Corvette Racers Explain
Ron, Johnny & Ollie Lay Out Their Battle Plan

Gary Horrocks cornered Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell in the USA before they left for Le Mans, while the Ed. pitched into Oliver Gavin in the UK. These three fine ‘fellows’ were remarkably candid: we just hope they haven’t spilled too many Le Mans beans, regarding the Corvette Racing attempt to make it a Le Mans hat-trick.

First a quick refresher course: what happened in GTS at the May 4 Test Day? One of the Veloqx-Prodrive Ferrari 550s set a low 3:57, the other a low 3:58, the Alphand 550 set a high 3:58, Oliver Gavin also set a high 3:58 in #50 Corvette and Ron Fellows a 4:01.7 in #53 – the two C5-Rs separated by Larbre’s Viper and Konrad’s Saleen. Who was really going for it though? We’ll come to that…

The Pratt & Miller Corvettes may not have been quickest, but Johnny O’Connell feels that they are in a great position to win again. “Getting that first win is hard. Once you get that first one, it is much easier to get that second one,” says the husband of World Champion Karate Master Robin O’Connell!

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“We’ve been there and we know what it takes to win. We know how to do it. Even though we have a new car for the race, we are not concerned about it mechanically. (Crew Chief) Dan Binks said there was nothing to worry about at all. We’re ready to get going.”

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Le Mans will see the race debut of another evolution of the Pratt & Miller Corvette. On the surface it may appear to be the same (but blue now), but it’s under the skin where the changes are found. According to Johnny, “our brand new car now has a sequential gearbox and new geometry. It will be really tough to beat here in the States, but I’m pretty sure the Ferraris will be quicker than us at Le Mans. We did find something that should help us to be quicker though, so you never know.”

So we need to consider the new features of the Corvettes, their relative speed against the Ferraris – and reliability. And weight and restrictor sizes. And tyres. And what the two top teams in the class were actually testing at the Test Day. And perhaps the other GTS entries.

dailysportscar.comRon Fellows, ALMS GTS Driver Champion in 2002, explains some of the technical changes. “Besides the new sequential gearbox, we have a new chassis that is stiffer and lighter. The lighter weight allows us to move the ballast around to further improve the weight distribution. We were able to refine the aero for a little less drag. We were just able to improve on what we already do well: stop, turn and corner. In the back of your mind, it is common to have concerns about a new car and its reliability. With the sequential box being the newest, that is where the concern is, but it is the same casing and the gears are similar to what we have run in the past. As we have had no problems so far, I feel good. In terms of reliability, drivelines are always sensitive, especially for a long race. It is really just one of the many concerns our crew has for the race and I have confidence that they have supplied us with a reliable package.”

They did last year. Remember the Corvettes’ relative pace though, against that lone 550 in 2002? “The Ferrari was a second to a second and a half faster than us over a lap,” remembers Ollie Gavin. “They were a lap and a half to two laps up on us when they broke.”

Ferrari broke, Corvettes didn’t. But perhaps that reliability area has a slightly different feel to it this time. Pratt & Miller has introduced the new transmission, while Prodrive is “probably concentrating less on speed with its cars this year, more on reliability,” thinks Gavin. “Last year they had to demonstrate the speed to sell the cars: this year, they’re looking hard at reliability.”

And there are twice as many Prodrive 550s this year – three times as many if you count the Alphand car, which Jerome Policand lapped marginally quicker than Gavin a month ago, remember. It hasn’t got three ‘Policands’ in it though.

dailysportscar.comWhat about that Ferrari reliability? Johnny O’Connell has a view on this subject: “It will take a perfect race for a Ferrari to beat us at Le Mans this year. Their press releases have stated that they have been testing quite a bit, and that the cars have been lasting for 24 hours. Well, I have some friends with other teams that were there, and they told me that those tests were not without issues. Last year they were a true and real test for us. They have improved, I’m sure, but so have we. But, if it rains, it is all over. We will dominate. Our Goodyear tires are so superior in the wet.”

“A perfect race is generally required to win now,” adds Ron Fellows. “You need to avoid extra time in the pits, and that is really the responsibility of both the drivers and the crew. Reliability is the big test. If they are faster than us at race speeds, they still have to have the reliability and fast pit stops that we do. Having three cars entered is smart on their part, as it helps their chances. I expect there will be different strategies employed by all involved. It is really difficult to race head to head in a long race. We will race to our plan, and after the sun comes up Sunday, around the 18th hour, we’ll decide, if we have to, what to do.”

So what about relative speed – Corvette vs. 550 Maranello? “When we get back to the States, the advantage should swing our way,” says Ollie Gavin. “We’re quicker in the corners, they’re faster on the straights. It’s a fact that Le Mans has more significant straights than it does significant corners.”

Johnny O’Connell agrees: “We are much better than them in braking and cornering, but we can’t stay with them in a draft down the straights.”

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According to Ron Fellows, some of this is due to design. “Being based upon a production car, the nose of the C5-R dictates the package. You can only take out so much rear wing before the balance is not right. To reduce the overall drag of the car, we would have to go through a complete redesign of the C-5R, which is not going to happen. Even if it was to, I’m not sure I would want it to. Look at the Audi: it is not always the fastest in the straight, but you can’t argue with its success.”

“This new car was ‘stepped up’ owing to the competition,” continues Fellows. “I really don’t see us changing to a whole new design in the near future. Maybe beyond 2004, with new regulations, but I don’t really know. In 2005, GM will debut the new C-6, and maybe we will be racing a C-6R. We’ll have to see what the future ACO / ALMS rules allow.”

Still on speed and reliability, Johnny O’Connell reckons that “you have to be patient in an endurance race. You can be sitting there two to three laps down and be worried about it, but that really isn’t anything. What is that, 12 minutes in the pits? That really isn’t anything. A puncture can cost you that much time. You just stick to your plan.”

But what will the relative speeds of the cars turn out to be next week – assuming it stays dry of course? All three C5-R men are sure they’ll have a speed advantage in the wet, thanks to Goodyear.

dailysportscar.com“When I set my best lap at the Test Day, I started it with both of the Prodrive cars (the red ones) ahead of me,” says Gavin. “One of them definitely looked as though it was on a qualifying type lap, because it did one quick one and pitted. The other one stayed out for longer. I set my best lap with the hardest race tyres we have, and between two-thirds and three-quarters of a tank of fuel. It was simply an experiment to see how fast we could go in that trim, just as we could be in the race.”

So that neatly explains Gavin’s 3:58.895. He does admit though that he wouldn’t attempt that kind of lappery time after time. “We’ll find a balance between pushing hard and not risking the car. Our race plan will be to run at a pace that’s comfortable for us.”

Another speed issue was successfully settled at the Test Day: “Pratt & Miller had spent a lot of time researching the best configuration to run at the race,” says Gavin. “I think we ran at 1200 kg last year. In sprint form, we could get down to 1100 kg this year, but that would be very tricky for Le Mans, with extra lights and so on. We confirmed last month that 1150 kg is the best configuration for us.”

Logic suggests that might bring a power disadvantage, but “the car responds better, and we’ll get better tyre performance. And we’ve got less weight to get moving on the straights.”

The Ferrari was scrutineered at 1124 kg last year. We’ll know the 550s’ weight after scrutineering next week. Presumably, if the Ferrari has a power / straight line advantage, it also consumes more fuel? Let’s leave that one unanswered, for now.

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What about driver comfort (heat in the car)? “Our crew has made great strides in increasing driver comfort, but there is only so much you can do,” says Fellows. “It is a front-engined car with the exhaust at the side of the cockpit. It’s going to be hot in the cockpit.”

Last year at Le Mans, Johnny O’Connell and Oliver Gavin had to do the bulk of the driving in the winning car, because Ron happened to eat some rather questionable chicken and really paid the price for it. So, what about keeping Ron away from the chicken this year? “Yeah, I’ll really have to keep an eye on Ron,” says Johnny. “You never know what he might eat. Actually, I’m very superstitious and maybe it would be better if Ron does get sick. Hmmm…

“Actually, Ron and I have discussed running a long race like back in the old days with only two drivers. This wasn’t the way we discussed it, and unfortunately, I don’t think Ollie Gavin was in on that conversation. It just takes a different mind set. I set my mind to it and just deal with it.”

Ron at first joked that he’ll bring his own food to the race, canned Canadian tuna, but then got more serious. “It was really not good at all last year. Doug Fehan really thought I was gone for the entire race, but the medical team did a tremendous job on getting me back. To even get back in the car at all was a testimony to their efforts. We were fortunate that I was out at night when it was cool. Johnny and Oliver did a great job carrying on.”

This year of course, Ollie Gavin is no longer in the Fellows / O’Connell car, and Ron and Johnny will team with Franck Freon again. According to Johnny, “Ron and I have won with Franck before, just like we won with Scott Pruett and Oliver. It really isn’t an issue. We will just get on with our job. I think we are successful because of the attitude we present. We communicate and share technical information. When we are not in the car, we are not looking at the monitors, thinking ‘oh no, he just went a second quicker than I did. I’d better go faster when I get back in.’ We don’t stress lap times, but we look for a good performance. It does no good to turn a fast lap or two, but sacrifice the car to do it.

“Having Oliver in the other car doesn’t change our plans at all. He is extremely talented, young and out to prove something,” commented Ron. “This change makes the other car with Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins a contender, but they were anyway.”

“Andy (Pilgrim), Kelly (Collins) and I work very well together,” says Gavin. Both Corvettes have strong driver squads, no doubt about that.

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Le Mans will be a one off in the blue paint scheme. “The blue is hard not to like,” said Ron. “It works with the history of the Corvette. 1953 was the first year of the ‘Vette, so we will be in #53, while our team car will be #50, to represent the 50th anniversary of the Corvette. There will also be a limited edition street C-5, which will be in a similar scheme to our race cars. We will be back to the traditional yellow when we return to North America for the ALMS races. Road Atlanta will see the old cars race again, with the new cars making their ALMS debut at Sears Point.”

So, what about all the down time? The cancellation of Mexico was really disappointing for Johnny. “It really messed up the season. You get a rhythm going and then you have nothing. I was at the IMSA test days. I figured I might as well go, with it being almost in my back yard. It was good to see the Carsport Viper and Rafanelli Ferrari running as well as they did. The GTS class could be real interesting when the season starts back up again.”

For Ron, the quiet period meant devoting more time to the Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship in Toronto, and continued testing for the NASCAR races at Sears Point and Watkins Glen for Dale Earnhardt Inc. “I really think I have an excellent chance to be competitive at Sears. It’s a lot of work, but they are good to work with and I really enjoy the road courses. It’s going to be busy, with Sears being the weekend after Le Mans, and then off to Road Atlanta for the ALMS race, but that is OK with me. The Karting Championship is something really important to me. It is really tough for young drivers to get a start and the right exposure, especially in the tough economic conditions we have now. Sunoco has really stepped forward to make this a success, and the entries are about doubled from last season.”

Starting soon, the troops begin to assemble for the week of preparation for battle. It looks like Corvette Racing is ready to go. Thanks you three. This GTS race is looking like being a classic.

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