Oliver Gavin’s Year
And What A 2005 It Was

Oliver Gavin talked through his 2005 season in the GM Compuware Corvette C6.R, with the lovely Fiona Miller.

dailysportscar.comThey reckon in the Far East that the number 8 is lucky. But this has been a year of ‘threes’ for Britain’s Oliver Gavin, and it’s certainly been lucky!

It was his third full season with the Pratt & Miller run Compuware Corvette Racing team; his third GT1 class win at the world’s most famous sportscar race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans; he helped his Monagasque team mate, and fellow ‘Oli’, Olivier Beretta, to his third ALMS Drivers’ Championship title; and along the way he and his wife added junior Gavin no.3 to the family.

Here, Oliver looks back on the highs and lows of 2005, a year in which it all came good for the likable and personable man from Northamptonshire.

“Having done Daytona in February [with the TRG Daytona prototype] the ALMS season seemed to come round a bit quicker than usual, but there’s always a great sense of anticipation as you get nearer and nearer to the first race. 2005 was my 5th season in the Series, my 4th with Corvette, my 3rd as a full-season driver, and my 2nd with Olivier so I feel very much at home here.

“My favourite tracks that we go to are probably the most challenging ones, like Sebring, Road Atlanta, Mosport and Road America. Places like Mid-Ohio are okay, though a bit narrow, but I much prefer somewhere like Road America, which has a great, classic feel. It’s a long, sweeping track and fantastic to drive. I feel that places like Infineon and Laguna would be even better if they stuck another few feet of tarmac in a few places – right now they are a bit narrow for our type of cars and better suited to bike racing. Lime Rock is too small and too fiddly, and you don’t ever feel you get a break from anything, and I really can’t stand Portland. It’s slippy, uninspiring, flat, and I get no satisfaction from racing there – the complete contrast to Mosport, which is fast, has great corners, blind crests and elevation changes. A proper challenge!

“Going into the season opener at Sebring, we really hadn’t tested the car much at all, just the one proper test there, so we were coming into the race with a very new car and lots of unknowns. I like the track, even though it’s bumpy and hard, and the car was quick straight away, but we did have issues with it and it wasn’t as comfortable as the C5-R. You have to remember that the C5 had done thousands and thousands of miles of testing and racing since 1999 and, although the C6.R had some crossover parts, there were lots of new things on the car. The overhangs were a lot shorter, the wheelbase 1in longer, the front suspension was different and we had some major aero changes – all of which added up to making it a completely different car and very new as far as set up was concerned.

“From what I remember, going into the race, we’d been quite fast during the practice sessions and qualified on pole, although qualifying had been washed out because it’d rained so heavily. Places were awarded according to fastest practice times.

“We were all looking forward to Sebring and it was shaping up to be a very interesting race with the new Aston Martins, which we reckoned would obviously be fast because of Prodrive’s involvement, the Maserati (much to Aston’s disgust!) and the Saleen which was now on Michelins and should have been a big threat throughout the season.

dailysportscar.com“The start of the race was hard and close, but we managed to get a bit of a lead on both our sister car and the Astons. We worked through our usual long distance race routine - me starting, then Olivier then Jan [Magnussen, who joins us for the endurance races - right, with Olivier], and that was working well. We were all driving well and were as fast as each other. We seemed to have the legs on the opposition. Everything was going really well; pit stops, strategy, and no major problems, except being punted off by Pirro in the Champion Audi during my first stint coming into Turn 5. This annoyed me immensely, and all sorts of things go through your mind when you’re off the track, like, “where am I going to end up in the running order; is the car damaged, how much time am I going to lose” and so on? After getting going again, I had to be cautious for the next lap, to make sure I hadn’t got a puncture and there wasn’t any diffuser damage etc. The boys tried to check for damage on the TV and all seemed to be okay.

“By about six hours into the race we’d managed to get a lap up on everybody by being a bit lucky with a caution period, but also by being quicker than everyone else!

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But, by about 8 or 9 hours into race, it all started to unravel for the team. The #3 car had a brake disc explode in Turn 17 and they were fortunate not to have a huge amount of damage: they still got back into the race again. Then, 45 minutes later Olivier got hit by a Porsche, which damaged the right rear corner of our car. It took a lot of fixing and we ended up behind the #3 car and down on the lead Aston Martin, but at least got through to the finish. It was a disappointing result, to be honest, as it had all been looking so good, but at least we were in a better position than last year, as then we’d scored no points. Championship-wise it was a lot better.

“I tend to be the type of person that has to talk things through, do a post mortem, if you like, especially if everything hasn’t gone as well as we’d hoped. I sit down with Olivier, Joe Kiefer (our engineer since 2003), Ray Gongla (our crew chief), and we’ll also speak to Gary Pratt and Doug Fehan. Joe will look at the data and pick out certain things we need to study, what’s gone either wrong or right, and what our strengths and weaknesses were or are. I find that talking it through helps get it out of the system. I think I do this quite quickly, but Helen would probably say I carry it round with me for quite a few days, especially if it’s been a bad race!

“One of the best ways I work things through is by running, and this year I’ve competed in two marathons, the first being the Paris Marathon in April, the weekend before Road Atlanta. It’s a massive event and great fun, and the fact that I bettered my previous best time made the sore legs all worthwhile. I was having a private (same fortnight, different marathons) battle with James Thompson and managed to just beat his time, so that was very satisfying.

“So, stiff-legged and sore, I headed off to Road Atlanta which was the worst weekend of the whole season for us. Olivier and I couldn’t get to the bottom of some handling issues and the #3 car was quicker than us in most of the sessions, the only time in the year that we’ve been consistently out-performed by the other car. Of some benefit to us was the fact that the Saleen and Maserati were also struggling. Oli started the race and managed to keep up with Ron, and then I got into the car and was chasing Johnny.

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“I made a really silly mistake and locked the rear wheels coming into Turn 10 and went into the gravel trap, losing us two laps while I was pulled out. I was so cross with myself. The car had been nervous all weekend and I was over-driving to keep up with Johnny whereas I should have been more patient, sat back and been content to take 2nd place. It was a valuable lesson. We subsequently found out there were floor and front splitter issues on our car, which were causing it to handle the way it did, but that was little consolation at the time.

“Coming into Mid-Ohio in May, we were under some pressure from the management not to damage the cars as they were being flown off to Le Mans immediately after the race. Mid-Ohio is the biggest race of the year for GM as it’s the nearest track to Detroit, and we had lots of guests, staff, GM management and families coming to see us racing. It was a better weekend for us as the car was performing better, and both Olivier and I were a lot happier in the car.

dailysportscar.com"I qualified on pole, and at the start of the race managed to pull away from Johnny, so we’d got about 3 or 4 seconds up when the cautions started happening. That was unusual in itself, as Johnny started and usually Ron does. We had a problem at our first pit stop with a wheel going on or coming off, I forget which, and lost the lead, as we came out behind the #3 car. It stayed like that until the last pit stop, which was just a short fill.

“It was all very organised, despite the fact that it had started raining – with both cars coming in together and receiving exactly the same amount of fuel each. Our crew did a great stop though and we managed to get out in front of the other car. However, during the stop, a radio fell off the refueller and one of our guys leant over the wall to pick it up. It’s an instinctive thing, isn’t it? Unfortunately he didn’t have his goggles down so we got a 20 second count back penalty so were classified 2nd. It was disappointing, but these things happens in racing – we all make mistakes, fortunately rarely at Corvette – so we just had to learn from it and move on.

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“We were three races down, hadn’t won once and the first part of the year was not running to plan. Olivier and I had worked so well together in 2004 and were obviously hoping to build on that for 2005, but we weren’t getting the breaks. Every time we tried to improve, something got in the way.

“Le Mans was on our minds throughout the weekend, as we were being constantly reminded that the cars had to leave straight away, and they wanted them to be in one piece. Mid-Ohio might be big for the Corvette team but it’s nothing compared to Le Mans.

“We’d done so well there last year, so all three of us (Olivier, Jan and I) knew we could win again, but coming into Le Mans we were a bit on the back foot. At the test days, Aston Martin had been very, very fast and there looked like there was a bit more to come from them. There was a lot of head scratching going on at Corvette because our car was different to how it had been at every other track we’d been to. We’d had a similar problem, but no way as bad as it was at the test: it was a handling issue, partly mechanical, partly aerodynamic. But, by race week, it was looking very different. The engineers had gone back to Detroit after the test, worked very hard, and the car was much more driveable.

“As the race week went on, we realised we weren’t going to be able to out-qualify the Astons, but we were hopeful of being much closer in outright speed. We got quite close, and knew we could harry and worry them, and not let them walk away with it.

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“At the start of the race one of the Astons was very fast, while the other was not so quick. The Kox / Enge / Lamy car was slightly slower and we were keeping up with them, no problem, and got out in front of them at the first pit stop. Half way through my second stint though I had puncture at the first Mulsanne chicane. The engineers had just been on the radio saying they thought the left rear was going down and warning me to be careful, and 5 seconds later the car started to move around on the track. I had to run at 50mph for two thirds of the track before getting to the pits, which was hugely frustrating, but I’d learnt to my cost a couple of years ago that driving back too fast can damage the car and potentially cost you the race.

dailysportscar.com“As if that wasn’t bad enough, Olivier went out and had the same problem on his second stint in the Porsche Curves. He performed a miracle to keep the car on the track as his tyre exploded, rather than deflate relatively slowly like mine, and fortunately he didn’t have as far to go to get back to the pits.

“From then on though, we didn’t have one more problem with the car and that reliability saw us right. We went through our usual rota of drivers and everyone drove well, not making a single mistake.

"We were careful in traffic and slowly got back the time we’d lost with the punctures. The running order ebbed and flowed during the night and we got ourselves into a strong second place, on the same lap as the lead Aston.

"With about 21 hours gone, all four cars were on the same lap and it looked like it would go down to strategy, quick pit stops and staying out of trouble. In the end the trouble hit Aston and not us, and we kept on motoring through to the chequered flag. It was very satisfying for everyone - because the harder the battle, the sweeter the win (and these expressions, below, indicate just how tough it was Ed.).

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“It was my 3rd win in 4 years at Le Mans but in terms of driver, team, and car performance, I would say it’s the best we’ve ever had. The year before I’d made a mistake, which cost us time, but this year was great and the excellent job that both Joe and Ray did was a huge part of it. In fact, it all came together in every area. As it’s close to home, us Europeans can have more of our family and friends around and it was wonderful to be able to have Helen, the children, my parents and close friends there to share it.

dailysportscar.com“And so to Lime Rock. It couldn’t be a greater contrast – from a big circuit, big paddock, lots of people and a huge field, to being the smallest venue we go to, most probably the oldest track, one of the least modern in terms of safety, and a real culture shock.

"It’s like stepping back about 20 years, like going to Cadwell Park or Snetterton (before the improvements).

dailysportscar.com"Being the first one after Le Mans, the team was very buoyant and pumped, but I was never really comfortable there. Despite that, and that the Saleen had been given their bigger rear wing back and had tested while we were at Le Mans, we were quicker. Practice went well and we got pole.

“In the race, we’d got into a good position, plus Ron got into an incident with a Dyson and crashed. We were then two laps in the lead so, when I got in for my final stint, I just had to cruise to the finish. It was easy for me, as Olivier had done all the hard work, and it was our first win in the American Le Mans Series this year. It was good to carry on the winning feeling from Le Mans.

Infineon was next and the car was fantastic all weekend. Olivier and I are very much in the same mind as to how we like the car set up. We talk a lot together; travel together to and from the circuit; and are always working on what would be best for this or that circuit, this or that conditions, this or that situation. There are obviously certain things we each like, and we try to compromise, but not too much.

“I felt really confident in the car for this race. Joe and the boys had really worked hard and got it just to our liking but, in qualifying, I got tripped up by someone – a Porsche, a Saleen, anyone coming out of pits – on every single quick lap I tried to do. I just couldn’t find that last little bit to get on pole and we missed it by 0.079s. Gut-wrenching! Trying to pass another car in your class at Sonoma is very hard because it’s tight and twisty, with not many big straights, and when you get to them you’ve just come through a fast corner so you are compromised with that. We spent the whole race sitting behind the #3 car which was….frustrating. As with most top teams, at Corvette there are a number of unwritten rules, which you have to always bear in mind. One of these is: unless you can make a clean pass and it’s super-safe, it’s not on to pass your team mate. As I said, frustrating.

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Portland is a frustrating place. It’s a lovely area but the track is featureless. There’s a long main straight, a chicane and a number of reasonable corners but no elevation, no bite in the tarmac, and no grip. It exasperates the hell out of you. We were reasonably confident going into the race and got ourselves into a good position with the car. Oli did a good job in qualifying, but the race started a bit strangely.

dailysportscar.com“There was confusion over which side of the grid we needed to start on and first the Saleen got by us, and then the Maserati got past Ron. It stayed like that for about 20 laps until Oli got ahead of the Saleen and pulled out a bit of a lead. Unfortunately Werner’s Audi spun coming into the chicane and Oli, although an innocent bystander, got smacked. He managed to limp back to the pits and, both luckily and surprisingly, the damage wasn’t too bad: a bit of bodywork on the right rear corner and a little suspension damage, but the car was able to run. I got in for the last stint, the Saleen and Maserati both had problems, so we got back out in the lead. The car was handling a bit strangely but, under the circumstances, it wasn’t too bad, so we hung on and got another win. It was particularly satisfying doing it with a slightly crippled car, and it kept the momentum going from Le Mans and Lime Rock. Sonoma had merely been a bit of a blip.

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“Coming into Road America we were unsure of the increased level of competition, as both the Saleen and Maserati had been given performance breaks. Road America is very fast, with three very long straights, and horsepower plays a big part in your lap time, much more so than other tracks. We weren’t all that confident of getting pole in qualifying, but we were pretty sure of our race pace. It was therefore a very pleasant surprise to end up with the Corvettes being the class of the field. The race was closer than previous ones, but we won down to our strategy, our pit stops and our car set up: we had the legs on everyone else. From my point of view, I’d had to take a bit of a risk to pass the Saleen for the class lead, diving up the inside of a corner and flat spotting a tyre in doing so. This hindered our lap times and car performance a bit and Ron was right on my tail for the next 10-12 laps, so we were fortunate to get another caution period so I could come in and change tyres. We chopped and changed the lead with #3, down to pit stops, and it was very close at the end, with Johnny O’Connell on fresh tyres and Olivier on old ones. In the end though we had a better strategy, and it was a good day for the #4 car.

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“Our visit to Canada, Ron’s home race, was the first time where we really saw a big increase in speed from Saleen and Maserati and it was close throughout every session. Mosport is quite unique in that the layout of the track has been unchanged for about 35 years. It’s not the safest track, but it’s definitely one of the most fun to drive round. Saleen got pole, Maserati were close, and we ended up 2nd and 4th. Olivier started, and he was hanging on to the back of the Saleen for a while. but it pulled away and we looked as though we’d have our work cut out. The ACEMCO team had stripped it right down, taking out as much weight as possible by removing items such as driver comforts (air conditioning, cool suits etc), but they were cooking their drivers. Our strategy and car were flawless, and that enabled us to get close to the Saleen.

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dailysportscar.com"They then had to make one more driver change than us, plus the refuel, so we leapfrogged it and managed to come away with a win. It was very satisfying as everyone was racing as hard as they could throughout and none of the first three cars had problems. It was flat out racing for 2h 45. It was here that Oli and I took the lead in the Drivers’ Championship – the first time the #4 car had ever led the Championship over the #3 car since the programme has been running. It was only by one point, but it was a very special one.

Petit Le Mans is one of the big three to win. After Mosport there had been a team meeting and everyone was made aware of the importance of winning this event. Le Mans is the most important, but Petit Le Mans is on a par with Sebring. It’s a Chevy-sponsored race so there’s a big Corvette corral, lots of PR to do, lots of guests all weekend, big wigs from Detroit plus the added interest of the Aston Martins being there.

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"It was the 3rd time we’d gone head-to-head with them and it was 1-1 after Sebring and Le Mans, so there was all to play for. George Howard-Chappell had tried to have a bet with me for qualifying, (offering £1,000!) but I thought he was playing games so didn’t take him up on it. Damn! I tried to have another bet with him for the race but he didn’t want to know by then….

“It was great for Olivier and me having Jan back with us. He’s always a great addition, fun to have around, and has a very straightforward view on things. As practice went by we’d got quite comfortable in the car and had the measure of the field, capped by Olivier getting pole in qualifying. At the start of the race we managed to pull out a gap, but then as we got into the race everyone in the class seemed to be starting to struggle with tyres, whether it was Michelins or Pirellis. The track seemed ‘strange’ all week, but no one got to the bottom of it - sometimes they just don’t respond as you think they will. It’s hard to put your finger on. Anyway, towards the end of a stint it was like driving on ice, with the car sliding around and being very difficult to control. A number of us, including Ron, Max and the opposition, had very close calls, running wide in trying to pass or avoid other cars.

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“It was very close for about 4-5 hours and the #58 Aston was pushing us very hard before they had a problem. Through the pace of our car, and a caution, we got a lap up on the #3 car and, after the 6 hour mark, were able to just manage the race. We kept a lap up on everyone, and didn’t really have to push too hard towards the end. It was a really good win, as we’d done it without any luck. No one had given us anything; we’d won it on speed, strategy, pit stops; everyone had played their part and we were all delighted. It was a dominant display. Maybe the car could have been better, and we didn’t get to the bottom of the circuit or tyre issues, but everyone was struggling with that, not just us. There wasn’t too much joy for the entire team, though, as there’d been an engine failure in the race for car #3. The first time this had EVER happened in a race since the programme started.

“My trip home between these last two races had even more significance than usual as Helen was due to give birth to our third child at some stage before, during or after Laguna Seca. She’d managed to brilliantly time the others, so I was hoping very much to be around for this one too. Despite me allegedly making some comments about her having to cross her legs if the baby wasn’t born by the time I was due to leave for California, our second son Fergus decided to help out and I was able to share in the first 36 hours or so of his life, before having to get on a plane.

“So there we were heading to the final round of the series and even further in the lead in the Championship – by 15 points. Until last year Laguna had never been a good track for Corvette. I’m not sure why, but it never worked out. We won last year but the competition was not as tough as this year was going to be. The Astons were still in the series and we were expecting a really tough battle, but soon realised they were struggling. All weekend. This was very surprising for us because, when the Prodrive Ferraris were there, they’d annihilated us. The boot appeared to be on the other foot this year.

“Before the race even got going there was the final of the pit stop competition which has been running all year and the #3 and #4 were up against each other (and a couple of Porsches). I was really proud of the whole team for getting through to the final and, although we obviously work as a team, the rivalry between the car crews runs deep and there was a lot of personal pride at stake in beating our team mates. Everyone was very pumped up, there was a lot of whooping and hollering, but unfortunately we didn’t get the edge on #3 in this one. I was REALLY hoping that wasn’t an indicator of the race to come!

dailysportscar.com“It was clear from day one that #4 car’s strategy was to finish the race in the points, 6th at the least, so we had a conservative approach to the weekend. The Saleen was very fast again, and did a fantastic lap in qualifying to get pole by 4/10ths of a second. We were a bit disappointed in being 3rd but were trying to look at the Championship perspective. Olivier and I felt our car was fast and we’d got a good set up but it didn’t run for Olivier in qualifying.

“I was very nervous before the start of the race because there was so much riding on it. It’s always worse when you’re not in the car, and having to watch as you’re not in control of the situation, and I found the first corner and, indeed, the whole first lap, very difficult to watch as there was so many cars around Olivier. He’s very smart and clever though, and bided his time, looked after the car and didn’t worry about being down in 5th in class. By the end of his stint we were up to 2nd but a bit behind the other Corvette though, if we’d followed them for rest of race, it wasn’t an issue. Of course it would be nice to win GT1, but we were looking at the bigger picture.

“Then a couple of things happened which changed the whole race. There was a caution period, which got every front-running GT1 car all together, setting up for some fantastic racing. We’d got back out in front of #3 car at the second pit stop due to a quicker turnaround, but then Olivier was trying to pass the Saleen and got his nose chopped by Borcheller. Ron then got a run on him on the pit straight and passed us too before proceeding to have a mega lap, passing an Aston Martin, the Saleen and the Maserati all in one lap. It proved that he can still cut it with the best and it was a key turning point in the race.

“When I got back in the car for my final stint, one lap before #3 car stopped, I was expecting to come in 2nd place as we’d been 25s behind them before the stop. But, as I came up to the last corner, Joe said on the radio that the #3 car had a problem, “you’ll be in front”. I knew then we’d have the lead and we just had to pass the Aston, knowing also they’d have to stop for fuel. I was very excited on the last lap. To win the race and to win the Championship, well, that was something I’d been working towards for 3 years and everything was now falling into place. I felt relief as well as satisfaction, and said on the radio “Everyone has done a fantastic job this year, we’ve had a great season, and this is really deserved. Thank you all very much. Gary, thanks for letting me drive one of your cars; it’s a great team and a great car.”

“I think that summed it up quite well, don’t you?”

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2005 Results

Sebring Qualifying 1st OG Race 3rd
Road Atlanta 2nd OB 2nd
Mid Ohio 1st OG 2nd
Lime Rock 1st OB 1st
Infineon 2nd OG 2nd
Portland 1st OB 1st
Road America 1st OG 1st
Mosport 2nd OG 1st
Petit Le Mans 1st OB 1st
Laguna 3rd OB 1st

Le Mans 3rd OG 1st

 

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