Petit Le Mans: O'Connell, Corvettes win GT1

By Jonathan Zopf
Gainesville Times
jzopf@gainesvilletimes.com
(770) 718-3412
POSTED Oct. 5, 2008 12:15 a.m.

BRASELTON - Ten hours after hearing his daughter Kelly sing the National Anthem, Johnny O'Connell still had a smile on his face.

The Flowery Branch resident and his Corvette teammates led from almost start to finish, winning the GT1 class of the Petit Le Mans by six laps Saturday at Road Atlanta in South Hall.

"It's been an awesome day," O'Connell said. "It's one of the big ones. And it feels great to win it."

O'Connell was joined atop the medal stand with his No. 3 Corvette C6R teammates Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows, who clinched the GT1 championship with the win.

A close competition with fellow Corvette drivers Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis, the No. 3 car got a big break in hour No. 5, as Gavin's No. 4 car went into the pit with a throttle linkage problem. Along with the engine trouble, the car also underwent a wind screen replacement, and when all was said and done, O'Connell's team built a five-lap lead.

"That was big," O'Connell said. "The cars were nose-to-nose up to that point."

That lead increased to seven laps at the end of hour six.

With a large lead, the only thing the No. 3 car had to do was hold on.

"We just kept pushing hard and that leads itself to things working right," he said. "Our luck was a little better this year."

This was the second win at Petit Le Mans in 11 tries for O'Connell, who said he's going to celebrate by "having a couple of friends over and drinking a beer or two."

O'Connell wasn't the only driver celebrating at the completion of the race. In the adjacent paddock, was the Porsche team of Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, who took home the first place trophy in the Le Mans Prototype 2 Class.

Castroneves' performance was impressive, seeing that less than 24 hours ago he was standing in a Florida courtroom pleading not guilty to tax evasion charges.

"It has been a difficult two days, but to finish first, it turned out to be a good day," Castroneves said. "It was a great day, and we're going to continue to move forward.

"We're going to treat this problem like a race and win it."

The Porshe teams swept the LMP2 Class, with the Penske racing team placing first, second and third in the division.

"It's a great thing to see Porshe finish one, two, three," said team owner Roger Penske. "This certainly sets the championship up for us."

Penske said the first place finish couldn't have happened without Castroneves.

"He focused all day long and that's what's important for us," Penske said.

The race wasn't so kind to title hopeful Scott Sharp and his No. 9 Acura team, which saw its championship chances come to an end less than 30 minutes after the start of the race.

Sharp drifted sideways around Turn 10 and collided with the wall under the bridge. Sharp, who was teamed with former Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, was disappointed by the early exit.

"The Patron Acura was running great," he said. "That isn't a tough corner, but the car started into a lazy spin and started to slide. It was like something broke or a tire went down.

"It is a tough day for our Patron Highcroft team," he added. "They worked so hard to get the No. 9 car back together on Thursday after an early crash, and now this incident."

Franchitti wasn't the only big name driver in the LMP2 Class, as fellow Indy 500 winners Gil de Ferran, Scott Dixon and Castroneves all competed in that classification.

"We started the race with not quite enough down force and the car was very, very difficult to drive early in the race," said de Ferran, whose No. 66 Acura team finished sixth.

"It's not easy out there," said fellow Indy Car driver Tony Kanaan. "The hours in the gym are paying off here. I had a lot of fun out there, but it's a tough race."

Kannan's team may have been down early, but as the race progressed so did their standing.

Kannan's No. 26 Acura team battled back-and-forth with the Porshe teams of Castroneves and Briscoe in the No. 5 car, and Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas in the No. 7 car.

While Bernhard and Dumas finished second in the race, the finish clinched the driver championship and the team championship for the No. 7 car.

But the No. 26 car's race would end on Lap 349 when driver Franck Montagny collided with the No. 46 in a vicious crash that knocked three cars out of the race. Also involved in the crash was Georges Forqois in the No. 30 Lola B07-17.

"It certainly wasn't the prettiest of races," O'Connell said of the event that featured 11 caution flags. "But it still came down to the finish line and that was cool to watch."

In the other two classes, the team of Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Emanuele Pirro of Audi finished first in the LMP1 Class, while Jaime Meo and Mika Salo of the No. 62 Ferrari car won the GT2 Class