The final round of the 2009 ALMS season was held at California's beautiful Laguna Seca circuit-2.238 miles of twisting, elevation-changing, glass-smooth pavement. Many of the teams arrived at Laguna with their championship hopes still in place. LMP1's Highcroft's Acura team had been scrambling to make enough points to keep its lead in the prototype category. In GT2 the Risi Ferrari team finished well in the rain-soaked Petit race and was right on the Porsche Flying Lizard team's coattails. The Corvette Racing program was finishing out a five-race development program in GT2 and was not in the championship hunt. However, the Corvette team had progressed well, with podium finishes at almost every race, including its first win at Mosport.
The ALMS Laguna schedule is short and sweet: a test/practice day Thursday afternoon, additional practice and qualifying on Friday, and the race Saturday. This gave the Corvette engineers development time to work out suspension setups that would satisfy the drivers while delivering optimum performance. The Thursday practice was fairly uneventful, but Friday's session was pretty foggy, and the road surface a little more slippery than usual. The Corvettes had their problems with the conditions. Both cars suffered off-road excursions, with the No. 4 car needing a front-end rebuild due to damage. On top of that, the drivers were asking for changes in Fifth and Sixth gears, which meant pulling the gearbox and re-spec'ing the transaxle ratios as well. It made for a busy day, with only 41/2 hours until the start of practice/qualifying in the afternoon.
The repairs and adjustments were made, and the Team Corvette C6.Rs were on pit lane to start the afternoon sessions on time. Jan Magnussen surprised everyone with a great time, grabbing pole position for the GT2 class. The Risi F430 Ferrari, piloted by Jamie Melo, slotted in Second, and Oliver Gavin brought the Corvette No. 4 car home in Third.
Race day offered morning fog but clear skies for the 2 p.m. race start. The green flag flew for the four-hour race, and the sun finally took over to burn off any residual gloom. The Corvettes immediately took control, with Magnussen in the No. 3 car leading the GT2 pack, and Gavin quickly passing the red Ferrari to take up second. The C6.Rs continued the 1-2 class lead through the first hour of competition. The pair pitted for tires and fuel only, and left with Gavin ahead in the No. 4 car, due to a prolonged fueling time for No. 3.
This pit service was soon followed by a full-course yellow, and the subsequent restart spelled trouble for Gavin. He was under a full head of steam through the start/finish, came roaring down the hill on the inside through Turn 1, and ran out of room to brake for the tight-hairpin Turn 2. At that point Olly was "bowling for dollars," as he carried two other cars with him into the sand trap outside of Turn 2 while also damaging the Highcroft prototype. It was a big "off," and it forced the course marshals to declare another yellow-flag condition. Laguna's sand traps are built to stop very light FIA motorbikes, so cars that enter them sink immediately up to their hubs and require a time-consuming extrication.
The No. 4 car was somehow able to get back on track under its own power and was directed by crew chief Mike West to head straight to the garage for repair. In Corvette Racing style, the car was rebuilt with a combination of new parts and plenty of yellow-impregnated Bear Bond, and was back on track for competition in 15 minutes. Gavin's partner, Olivier Beretta, would finish the race for the No. 4 car, but not before a flat front tire forced him into another time-consuming pit stop. It simply wasn't the No. 4 car's day, and it would finish several laps down to the leader in GT2.
Meanwhile, back on the track, the No. 3 car was playing catch-up to the class-leading Porsche. Johnny O'Connell kept the pressure on and turned in some very competitive laps. He was able to reduce the Porsche lead to just 6 seconds as he came in for the last pit service of the race. Magnussen was subbed for O'Connell, and the car received fuel and fresh tires. However, the driver's window net did not seat into place, and the crew had to reopen the door to resolve the problem. That took way too much time, and Magnussen returned to the track 14 seconds down to the Porsche with about 10 laps to go-a seemingly insurmountable gap.
But the Dane is known for his speed, and he did not disappoint. He quickly hacked down the Porsche's lead and took up position on the tail of the German entry, hounding him all over the track. Magnussen was desperate to get by, but Jorge Bergmeister in the No. 45 Flying Lizard car made his vehicle as wide as possible, taking driving lines dictated purely by defense. Magnussen put an outside passing move on the Porsche going into the hairpin lefthand Turn 2, but he couldn't make it stick, as Bergmeister re-passed underneath and forced the Corvette into the dirt.
Magnussen continued to shadow the Porsche, darting left and right in an attempt to pull up alongside. With two laps to go, he took a head of speed up the start/finish hill and down into Turn 1, running left of the Porsche and cutting into the pit-out lane that runs parallel to the racing track surface. This lane is marked with a double white line delineating it from the track, and the course marshals regard those white lines as "the wall"-they do not allow competitors across them. Magnussen completed the pass before Turn 2 and quickly moved out ahead of the Porsche, putting a fair distance between the two in just 3/4 of a lap.
IMSA officials ruled the Corvette's pass into Turn 2 illegal and demanded that Magnussen give back the first-place position to Bergmeister. The trade was performed as they crossed the start/finish with just one lap to go, and it seemed impossible that Magnussen could run down the Porsche again in the allotted time. The pair circulated the Monterey track nose to tail, with Magnussen trying everything he could to get a passing opportunity. As they rounded Turn 11, heading to the finish line, the Corvette was just not close enough to make a successful run at the Porsche. However, the race-leading prototype of Gil de Ferran was on its last lap and just behind the Corvette/Porsche pairing. De Ferran took the checkered flag to end the race with the two GT2 combatants still ahead of him. This meant that Magnussen would get one more lap to make his move, and Bergmeister would have to play defense for another 11/2 minutes. The two ran a heated exchange, with both pushing their cars to the limit.
It was going to come down to the last corner. Magnussen was about 50 yards behind Bergmeister entering the very tight lefthand Turn 11. It seemed as though the Corvette wouldn't be able to make up the distance and drag-race the Porsche to the finish, unless Magnussen could somehow make up ground by late-braking, carrying momentum through the corner, and then getting the C6.R rotated and back on the gas without incident. With the slower car and little left in his tires, Bergmeister felt he wasn't going to be able to hold off the Corvette. In mid-corner he brake-checked Magnussen and forced him onto the brakes-and also into the rear of the Porsche. Bergmeister's aim was to upset the Corvette's entry and exit of the corner, and possibly even to make Magnussen lose control.
Bergmeister got the result he was looking for, and the Porsche squirted onto the front straight ahead of the Corvette. Magnussen gathered the C6.R up and got it rotated and back to throttle very quickly. It was now a drag race to the finish. Bergmeister deduced in mid-corner that his ploy was not going to be enough and immediately angled his car left toward the inside wall with Magnussen between him and the concrete barrier. The left wall defining the front straight at Laguna Seca pinches in to the right as you transition to the start/finish line. The fastest line out of Turn 11 is to stay mid-track and aim for just right of the inside wall on the left as it passes under the bridge where the finish line is. Bergmeister, however, took a driving line that forced the Corvette directly into the wall to the left. The German hoped he could stay ahead enough to force Magnussen to back off and concede the race.
This did not happen. The Corvette quickly moved past the Porsche and started to pull away. However, the Porsche driver had already committed himself to pinching the Corvette and carried the maneuver to the end. With the wall on the left and no room to angle away from the Porsche, Magnussen had nowhere to go. Bergmeister drove his left front wheel into the right rear quarter panel of the leading Corvette. This resulted in a perfect, police-style "pit maneuver," causing the Corvette to snap sideways to the right, shoot across the track on the opposite side, and crash head-on into the concrete barrier. It was a huge hit at 130 mph, with the car careening off of the wall and sliding up track for another 100 yards. Safety crews were immediately dispatched. Horrified Corvette Racing team members dropped everything and rushed down pit lane to see what they could do.
The race ended with the Porsche awarded First place, the No. 3 C6.R trashed, and Magnussen in the medical center. He had the wind knocked out of him and was pretty banged up, but thanks to the phenomenal safety characteristics built into the C6.R, he didn't suffer any serious injuries. The IMSA officials would eventually uphold the Porsche victory, securing the season championship for the Lizard team. However, they also handed out a two-race probation to both Magnussen and Bergmeister for aggressive driving, to be exacted starting with the 2010 season.
This was not how the Corvette team wanted to end the season, but such are the wages of racing. In this reporter's mind the crash could have-and should have-been avoided. The Porsche driver was beaten, and he knew it; he just took things too far. (For historic perspective, Bergmeister had been the victim of a similar incident at Sebring in 2007. Perhaps that experience colored his judgment as he entered the final straight at Laguna.)
The 2009 season is over, and the Corvette GT2 development program is completed, but more work remains to be done over the winter break. Corvette Racing will be back for 2010 to take on the extremely competitive GT2 field. I, for one, can't wait.
ALMS Honors Corvette Racing
All of the ALMS teams met the day following the season-closing race, to celebrate the conclusion of a very challenging year. The annual awards banquet honored the championship teams of Patrón Highcroft Racing in LMP1, Lowe's Fernandez Racing in LMP2, and Flying Lizard in GT2. The ALMS discontinued any awards in the GT1 class after Corvette Racing's last race in that category at Long Beach last April. The Corvette team participated in only the last five races of the season in GT2, so it wasn't eligible for top awards in that category. Doug Fehan did, however, carry the GM banner in receiving the "From the Fans" award.
The ALMS also took the opportunity to congratulate Corvette Racing on a decade of consistently successful competition in the USA's premiere sports-car racing series. A compilation video of the team's 10 years of GT1 racing was shown, and a champagne toast was made as team members collected on stage for the tribute. Closure of the GT1 door opens a new door in GT2-and a fresh world of challenges, expectations, and competition.