Fellows and O’Connell Top Season Finale
ALMS Round 9, Audi Sports Car Championships
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
October 16, 2004
1st GTS: Olivier Beretta, #4 Compuware Corvette C5-R,
2nd GTS: Johnny O’Connell, #3 Compuware Corvette C5-R,
1st GTS: #3 Compuware Corvette C5-R — Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell, 160 laps
2nd GTS: #4 Compuware Corvette C5-R — Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, 160 laps
The Corvette C5-R retired in a blaze of glory. Pratt & Miller’s last race with the seven-year-old GTS race car was a victory, and completed an undefeated final season for a car that already had achieved great success. The C5-R won a total of 35 of its 55 races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times, the 12 Hours of Sebring three times, and a remarkable overall victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Its last victory as a factory-backed race car was memorable, too, because it happened on the only regular ALMS circuit where the team had never won. Through the years, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca had been a puzzle the Pratt & Miller team never managed to solve … until this year, when Olivier Beretta set a new track record in his pole qualifying run, and Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell took the victory after a late-race pit-stop duel.
For Beretta, his Laguna Seca pole tied him with teammate Ron Fellows at 14 career ALMS poles, the most by a driver in any class.
Races are won in the pits
The four-hour race began at 4 p.m. Saturday and ran into the early hours of darkness. Only seconds after the start, both Corvettes dodged a bullet when another car spun ahead of them. Starting drivers Olivier Beretta and Ron Fellows had to make some quick evasive maneuvers to avoid getting caught up in the melee. From then on, however, the race settled down for the Corvettes. For the next three hours they ran one-two, with the number-4 car leading virtually the entire time.
During the last scheduled pit stop, however, the number-3 Corvette’s crew gave O’Connell a head start, getting him out ahead of his teammates.
The outcome was made more exciting and uncertain when rain began falling during the last half-hour. With 15 minutes to go the rain was heavy enough that it made remaining on slicks a recipe for disaster. Most cars headed into the pits for rain tires, including O’Connell and Gavin. Johnny stayed in front after the exchange, and in the poor visibility of rain and darkness, held Gavin off to the checkered flag.
The conditions reminded Johnny of a line from the movie Le Mans. "It's like the driver said in that movie, ‘what's behind you doesn't matter,’" he said about his final laps. "Usually there are lights or reflectors, but you couldn’t see any of that here tonight. All the rubber build-up made it so hard to see the exits and even the curbing. But Ron and I re-set our lights after Thursday night’s practice, and that helped a lot."
O’Connell described the pit stop where he took the lead: "I was nervous sitting behind the 4 car in the pits," he said. "I thought we were going to have a drag race down the pit-lane. It was great hearing the hiss of the jacks dropping, and I drove by while they were still putting on tires. I almost stalled it because my back end came around as I took off and I was worried about pinning one of their crew guys. So I let off the gas and it started to stall. I did a little prayer and the engine kept running, and I was off. During pit-stops it's just as nervous for the driver as it is for the crew."
An emotional time
Ron Fellows has been with the C5-R program from the beginning of development in 1997 and, with Andy Pilgrim, drove the car to its first victory in 2000. He has been part of 24 of the car’s wins, all but the first one with O’Connell. Driving the car to its last victory in its last race was an emotional good-bye for the veteran. "It rained at the end of our very first race, which was at Daytona," Fellows said, "and now it rained at the end of this race. Credit goes to Johnny for keeping it on the road with the rain pouring down while he was still on slicks. I think this is the first time we've run our Michelins in the rain, and they did really well.
"We started off testing in the fall of 1997," Fellows recalled, "and it’s kind of sad to see the C5-R go. But its not the end of the Corvette, just the C5-R. Its been fantastic for me to be a part of Corvette Racing through the whole time. I'd say this is a fitting end for a really great race car."
All the honors
In the GTS class, it was an all-Corvette evening at the ALMS season-ending awards banquet on Sunday. Corvette Racing was honored as GTS Champion Team and Chevrolet as GTS Champion Automobile Manufacturer, both for the fourth straight year. Michelin received its award as GTS Champion Tire Manufacturer, while Fellows and O’Connell received their second straight GTS Drivers’ Championships (third in a row for Ron).
In addition, Fellows and Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing program manager, received special ALMS awards, voted on by race fans. Fellows was voted the series’ Most Popular Driver; Fehan topped balloting for the annual ‘From the Fans’ Award for his outstanding contribution to sports car racing.
Memories of past Laguna Seca races were never far below the surface as the Corvette crews and drivers prepared for qualifying and the race. There was a score to settle with this race track, and Beretta’s qualifying time was step one. It beat the record set last year by Jan Magnussen in a Prodrive Ferrari by almost seven tenths of a second. Even better, Johnny O’Connell in the number-3 Corvette also was under the old record."I've been very lucky to drive fast cars for great teams throughout my career in the American Le Mans series," Beretta said. "GM Racing has done a great job with the C5 Corvette, and there's lots of history with this car.": 1m22.238s (97.969 mph)1m21.679s (98.640 mph)