18/06/2010 Paul Ricard and the Corvettes
The FIA GT1 World Championship will soon be heading for the Paul Ricard HTTT, for its first French round. The circuit, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has great historical significance for GT racing. The first-ever race of the BPR series was held there in 1994, marking the rebirth of this category of motor racing, which has culminated this season with the world title being granted by the FIA.
Back then, Larbre Competition won the four-hour race, with a Porsche driven by the much missed Bob Wollek, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Jesus Pareja. Larbre, triple FIA GT Champions and recent winners of the GT1 category at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, are still a force to be reckoned with. As is Christophe Bouchut, the only driver in that first BPR event to be a regular in this year’s 2010 FIA GT1 World Championship. In 1995, the four-hour race was won by the Gulf Racing /GTC McLaren F1 GTR of Ray Bellm and Maurizio Sandro-Sala, ahead of the Larbre Competition Porsche 911 GT2 Evo of Wollek, Bouchut and Jarier. The 1996 season again started at Paul Ricard, when Ray Bellm was again victorious, this time with James Weaver alongside him.
The circuit changed hands in 1999. In February 2001, the new Toyota Motorsport Formula One team signed an agreement with the new owners, and set up its test base at the circuit. Renovation works started in April 2001. By October, the new Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track was in use by Toyota to develop their new single-seater. The new state-of-the art circuit includes multiple circuit layouts, varying from 0.826 km to 5.833 km, with 13 right-handed corners and 8 left-handed corners.
The state of the art facility, with everything that motorsport could desire, it quickly became the place to test, and its red and blue stripes – part of the braking system – soon became a familiar site in photos. But testing is not racing, and it was not until 2006 that GT racing returned to Le Castellet, when the FIA GT Championship became the first major international series to race there after five years. And if the special VIP-only round had a different atmosphere, without the usual crowds, the racing was thrilling !
It quickly became apparent that the Corvette was thoroughly at home on the long circuit. Dutch driver Jos Menten claimed pole position for PSI Experience and its Corvette. It was the first pole in the Championship for the Dutch driver who finished third for Reiter in this year’s Silverstone round. In the race, however, it was Belgian team GLPK who triumphed, after a thrilling battle with PSI Experience. Not only the first FIA GT victory for the Corvette C6R, this was also the make’s first one-two.
In early 2009, the Paul Ricard HTTT was witness to the start of the future, with the unveiling of the first two cars for what was then still the GT1 project. During the Media and Test Day, the Ford GT Matech and the Nissan GT-R were first shown to the press at a packed press conference. Showing how serious the new Championship was, they were joined by the Lamborghini Murciélago at Spa, and the GT1 World Championship was well underway.
Later that season, the FIA GT Championship returned to the Paul Ricard, but this time everything had changed, and the doors were flung open to the enthusiastic crowds who packed the banks and the new grandstands. And for the penultimate round of the Championship, after 13 seasons, it was yet again Corvette which set the pace. Enrique Bernoldi – currently racing for Vitaphone Racing Team – took pole position in the Sangari Corvette Z06. The team – run by Mad Croc Racing’s Kendy Janclaes – went on to win the race, giving a Brazilian-registered team its only win in the history of the Championship.
And so on to 2010, when the brand-new FIA GT1 World Championship will hold its fourth round at the magnificent circuit. It will be following in some fine footsteps, as it will be 20 years since a World Championship raced at the historic circuit at Le Castellet. Back then, in 1990, it was the Formula One World Championship which raced there – the circuit was 3.813 km long, compared to the near 6 km of today’s layout – and national hero Alain Prost was victorious for Ferrari. And what about 2010 ?
Back in February, the rather wet balance of performance tests saw Corvette triumph again, with the Mad-Croc Racing Corvette Z06 setting the fastest time over the two days of testing. So will July 4th – Independence Day in the United States of America – see the American brand claim its first victory in the FIA GT1 World Championship ? Wait and see…