Despite the abysmal state of the world economy, the FIA GT3 European Championship continues to provide what teams, drivers, and sponsors all want from international motor racing. This season's lineup features 11 of the world's most famous GT marques, including the addition of two new entrants: the Audi R8 LMS and the BMW Alpina B6. Two-time series champions Callaway Competition, from Leingarten, Germany, has returned this year with two Callaway-Corvette Z06.Rs to defend its title. Marc Sourd Racing is also competing this year with two Vettes.
During the winter break, Callaway Competition Director Ernst Woehr sought FIA approval to reduce the Z06.Rs' penalty weight from 60 kg (132 pounds) to 30 kg (66 pounds). He also wanted to add side windows to improve aerodynamics. To offset these changes, Woehr proposed reducing the LS7 engine's power with a smaller inlet restrictor. The FIA approved all of the changes except the side windows. (Small side wind deflectors were allowed.)
The Callaway team came to the first race at Silverstone, in England, with a new driver lineup. Arnaud Peyrolles teamed with Jurgen von Gartzen in Corvette No. 5, while Wolfgang Kaufmann and Luca Moro took over in No. 6. Marc Sourd Racing, meanwhile, tapped Diego Alessi and Luca Pirri to drive the team's No. 17 Vette, while Sourd himself paired with Johan Charpilienne in No. 16.
While the Callaway team arrived at the season-opening Silverstone race with expectations of victory, its hopes were quickly doused by a "balance of performance" rule change just days before the event. During off-season testing, the FIA ruled that the Callaway Corvettes would run on soft compound tires, as opposed to the hard-compound tires they ran in 2008. To adapt, Callaway developed a new set of springs, along with a revised exhaust system designed to work with the aforementioned air restrictor. Although these items were initially approved for use by the FIA, they were unexpectedly banned by the sanctioning body just four days before Silverstone. As a result, all of the Corvettes had to start the race with an untested spring/tire configuration.
"We really can't understand this decision," Woehr said. "We took part in the 'balance of performance' test before the season. During these tests, the new parts were [ruled] OK, and four days before the season starts, everything is changed. We spent a lot of money to develop and test these new components, which are now useless."
During qualifying, the soft tires proved useless after only five hard laps-bad news in a 31-lap, one-hour race. "In the current configuration, this tire compound was classified as dangerous for our cars even by tire supplier Michelin! We will never again take part in any race with this configuration; we can't take the responsibility for the safety of our drivers," explained Woehr. A protest submitted by Callaway Competition over the last-minute tire change was unsuccessful.
Thirty-seven cars qualified for the first race. The fastest Corvette was the Sourd No. 17, which was driven by Luca Pirri and started in ninth position with a time of 1:52.486. The pole-winning Morgan Aero turned a 1:51.098. Last year the odd-looking Morgan was a rolling roadblock, but thanks to a liberal rules adjustment, it had managed to elevate itself to the pole.
Starting in 19th position was the Sourd No. 16 Vette, followed by the No. 5 Callaway entry in 25th place. In 30th position was the No. 6 Z06.R, driven by Italian Luca Moro. The race went pretty much as expected for the troubled Corvettes. Pirri/Alessi finished Ninth, 48.966 seconds behind the winner, and received no championship points. Peyrolles/von Gartzen finished 23rd, and Sourd/Charpilienne finished 26th. The No. 6 car was eliminated in an accident with an Aston Martin and did not finish. It was a terrible start for last year's champions. Woehr asked Michelin to petition the FIA to allow the team to run different tires for Race Two, but the request was denied.
Race Two found Corvette No. 17 starting in third position. Driver Diego Alessi logged a time of 1:49.855, which was only 0.362 behind the pole-winning (again) Morgan. Von Gartzen started 17th in the No. 5 Vette, and Kaufmann was 18th in No. 6 after the crew labored through the night to repair the damage from the crash. Starting in 20th position was Johan Charpilienne in car No. 16. The Alessi/Pirri car held second place during most of the race in spite of the soft tires. Then, on lap 22, race stewards informed the Callaway crew that No. 17 was being given a drive-through penalty. The reason? Apparently someone had adjusted one of the car's mirrors one minute before the start of the race. This pushed the Corvette back to an Eighth Place finish, giving both drivers one championship point each. Von Gartzen/Peyrolles finished 14th, Sourd/Charpilienne 15th, and Kaufmann/Moro 22nd. While it was a tough weekend for the GT3 Corvette contingent, we know they'll be back out in front very soon.