The american le mans Series Petit Le Mans event is an important race for the competitors. The 10-hour enduro over the spectacular Road Atlanta course in Braselton, Georgia, offers major bragging rights in the series and an automatic invite to the 24-Hour Le Mans race in July. This year, Corvette Racing arrived early to take advantage of a test day on Wednesday. The new GT2 chassis is still in the sorting-out stage, and the GM program needs to capitalize on all of the testing time it can get. Engineering simulations are pretty good these days, but there's no replacement for real-world track time when it comes to proving the validity of a suspension setup or tire compound.
Wednesday's two-hour test went very well under partly cloudy-but rain-free-skies. The team spent the majority of its time evaluating the new GT2 C6.Rs over the undulating surface of Road Atlanta. The results of the day gave the engineers a lot to contemplate, and they decided a gear-ratio change in the transaxle could be of help.
Thursday was the official beginning of the Petit weekend and offered significant track time in the form of three practice sessions, the last one a two-hour practice beginning at 7:20 p.m. The aforementioned gearbox change was completed for afternoon practice, and the engine was scheduled for a change before the night practice session. That left the team with precious little time to squeeze in the substitution. The afternoon practice was halted early, however, by a horrific accident, when Scott Sharp, in the Highcroft prototype Acura, went off in a huge way. Sharp hit the wall in Turn 3, violently flipping the car three times and completely destroying it. The incident also wiped out a significant part of the track's safety fencing, requiring a lengthy repair, so the officials discontinued the practice 45 minutes early. Fortunately, Sharp walked away from the crash, but the Highcroft team was left with a pile of junk for a race car.
Rain entered the picture in the afternoon, and the start of the scheduled practice session was pushed back two hours. While this combined with the earlier accident to give the Corvette team almost three extra hours of prep time, it still only barely made it to pit lane for the evening session. The night went fairly well, but Olivier Beretta had a "coming together" with a GT2 Porsche as the competitor tried to force an outside move in a corner. The tap to the Corvette's front tire didn't cause a suspension problem, but Beretta did report that the steering wheel was off center as a result of the encounter. Both C6.R crews also worked continuously on resolving persistent fuel-metering problems. The newest powertrain permutation cooked up by the gurus at GM's Wixom engine facility seemed to require a slightly different throttle-linkage setup than its predecessor.
Friday didn't offer much track time for the competitive field. The day started with a one-hour practice at 9 a.m., leaving no other opportunities for evaluation until the 25-minute qualifying at 2:25 in the afternoon. So the Corvette Racing team set up the cars the best it could given the information it had already gleaned. The gear changes must have been the right prescription, as Beretta laid down what was at the time the fastest qualifying time in GT2 behind the wheel of No. 4. It looked as if the pole would go to the No. 4 car until the very last minutes of qualifying, when David Murray in the Ford GT and Tom Sutherland in the LG Motorsports Corvette pipped Beretta's time to take P1 and P2, respectively. This relegated the Chevy Corvette C6Rs to third (No. 4) and seventh (No. 3) on the class starting grid-a sign of just how competitive the ALMS GT2 field is.
With the exception of a little rain on Thursday afternoon, conditions remained fairly dry until Saturday morning. It was then that the heavens opened up and delivered such a major downpour that few believed any racing would take place that day. The 8:15 a.m. morning practice was cancelled, but the precipitation did eventually abate enough to permit a quick half-hour practice run starting at 10. Pre-grid ceremonies and the race remained scheduled to start at 11:15 a.m. and run for 10 hours or 1,000 miles distance, whichever came first.
Johnny O'Connell, partnered with Jan Mag-nussen and Antonio Garcia, started for the No. 3 team, while Oliver Gavin, combining with Beretta and Marcel Fassler, piloted the No. 4 car under the green flag. O'Connell found his car set up perfectly from the start and, with the other drivers tentative in the wet conditions, managed to grab first position in GT2 within a mere three laps. Asked later how he managed such a feat, O'Connell simply said, "The car was great right from the start, and I just drove the heck out of it."
The No. 3 car did run into a pit-stop problem when the trap door to the refuel opening became stuck and didn't allow gas into the fuel cell. This resulted in the car being sent out without a full fuel load, necessitating an unplanned return visit to the pits. Since the car was already dropping track position, the crew elected to change tires as well. Not long after, No. 4 experienced a pit-stop delay of its own and also slipped down the GT2 order. Given how well the C6.Rs were running, there appeared to be plenty of time for the two cars to make up that lost ground.
Though the rain had dissipated, there was a constant drizzle throughout the first five hours of racing. The result was a spate of off-course mishaps and full-course double yellows. This made for some interesting decisions up and down pit lane. Would teams pit early and refuel? Would they stop for tires, and, if so, which type and tread compound? The Risi Competizione Ferrari team decided to switch to rain tires early, in anticipation of what it perceived to be an imminent downpour. The rest of the GT2 field, meanwhile, decided to hold out a little longer. That decision would end up deciding the outcome of the whole race.
At around the 5-hour mark, the skies opened up and dumped everything they had on the North Georgia landscape. Every car in the field headed for pit lane to put on rain shoes, save for the GT2 Ferrari, which was already so equipped. The wet conditions soon became completely untenable, however, with rivers of water and red clay running across the track. IMSA officials were forced to reluctantly shut down competition. The cars were forced off the track and parked single file at pit-out in the hot-pit lane to await clearing conditions. The teams weren't allowed to touch the cars, aside from putting rain covers on the bodywork. Risi Competizione, having stopped early for rain tires was now in first place for GT2. This was a big deal for the Ferrari bunch, as it was playing catch up to the Porsche contingent in their fight for the season's constructor championship. O'Connell, meanwhile, had experienced a major "off" under yellow just before the race was halted and had to be extricated from a gravel trap. This put the No. 3 car even further down in the running order, leaving Corvette Racing in fourth and sixth positions.
IMSA officials promised a ruling on the race's status at 7 p.m., but that was pushed back to 7:30, then 8:00, and still there was no decision as to when the racing would continue. All the while, the time clock on the race continued to run, even though the cars were parked in pit lane. Finally, after four hours of steady rain, the precipitation began to let up. The damage had been done, however: runoff was continuous, and the clay/water mixture pouring onto the track surface meant safe racing conditions could not be reestablished. The official word came at 9:30: the race was over, with the final results to mirror the order in which the cars were lined up in pit lane. As a result, Corvette Racing's entries finished Fourth and Sixth in GT2-a pretty disappointing result given the pace at which the cars had been running. It was a sentiment shared by most of the field, whose members had been geared up for a full, 10-hour enduro. No one, with the possible exception of the Ferrari team, wanted to see the race cut in half.
The next race would take place at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California, and would be the last call for ALMS competition this season. After the soggy finish at Road Atlanta, everyone was left hoping that the promise of golden California sunshine would prove more than just a wishful advertising slogan.