Laguna Seca, one of the series favorite destinations, has a new place in the American Le Mans Series schedule and a new race format. The ALMS has elected to move the date for the Laguna track and its world famous setting on the idyllic Monterey, California peninsula from the season ending October time to late in May - following Sebring in March and Long Beach in April. Additionally, for the first time, the race is now a 6-hour enduro offering more series championship points than the typical 2+ hour race format seen in most of the schedule. This made the Laguna race an important event to attend if you were serious about series bragging rights.
At first blush putting the two California dates back to back seems a natural. However the CA events were placed 4 weeks distant from each other. This meant they were spaced too far apart for the teams to stay over after participating at Long Beach. For most of the entrant field it resulted in multiple cross country trips in a very short space of time. On top of that issue many of the teams, Corvette prominently one of them, were traveling to Le Mans for the 24-Hour enduro scheduled early in June. Corvette Racing would have to finish the Laguna race late Saturday night, load the cars and equipment, and leave for their home base in New Hudson, Michigan early Sunday morning - it was a whirlwind trip for the drivers who are in charge of loading the trucks as well as the driving duties home. The whole team pitches in to help load the gear but a late night finish and an early morning send-off comes with seemingly little sleep. They have to hustle the journey in a 2-day jaunt as the cars need to be prepped for Le Mans and on the plane for France within the week. This is an extremely tight schedule as the cars, crew and spares need to be in place and ready to go in La Sarthe only 10 days after returning from Laguna Seca. Any complications, like significant damage to either of the cars during the race weekend, would put a big "wrench" in that projected timeline.
During the last few months the Chevy Racing team has been preparing a spare racecar and equipping it just in case a new car needed to be built following the last California event. Hopefully that would not be necessary as there is quite a lot of sorting to do on a new chassis and no time to develop a replacement car. In addition to the potential time line issues the volcano eruptions in Northern Europe have resulted in intermittent and prolonged airport closures for the last 2 months. The likelihood of an airport closure pinning the C6.R's to the ground on the wrong side of the Atlantic was very real. The cars could be sent by sea but that would mean a minimum of 5 days transit on the ocean following a 5-day quarantine required by "homeland security" rules before departing. The 10-day journey could be possible, but only barely possible, in a very tight schedule. At that it would only work if the French custom authorities would immediately release the Corvettes after arrival in France, a probability most unlikely as they are quite famous for making entry extremely difficult if not impossible - and certainly not timely. Something will have to be done with the sequence of the ALMS event dates if this schedule sequence is to survive for the future.
At Laguna the cars were officially on track the first time for a Thursday night practice from 6pm until 8:30pm. It gave the teams a chance to run the cars in the approximate conditions they would face for the last 2 hours of the 6-hour enduro planned on Saturday. The 4-car did take a few turns on the track earlier in the day to sort out some new adjustments, but otherwise the Corvettes waited for evening in their paddock parking space with the rest of the field. The evening practice time proved to be cold and very windy which brought down the temperatures even further. This weather pattern would persist throughout the weekend. The skies were partly cloudy with intermittent sunshine and strong winds. These unseasonably cold California conditions would at least allow Corvette racing to add to their playbook for the new engine and car chassis set-up in preparing for Le Mans scheduled just a few short weeks alter - Le Mans can throw out some pretty cold conditions.
Friday provided a one-hour practice session in the morning and another afternoon practice time followed by 30-minutes of qualifying. The Corvettes showed well for grid placement capturing 3rd and 4th places in the starting field for the GT class. Veteran Oliver Gavin in the 4-car, partnered by Olivier Beretta, topped ace teammate Jan Magnussen, with co-pilot Johnny O'Connell, by continually putting down ever faster circuits of the twisty 2.238-mile 11-turn California track. The 430 Ferrari of Jaime Melo took pole honors with another Ferrari alongside to fill out the GT class front row.
The green flag dropped at 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday and the 3-car wasted no time running past Gavin in the 4-car, who was hung out in slower traffic, as they passed the starter's flag station. However Oliver was quickly able to re-gain his 3rd place class standing and the 2 sister Corvettes set-off after the leading Italian entries. Jan Magnussen was on the mark and, aided by excellent pit work, was able to push past the 4-car after the first round of pit stops. However the 3-car would pick-up a stop and go penalty for a pit violation on their second service appointment. Johnny slightly nudged the air hose from the Corvette 4-car as he exited his pit space. He had the wheel cranked all the way over in leaving, however it was just unavoidable. This dropped the 3-car back to 7th pace in the GT field - any falter in such competitive surroundings will be severely rewarded. Jan would take over driving duties to finish the race and he worked his driver magic to eventually gain the lead in GT over the Porsche of Patrick Long and the BMW M3 of Muller and Hand - however glory was not to be for the 3-car. Jan experienced a punctured right front tire (pushing a car around Laguna can have it's repercussions on such a tight road course) and had to come in for replacement. The whole issue became exacerbated when the crew had to work on the car while the pits were "closed." For a time, under yellow flag conditions, the officials close the pits - it is forbidden to work on any car during this interlude. Only when the IMSA officials "re-open" the pits may a car be worked on. The Corvette team chose to intentionally service the 3-car while the pits were "closed" as the penalty time served for that infraction was far less than the time the team would have to wait for the pits to re-open for legal service. The infraction required the 3-car to serve a 60-second penalty which dropped them quickly away from any podium contention.
Meanwhile the 4-car under Oliver Gavin's capable hands was working its way through the field and eventually found 3rd place. It appeared that Gavin may have had the advantage in the chase as he was consistently laying down fast lap times with inspired driving. However 2 yellow caution flags at the end of the race kept him from realizing his potential and he had to settle for 3rd in line for GT behind the winning Porsche of Patrick Long and the 2nd place BMW of Mueller/Hand. The GT class is building a great show for the fans to watch. The Ferrari's are very quick, the Porsche's are fast, they have the legs and consistent pit support for the entire race. The BMW's are quickly finding their pace and endurance, seemingly able to get to the front no matter what spot they start in. The Ford GT continues to gain presence and the newly entered Jaguar, although undergoing teething problems, is working away at their mount with persistent journeyman effort. This American GT class is absolutely the race to watch within the race.
One bright spot for the Chevy Racing team was award of the Michelin Green X Challenge Award to the 3-car.for the GT car going the farthest, the fastest with as little environmental impact as possible. "our focus at Corvette Racing is multifaceted - to design and build top-quality race cars that are fast and that demonstrate leading-edge green technology," said Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. "Capturing another Michelin Green X Challenge title for Chevrolet and GM is a huge accomplishment."
Chevy Racing now sets their sights for Le Mans and the quick turn around dictated by the unreasonably short time schedule. Fortunately both Corvettes, though banged about some during the race, survived the Laguna challenge unscathed. At least the Corvette Racing crew will have a straight forward time preparing their steeds for the Le Mans experience. Now on to France...