A stout Oliver Gavin completed two stints during the first half of the 83rd 24 Hours of Le Mans, as Corvette Racing and Aston Martin relentlessly hammered one another in an enthralling battle for top honours in the GTE Pro category (13-14 June).
Gavin moved from seventh to fifth in class after dispatching the SMP Racing Ferrari 458 Italia of Andrea Bertolini and the #91 Porsche Team Manthey entry in the hands of Richard Leitz prior to being lapped by the LMP1 frontrunners for the first time on the fifth tour of the 8.46mile Circuit de la Sarthe.
There was no let-up in Gavin’s pursuit of the Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantages and the AF Corse Ferrari at the head of GTE Pro, but, with the top five lapping within a tenth of a second of each other during the first hour, the gaps remained relatively static.
However, a Safety Car intervention followed the first round of pit stops and brought Gavin to within striking distance of first position, six seconds splitting the British ace and Nicki Thim in the class-leading #95 Aston Martin at the restart.
A challenge from Richie Stanaway in the #99 entry forced Gavin to play a rear-guard action and the chase continued for laps on end, with James Calado joining the fray and creating an gripping three-way, sprint race-style dogfight that captivated the television cameras.
The trio squabbled without jeopardising their races and Gavin eventually concluded what was a thrilling exchange by yielding, aware that a ferocious defence might be counter-productive at such an early stage of the race and knowing Tommy Milner was due to take the reins at the start of the third hour.
Reflecting on a successful opening stint, Gavin said: “The track needed to come in more and I think all of the GTE Pro cars struggled for grip. We looked to triple-stint the tyres from then on, with our rivals able to gain 20 seconds in every second stop by not fitting fresh boots. On the whole, it was a good first stint and we’re feeling happy with the way the #64 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R is running.
“It was nice to be able to fight with the competition,” said Gavin. “I was able to get by the Porsches and started catching the Aston Martins, finally getting on terms with the Richie Stanaway car as James Calado came up behind us. It was quite a nice battle with those guys – I was initially able to open up a little gap, but, towards the end of the stint, they were very strong.”
Gavin continued: “Richie caught me and was putting me under a lot of pressure. Coming through the first and second chicanes, and then at Mulsanne, he pretty much dive-bombed me. As we came off the corner, James got a good run and we were three-wide going to Indianapolis; I think we had a little bit of straight-line speed advantage on most people, but James managed to get on the inside and Richie got a run on me to get by at Arnage.”
During a strong stint, Tommy Milner soared from fourth to the top of the leaderboard, overhauling his rivals immediately after a protracted Safety Car intervention.
The American had to defend with all his might while locked in battle with the #97 Aston Martin art car of Darren Turner, who later span in avoidance of a collision, and then to fend off Fernando Rees in the #99 machine.
A mammoth stint followed for Jordan Taylor and the 24-year old ran comfortably at the sharp end of GTE Pro as dusk fell over Circuit de la Sarthe and the twice-around-the-clock enduro reached quarter distance.
Taylor’s advantage disintegrated when the Safety Car made its third appearance of the race but the threat from behind faded along with the light when the #97 entry succumbed to terminal mechanical issues.
Corvette Racing carried out a driver-change in the next sequence of stops during the ninth hour and, with Gavin back behind the wheel, traffic mired the New Hudson-based team’s progress and assisted an Aston Martin resurgence.
Gavin and Rees in the #99 car ran together as the race neared half-distance and the order continued chopping and changing on-track and in the pits before and after the Briton relinquished the sole factory Corvette to Milner, the nip and tuck nature of the battle suggesting the GTE Pro fight would go down to the wire.