In Pursuit of a Championship
Corvette Drivers Beretta and Gavin Reflect on Le Mans Wins
Look Back At The ALMS Races
And Look Ahead to the Remaining ALMS Season
© Tom Kjos

Following their successful defense of the Le Mans GT1 Crown (with third driver Jan Magnussen), we sat down to talk with Corvette drivers Olivier Beretta and Oliver Gavin before the American Le Mans Series Race at Lime Rock Park. We hoped to get their perspective on that historic win, the fourth for Corvette in five years, and on the remaining ALMS season. We got that, and more.

There was a lot of talk before Le Mans about how the new C6.R would match up against the new Aston Martin DBR9. To be fair, the Aston is not only a new race car, but a new program. Whether the Prodrive effort can also be considered a new team is open to discussion. Of particular concern to fans and media alike was the perception that the Corvette lacked the straight-line speed uniquely necessary at Le Mans. Prodrive had in fact given the Aston Martin a radical, bulbous nose to improve aerodynamic stability at high speed, a modification since ruled out by the ACO for its future races.

dailysportscar.comOliver Gavin addressed that in terms of the difference between the C6.R and its predecessor. “The biggest difference between the C6 and the C5 at Le Mans was the fact that the rear of the car was a little bit more nervous this year and we had to find a couple of solutions to make the car more comfortable and driver friendly. That was the main aim between the test day and the race day. By the time we got to race day we had become a lot happier with the balance of the car. The C6 had never ever been run, anywhere, as fast as at Le Mans, so we had a huge learning curve – for all of us. We didn’t think it was going to be quite as nervous as it was to start with, but they worked very, very hard at the (General Motors) engineering office, and they came up with some solutions.”

There are reasons, of course, that top speed/downforce wasn’t an issue at Sebring, or at the other races in North America this spring. “The biggest thing at Le Mans is you are running lower downforce,” said Gavin. “The lower downforce specification of the car was a more nervous and a bloody sight more uncomfortable car to drive. We had to find a solution for that, and not add any more drag to the car, so we were still as fast down the straights as possible, but that we could “tidy the car up” and make it more comfortable and more driver friendly. That just took a bit of time to get it right. Sebring, Road Atlanta, and Mid-Ohio represent a different configuration of circuits, different tarmac…different tire, which is a big deal.”

dailysportscar.com“And less bumps!” Olivier Beretta chimed in. “Unlike this…” we added, in reference to Lime Rock. “Yes, of course,” laughed Beretta.

The approach that Corvette Racing takes to creating a “comfortable car to drive” goes well beyond the issues of handling. “I know that Corvette Racing spends a lot of time making sure that the drivers are as comfortable as possible,” said Gavin. “They pay a lot of attention to insulating the driver – the cockpit area where the driver is sitting – especially now, there is not so much heat soak coming from the tunnel or the headers, or through the firewall. All those things certainly help, and we have an AC unit flowing cold, filtered air into our crash helmets, as well as the blower at the back of our seats. And so all of those things added up helped us have quite a comfortable car to drive in the race – it was very, very hard at Le Mans, but I think you (also) have to remember that Le Mans is not a particularly physical circuit, so I think that was the reason that yes, it was very, very hard but we could continue to drive for two stints without it being too much of a problem, because physically you’re not working that hard in the car, and you’ve got some long straights to sit back and relax and to gather your thoughts.”

dailysportscar.comThose “creature comfort” issues were important in the win over the Prodrive Aston Martins, but Monaco native Olivier Beretta had a different, broader interpretation of the win. “Well, every single point is very important to win Le Mans – I mean we have to have a good team, we need to have a very, very good crew, we need to have everything right – and also to be clever, and forget the ego, and do your best that you can during the whole race. I mean, there is time when you have to push and time when you have to think, because there are a lot of things going on during the race and you know that you have a strong car, because the C6 was unbelievable. For the first year we have no problem at all – gearbox, brakes, engine.”

There were two punctures of course. “Yes, but those are things that can happen,” said Olivier. “There is a little stone somewhere, or a little debris, and you take it – and I have to say we have been lucky – we have done a good job slowing down, we have lost time but have been able to bring back the baby in one piece, change tires, and go out again on the track.

dailysportscar.com“And when I have the same experience (later in the race, the second of two incidents), it was on the corner and I felt a little vibration, and I said ‘shit, something wrong, somewhere,’ and I lift and ‘boom’ and the tire went flat, and the car went sideways, and the car came back on the track. And I did the same, bring the car back to the pits, change tires,” explained Olivier.

That wasn’t quite a good enough description for teammate Oliver Gavin, though. “I think Olivier is actually understating what happened: where the puncture happened was in the Porsche Curves – actually quite close (to the pits), but you’re nearly in fifth gear turning into that corner, so you’re doing about a hundred forty, a hundred fifty miles an hour. I think he performed a miracle to keep it off the wall.”

Once again the team’s experience and meticulous planning became the subject, in discussing how the Corvette was twice brought back to the pits without further damage – when badly torn up bodywork and damaged suspension seem to have been normal in similar circumstances.

dailysportscar.com“I think it comes down to the experience that Corvette has gained from racing the C5,” said Gavin “from running there for five years and having these punctures, having these things happen. I had a puncture in 2002 when I first drove for the team, and I drove the car back like an idiot. I tore the rear deck up and I tore all the bodywork up. We were within half an inch of breaking the fuel filler tube.” (And we know what happens when that happens) “Yes, and it’s not good – that would not happen on this car by the way, we’ve got it fixed. I learned from that experience (the tire at LM in 2002) and the team also learned from that and from a lot of other experiences. So they’ve made sure that one, they drill us on what to do when we have a puncture, and two, make the car able to withstand a certain amount of abuse."

In an instance where adversity early on led to a solution that might have contributed significantly to the win, Corvette changed its tire strategy after that; they saw they were getting punctures in the second stint – the problem exacerbated by the very hot conditions – and then went to single stinting on the tires

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“I think that was one of the things - that the team was very quick to respond to any slight issue or problem,” observed Gavin. “They were very, very flexible, whether it was a tire compound, construction or even type of tire, because we used both a Le Mans tire and a US tire during the race. Whereas, I think from what we could see – we don’t know for sure – with the Aston strategy, it was very hard and straight, and they were going to use…they’d got it planned in their mind what they were going to do, and nothing was going to shift that.”

dailysportscar.comOlivier Beretta added his thoughts on his experience in endurance racing, and on the unique kind of teamwork that’s required. “I have been lucky to be on good teams, and have been lucky to have good teammates,” said Beretta. “I think this is the key to success, because you drive and share the same stuff, and also sometimes have to adapt yourself to what the (other) driver likes and just to find a compromise. Ollie is the perfect teammate. He is fast, he shares things, when we don’t have the same idea, we discuss, and then we always find a compromise. So this is very, very important. I think it’s like with your wife, you have to go home and feel ok, you don’t have to fight. If you fight, you don’t feel good, right? You have some fights sometimes, but at least you need to feel that you can resolve it with the people with whom you share. Jan (Magnussen, their partner in the win at Le Mans) is the same way… this is very important, that’s why Corvette Racing is strong, because everyone is trying his best and trying to improve each time we go on the track. And the drivers try to work together. And they feel friends and are happy to work together, so that is why we are a very strong line-up. And Le Mans was a perfect place for this. Every single person on the team never give up, push hard and use their brains.”

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The Corvette drivers sometimes talk to each other during the race, but through other team members designated to communicate, since the team wants to control the inputs to the drivers on the track. Doug Fehan said after Le Mans that the team “talked to the drivers” to keep them focused and under control.

“I think Doug has only spoken to me – the four years that I have been driving for the team – I think he’s spoken to me three times (while I’ve been) in the car…and I can remember all of them,” said Gavin. That got laughter around the table. It seems there’s a common characteristic to those few communications. “He’s usually giving you a very specific message. It’s a very, very specific message, and…I never have any illusions.”

“He’s a short (spoken) and clear man,” said Beretta.

“Very to the point – I think that’s one of the reason’s he’s maybe so successful,” added Gavin.

There hasn’t been quite the anticipated success for this pair in the ALMS this year, however – at least as far as heading into Lime Rock. Yes, they are almost always on the podium, but third, second and second heading into the Connecticut race - did they see Lime Rock as a “must win,” or at least an important race if they are to have a chance to win the GT1 championship in 2005?

dailysportscar.com“It has to be,” said Gavin. “We’ve got to focus on the reason why things haven’t turned out for us in the race. There are some things that have happened through those races that Olivier and I do feel maybe haven’t swung our way. Some things haven’t quite worked out for us, but there are also some things that we have done that have cost us results. And I think that our relationship is…we get more and more understanding of how things need to be for both of us, and how we’ve got to work together, and I think as it goes on, the results will come more and more and more. It’s just that sometimes, when your closest rivals are your teammates, and that it can come down to just pit stops….. The most important thing is that a Corvette wins. And whether that is the 4 car or the 3 car it doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that one of them wins and if the other is right up his gearbox, then all the better. In terms of the ALMS, that (the usual second place finishes) is something that Olivier and I are very aware of, but we’re endeavoring to turn that around. Everywhere we go we’re right there, we’re quick enough, we’re fast enough to do it. It’s just making sure that we follow through with actually every single part of it, whether it’s strategy, whether it’s how hard we drive, passing in traffic, or making the most use of cautions, or whatever… sometimes I feel that we just need a bit of a break, and once it starts running with us, things will start falling into place. It’s just, it’s just… not flowing at the moment.

“For us personally, it would be nice if we came away with a win here, because you know, the championship is not out of control yet…we would like to be able to turn it around. But we’re certainly not going go all out, balls out, making sure…doing do-or-die maneuvers, you know “we’ve got to win this race, whatever, win at all costs.

“Obviously, we would have loved to won a race so far this year, in the ALMS, but Sebring we had bad luck with that idiot in that Porsche driving into the side of Olivier, Atlanta was my fault, the spinning off, but we didn’t really have a car there that was good enough to beat the other car, Mid-Ohio we did and we were just unlucky in the pits,” said Oliver, in review of the first third of the season. We would classify the visor infraction at Mid-Ohio (not a “blocking” penalty as widely reported at the time) as an uncharacteristic team error, rather than bad luck, of course.

We were at Lime Rock, of course, where they had won before, but where the 2004 race was decided, at least in part, by other’s errors. “Last year…there was a blue car, and that blue car is still here…,” started Gavin. And it has more horsepower, we observed. “Oh dear…” said Oliver, “I was in the last practice (today), and I was behind Patrick Long in the Westward Ho car, the White Lightning. He was trying to pass that blue car, coming out of the chicane and the guy just plain didn’t see him and just drove him straight onto the grass. He wasn’t going fast either, this guy in this blue prototype, it’s that sort of driving that is very dangerous for this championship, and especially dangerous on a circuit like this. I mean when you see a Maserati that actually goes off into the trees. When you can actually go into the ‘bocage’ here, it’s pretty bad news, isn’t it?”

dailysportscar.comIt all came right on the day, of course, right.

Last year at Mosport, after another string of close losses to teammates Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell, the “Ollies” pooled their ideas and solicited additional suggestions from others (including Rob Dyson) on how they might change their luck. After attending church in mid-week (Olivier’s contribution), asking Oliver Gavin’s wife to change her habit of ironing while watching or listening to his races (!), and getting rid of any green (from Rob Dyson) – they won.

This year, “We were supposed to go to church…we may well be doing that again,” laughed Gavin. “And no, she’s not ironing any more, she’s not doing any of that…she’s at home all this summer, she’s pregnant again, she’s due the same weekend as Laguna Seca….bad planning.”

“I have that same thing in Le Mans,” added Olivier.

dailysportscar.comSo we wrapped it up with two drivers who seem to have become pretty good friends, who just might have developed that “relationship” where “things start falling into place,” and where it “starts flowing,” as Oliver Gavin would put it. The “Ollies”, Gavin added at Portland, a few weeks later, “have won three of the last four, including Le Mans.” They now trail Fellows and O’Connell by only seven points, 114 to 107, after six of ten rounds. Heading to Road America and Mosport, the two fastest tracks on the schedule, they have a championship within their reach, but they “can’t continue to trade races,” as Gavin told us after the Portland win. It may be an intramural battle between the two yellow cars, but it is turning into a very entertaining one. This kind of a competition is exactly why Corvette put Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta together, we believe - a decision that is really reaping dividends now.

 

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