eric Cayrolle would line up in seventh and eighth, respectively.
Race 2Makowiecki set a searing pace right from the start, while Zangarelli muscled out the Saleen to snatch second. Determined to make up for the previous day's disappointment, Christophe Bouchut overcooked it into the hairpin on Lap One, and the subsequent excursion dropped the C6 down to eighth position. It was to be the start of a stunning comeback by the PSI driver.
While the Aston quickly built a four-second lead over Zangarelli, the C5 had little trouble fending off the Saleen-a fact the Oreca team would later attribute to a misfiring engine. That seemed of little interest to the crowd, as all eyes were on Bouchut as he charged though the field. Within 10 minutes, the C6 was up to fifth and, in the space of two laps, he had moved ahead of the Alphand C5, the Saleen, and the PSI C5 to take second.
In this kind of mood, Bouchut is unstoppable, and when Makowiecki hesitated momentarily behind a backmarker, the Vette surged ahead and quickly built a six-second lead going into the driver changes. Yvan Lebon emerged in the lead ahead of the Raymond Narac-piloted Saleen, with Jean Claude Police and Gabriel Bathazard following. The big loser going into the stops had once again been the Aston Martin, as tire woes dropped them out of the running.
And then misfortune struck again for the crew of the PSI C6.R. Lebon headed into the pits with an engine problem, and his race was over. That left the lead Saleen at the head of the field until Jean Claude Police attacked and went ahead in traffic with ten minutes to go. The Saleen was not done, however, and on the final lap dived up the inside of the Vette to take the flag in front of the distraught PSI crew.
The Oreca celebrations were premature, however, as it soon came to light that the final pass had taken place under yellow flags. The subsequent penalty dropped the Saleen to Fourth overall. That left us with a great One-Two finish for the Vettes, with PSI's Police and Zangarelli edging out the Alphand C5 of Policand and Balthazard.