Racing back-to-back


By Oliver Gavin

I always welcome back-to-back race weekends and I’ve certainly racked up a few air miles over the last month, with two visits to California punctuated by a trip to Saxony-Anhalt in Germany.

While much of my time has been spent cruising at 37,000ft, I haven’t exactly been flying high on the racetrack, collisions and an ‘imbalance of performance’ placing me on the back foot. Although it seems a protracted run of bad luck that stretches right back to 2013 has finally been broken.

My first competitive outing in April was round three of the United SportsCar Championship and the first sprint race of the season at Long Beach. Unforgiving concrete walls are an ever-present threat and just finishing there is an achievement in itself, although the race often pivots around strategy and efficient work from the teams in a crowded pitlane.

The weekend started pretty well. We were the fastest car on old tyres during Friday’s first practice, but it was the session prior to qualifying when everything began to unravel. A decent run on fresh boots was curtailed when I struck a Daytona Prototype, which I found parked in a curious position on the apex of Turn 8.

The extensive front-end damage was quickly repaired and our lead engineer, Chuck Houghton, performed some magic to give us a good feel for qualifying, although a frantic build-up left me feeling agitated when a cool head is essential.

I felt the #4 Corvette was a top-three contender but I left time on the table – the data showed that – and the fates continued conspiring against us in the race itself. After a somewhat chaotic and disjointed start, there was contact on the run to the fountain before a second nudge corrected my course, only for a completely unrelated left-front puncture to dash all hopes of a podium for the seemingly jinxed #4 Corvette Racing crew.

However, I had to put that behind me and immediately switch gears, as I was drafted in by Reiter Engineering to drive its new-for-2015 SaRENi Camaro GT3. I’d be sharing with colourful Czech Tomáš Enge in the opening round of the ADAC GT Masters at Oschersleben, Germany.

What can I say about Tomáš? We’ve been rivals for many years, we’ve always had a good relationship and there’s a lot of banter. He’s certainly fun to be around, but there’s mutual respect too – he’s a very fast driver and, on his day, he can do some pretty remarkable things in a race car. There’s never a dull moment with Tomáš and he’s undoubtedly one of motor sport’s biggest characters.

I have fond memories of GT Masters, having achieved a brace of wins at the Red Bull Ring and a podium at Lausitz in 2014. The races take a sprint format and are very physical – it’s full attack mode from lights out to the chequered flag and, ultimately, contact with a BMW led to our demise in round two.

Free practice was a huge struggle. We had significant problems in qualifying when the car swallowed some bollards during a trip through the German countryside for Tomáš and there were several experimental swings in the setup that made the car feel alien to me every time I took the wheel.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Reiter and Tomáš. We all knew Oschersleben was going to be one of the more challenging events for the Camaro and, while the retirement was disappointing, to have achieved the car’s first points for 10th in round one was encouraging.

Photo: ADAC Motorsport

It was frustrating being caught in a long-running cycle of misfortune and both collisions at Long Beach and Oschersleben were regrettable, but I moved on to Laguna Seca with the intention of gaining some positive momentum, which I’m sure you’re all tired of hearing.

A brand new tyre from Michelin added another dimension to the weekend and the outcome of the Monterey Grand Prix would likely be dictated by how the rubber operated in the high Californian temperatures and on Laguna Seca’s uniquely polished surface.

Rather than bouncing from one incident to the next, Tommy [Milner] and I were only looking for a straightforward, problem-free race and I’m delighted to say that’s precisely what we got.

Everybody got to grips with the new tyre, although Corvette Racing had one arm tied behind its back and sixth place was all we could muster due to a shift in the balance of performance, which favoured the BMWs and Ferraris as both also introduced significant, apparently effective updates.

Some slick driving saw Tommy over-deliver in qualifying, setting the fifth-fastest time with a slender margin to the front row. But the result definitely flattered us, because our rivals simply drove away in the main event.

However, we were both relieved to have made it through a race distance. We simply ran our strategy, everybody executed their roles correctly, nothing was compromised and there weren’t any post-race ifs, buts or maybes. Sixth position we all we could do.

What followed were three productive and untroubled test days at National Corvette Museum Motorsport Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky in preparation for Le Mans.

With the French endurance classic only a month away, we took the opportunity to bed in Le Mans-spec engines and gearboxes. This ate up more time than we expected and we didn’t quite complete our programme, but there are always bumps in the road and we will pick up from where we left off during the test at la Sarthe.

It was interesting to share the circuit with Nissan and see the GT-R LM NISMO in action. From the outside it is obviously a very young and developing programme and the team is definitely experiencing a few growing pains.

Nissan had completed a full day of running and the track was reasonably well rubbered-in by the time we arrived, which gave us a bit of a head start. Temperatures were relatively high but you have to take what you’re given, roll with it and see where you stand when you arrive at Le Mans.

On the Tuesday prior to the Kentucky test, I stopped by Pratt and Miller’s workshop in New Hudson, Detroit to touch base with all the guys who work so hard designing, building and developing these fantastic racing cars.

I sat in the 2016 C7.R chassis for a basic seat fitting. Of course, the car is still in the early stages of the build process and it was a chance for the team and me to check some dimensions and do some laser scanning before continuing with the build.

In other news, my unofficial record as the fastest racing driver to complete the London Marathon was eclipsed by some unknown bloke from Frome, Somerset. A chap named Jenson Button did a 2hr 52min 30sec, a fantastic time and an intimidating target for any budding racing driver/marathon runner. He must be congratulated.

I’m pleased with the 2hr 54min I achieved in 2010 and I’d love to have a crack at beating Jenson’s time if my schedule allows. Marathons are all about testing yourself against the clock, and so much of it is about preparation and sacrifice.

I’ve heard Paula Radcliffe talking about the amazing atmosphere and how you’re carried on a wave of noise from the crowd. I can fully understand that and the London Marathon remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.

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