The '06 American Le Mans season was characterized by drama, politics, and a pitched battle in the GT1 class between the Corvette Racing C6.Rs and the Prodrive Aston Martins. After the Vettes established a healthy early points lead, Aston threatened to leave the series if organizers didn't level the playing field. Officials dutifully added weight and inlet restrictors to the Chevys, slowing them down and creating unusual mechanical breakdowns. The Astons went on to win enough races to force a championship-deciding end-of-season showdown at Laguna.
While the overweight C6.Rs would finish Second and Third in GT1 at Laguna to clinch another manufacturer's title, Corvette Racing officials remained bitter about the midseason rule changes. Over the winter, they even considered pulling out of ALMS altogether and competing in Europe.
In an ironic twist, Corvette Racing did return to ALMS for '07, but Aston Martin did not. The Brits' departure has left a huge void in GT1 and all but handed the champ-ionship to the Vettes. With interest in the class at an understandably low ebb on the domestic front, the question Corvette Racing officials must ask themselves is this: Might a move to a European series have been a good idea after all?
Europeans are serious about their motorsports, and the tremendous number and variety of sanctioned sports-car races held across the continent reflect this fact. The two main race series are the European Le Mans (ELMS) and the FIA GT championship. This year, ELMS will hold seven events in seven countries, plus the annual 24-hour race at Le Mans. The FIA GT, meanwhile, is running 10 events, starting in China and ending in Belgium. In addition to these races, Europe is home to the Dutch Supercar Championship, the French FFSA, and many other smaller GT series.
Two race categories of particular significance are the FIA GT3 and the Belgian Belcar series. Unlike the ELMS and FIA GT events, these races feature Corvettes not previously campaigned by Pratt & Miller. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these cars are the Callaway/Carsport Z06.Rs, whose construction and subsequent race appearances we covered in a series of articles last year.
To refresh your memory, all Z06.Rs begin life as regular-production street cars and are converted to FIA GT3 specifications by Callaway Competition in Germany. The process has been an expensive one, since most of the original, Z06-spec com-ponents failed during initial testing and had to be replaced with stronger, non-factory parts. Incredibly, Callaway Competition does not receive any financial or material support from GM.
To date, eight cars have been built. Six compete in GT3, one runs in Belcar, and another appears in the Dutch Supercar Series. After a shaky start last season, the teams seem to have sorted the cars out for '07. The Pirri/von Gartzen Martini Z06.R finished an impressive Second overall in the opening round of the season. Anthony Kumpen and Burt Longin, meanwhile, drove their Z06.R to an opening-round Belcar win in Zolder, Belgium, and finished Second at Donington Park, in England.
As the Corvette Racing C6.Rs somnambulate their way to another GT1 crown in ALMS, it's comforting to know that, in one part of the world, production-based competition still reigns supreme.