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.
'07 FFSA GT Team Overview
Team: PSI Experience
Cars: C6.R No. 16 (shown) and C5-R No. 17
PSI returns with the same pair of Vettes it ran so successfully in 2006. Last year's title challengers, Markus Palttala and Pertti Kuismanen, have opted not to return, so their seats have been taken by former SRT racers Christophe Bouchut and Yvan Lebon. The second PSI car also fields unfamiliar faces this year, with erstwhile Viper pilots Jean Claude Police and Mathieu Zangarelli taking the spots.
Strengths and weaknesses: The team are in their second year of the championship and are sure to learn from the mistakes that cost them the title last year. Bouchut is one of the top GT drivers in the world but can be hot-headed at times. Parallel participation in the FIA GT series and a Le Mans campaign might dilute PSI's efforts.
Car: C5-R No. 5
SRT returns with just one car this year-a C5-R-and its regular driver pairing of Eric Cayrolle and Laurent Cazenave.
Strengths and weaknesses: SRT has extensive endurance experience and will be looking to build on its familiarity with the French circuits. Running just a single car this year could focus the team's efforts, as could its decision not to race in the Belgium GT Championship. A parallel FIA GT Championship campaign could be a distraction.
Team: Luc Alphand Adventures
Car: C5-R No. 8
Luc Alphand is a French living legend. The ex-world downhill ski champion has won the Paris-Dakar rally, and he scored a superb seventh overall in the GT1 class at Le Mans in 2006. While he isn't driving in the French Championship in 2007, Alphand's influence is bound to seep through to a strong driver lineup of Gabriel Balthazard and Jerme Policand, who moved over from the Ferrari 550 Maranello they campaigned last year.
Strengths and weaknesses: Inexperience in the French series could count against them, and running two additional cars in the Le Mans series could stretch resources.
Cars: Saleen S7Rs No. 1 and No. 9 (shown)
The major opposition in 2007 will come, once again, from the Oreca team, which returns with two of last year's title-winning S7Rs. Soheil Ayari and Bruno Hernandez, the '06 champs, are split between the cars, with Ayari lining up with Raymond Narac, and Hernandez teaming with French Formula Renault champion Laurent Groppi.
Strengths and weaknesses: Oreca has enormous engineering depth and a wealth of experience that is second to none in endurance racing. Ayari and Hernandez are both quick and dependable, though Groppi has little experience in GT racing. A simultaneous Le Mans series campaign is unlikely to have any effect on the team's French campaign. This is the team to beat in 2007.
Team: Larbre Competition
Cars: Aston Martin DBR9 No. 3 and Ferrari 550 Maranello No. 2
Larbre is one of the most experienced teams in the championship, with a host of FIA GT titles behind it. The Aston pairing of Patrick Bornhauser and Frederic Makowiecki is experienced and fast, and should feature strongly at most tracks. The Ferrari is too long in the tooth to feature significantly, even if drivers Jean Yves Adam and Steve Zacchia are both pretty tidy pedallers.
Strengths and weaknesses: The team has a tremendous racing pedigree, with enormous strength and depth, while former champ Bornhauser forms a strong lineup with young gun Makowiecki.
Car: Saleen S7R No. 4
After struggling through 2006 with an uncompetitive Viper GTS-R, the Tarres team has stepped it up with the purchase of a Saleen for 2007. Drivers Eric Debard and Oliver Thevenin have limited experience in the Saleen, but both will be eager for wins after disappointing '06 campaigns.
Strengths and weaknesses: This long-established team has a great deal of experience in the French series, if not with the Saleen. Thevenin was the '06 champion and is fast and experienced.
Car: Saleen S7R No. 7
Protek has been around the French GT Championship for some time, as have drivers Dominique Dupuy and Franois Fiat. The team featured strongly in the '06 title fight, but its Saleen is getting on in years and seems unlikely to pull off a repeat performance.
Strengths and weaknesses: The team has experience in a title fight, but its S7R has had a hard life and is not at the pace of the newer cars.
Team: Mirabeau MTO
Car: Chrysler Viper GTS-R No. 10
While the Vipers have had to rely on performance breaks to remain competitive, Mirabeau might just be the strongest of the three teams running them. Gal Lesoudier and Anthony Beltoise form a strong and experienced driver lineup.
Strengths and weaknesses: A Viper is not going to challenge for the championship, no matter what breaks it's given, though reigning Porsche Carrera Cup champ Beltoise is as quick as anyone.
Team: Red Racing
Car: Chrysler Viper GTS-R No. 14
Red Racing had a terrible time of it in 2006, running a Lister Storm in selected rounds. The'07 season promises more of the same.
Strengths and weaknesses: They're running a Viper, and an old one at that. Furthermore, the driver lineup of Thierry Prignaud and Nicolas Maillet Avenel is unlikely to strike fear into the opposition.
Team: Espace Racing
Car: Chrysler Viper GTS-R No. 20
Espace steps up to GT1 after running a Porsche 996 in C1 last year, retaining the same driver lineup of Christian Philippon and Franck Labescat.
Strengths and weaknesses: Limited experience and an uncompetitive car yield a grim outlook for Espace.