Few drivers have had as much success in GT racing as Oliver Gavin. The Corvette ace has five class victories each at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Petit Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring, as well as a further five American Le Mans Series championship wins.
In 2015, Gavin is a vital part of the Corvette Racing GT programme, and has a full season entry in the #4 Chevrolet Corvette C7R alongside Tommy Milner in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship (TUSC). He also returned to the top step of the podium at Le Mans this year, after a few disappointing years at the event.
Recently, The Checkered Flag caught up with Oliver to ask him about his most recent Le Mans victory, and current sportscar racing in the United States, as well as other subjects.
The Checkered Flag: “First of all, congratulations on taking your fifth Le Mans class win this year. What does it mean to have so many victories at such a prestigious race?”
Oliver Gavin: “It means an awful lot to win such a prestigious race like the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times; just one victory there is special. I was lucky enough to get that first victory during my maiden season under the Corvette Racing banner in 2002 and to win Le Mans four times between then and 2006 was incredibly special and made me feel very lucky.
“By no means was it easy, but the victories just kept coming and I suppose I saw the very positive and pleasant side of Le Mans during those years, before experiencing all the ups and downs of the race during the next nine attempts. We led our class many times, only to be haunted by things like mechanical failures, contact, inclement weather or problems in pit stops.
“So, when you consider the week we had at this year’s Le Mans, where Corvette Racing was the lowest I’ve ever seen it after Jan Magnussen’s crash, to then resurrect itself, out-last and outpace its class rivals and win the race, it reminds you how remarkable a journey it was and it’s certainly one of the most memorable Le Mans I’ve ever known.”
TCF: “Over the years, you’ve had a variety of team-mates at Le Mans. Which trio do you think has worked closest and best together?”
OG: “The first year I drove with Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell was pretty special and I think we were a good team. There was a purple patch when Olivier Beretta, Jan Magnussen and I won three Le Mans in a row, so you have to say they were statistically the best teammates, but, realistically, the chemistry [this year] between Jordan Taylor, Tommy Milner and I was very, very good.
“Being the eldest member of the driver line-up meant I played a slightly different role, although it was just a case of bringing Jordan to the team alongside me and Tommy and letting the both of them run their race. They seemed free and drove very naturally and that’s what I want to encourage.
“So, right here, right now, the drivers I won this year’s Le Mans with stand out, although it’s hard to pick out that standalone group of drivers because I’ve had so many great teammates.”
TCF: “Your career started out in single seaters. Why did you decide to follow the sportscar route instead of aiming for Formula 1?”
OG: “I spent a number of years in and around the lower single-seater categories in Formula 3000 and Formula 3 through the nineties and I knocked on the door of Formula 1 by conducting a couple of tests with Benetton and Renault F1, but I realised my time for making a break into F1 had been and gone and the momentum was slipping away as drivers who were technically behind me in the queue began to get opportunities.
“I knew I had to make a decision on whether to continue chasing the F1 dream or focus on establishing a career in sportscar racing. The turning point came at the end of 1999 and entering the 2000 season, because the sportscar racing platform in the USA was strengthening with Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) starting.
“I managed to get myself in a Lola chassis prototype at Homestead, rolling the dice on my career by using all of my savings to pay for the drive and it paid off. I got pole and finished the race in fourth and it was the catalyst for another opportunity to race a different Lola prototype in Grand-Am later that season, which preceded a year with Saleen in 2001 and then my first year with Corvette in 2002. And I’m still here in 2015!”
TCF: “Who do you consider your main rivals in GT Le Mans currently?”
OG: “I don’t think there’s a weak link in any of the teams that compete in the GTLM division of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. They’re all very strong, although the BMWs have been exceptionally quick and consistent, and they seem to be having a good run of luck right now.
“The #911 Porsche of Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy is also very quick and that car simply left the rest of us standing in the Six Hours of The Glen and at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. They’re in the zone, hitting the setups right and performing every weekend.
“Within the Corvette Racing fold, I’d say Antonio Garcia is there too, as he’s able to extract the maximum from the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R pretty much every time he drives the car. You know you have to be at the very top of your game to beat him!”
TCF: “Would you be interested in either a LMP drive at Le Mans or a Corvette DP seat in TUSC?”
OG: “It’s unlikely that I would consider an LMP1 or LMP2 drive at Le Mans, as I have competed there for Corvette Racing for 14 years now and I don’t want to go anywhere else and drive in another class of racing. This is the class and the category I know best and going off and driving LMP machinery would require a completely different mindset. I’m not saying it couldn’t ever happen in the future, but I can’t see it right now or in the near future.
“Again, it’s unlikely that I’ll think about switching to a Corvette Daytona Prototype car any time soon. The GTLM class is extremely competitive, produces great racing and features some fantastic drivers. You really have to earn your results and that makes it a hugely satisfying class to race in.”
TCF: “Is the motorsport environment different in the USA compared to in Europe?”
OG: “There’s a slightly different, more relaxed atmosphere in the USA and they’re very good at engaging with the fans over there too.
“Chevrolet and Corvette Racing, for example, have run their Corvette corrals to engage with the car owners and create a real synergy between the road and racecars, the fans and the team ever since they first launched their racing programme.
“The Corvette corral at Watkins Glen was the biggest I’ve ever seen and it was an extraordinary event where 500 people braved the dreadful weather and converged in a massive tent. Some were drawn by the success we had at Le Mans, but it showed the pull of the Chevrolet brand, the TUDOR Championship and Watkins Glen International as a venue.”
TCF: “Do you think that the USA sportscar scene benefited from the Grand-Am/ALMS merge?”
OG: “I think the Grand-Am/ALMS merger has been a positive move and to have all the teams and drivers from both series on one platform can only be a good thing for sportscar racing. It isn’t perfect and there are some areas for IMSA to work on, but we get to compete on some fantastic and iconic racetracks – we have another one at Road America coming up – and I really hope the TUDOR Championship continues growing.”
TCF: “Obviously you have a lot of experience in GT racing. Are there any young talents you’re keeping an eye on at the moment?”
OG: “Jordan (Taylor) is the most obvious because, while he’s been with Corvette Racing for a while now, he’s still relatively young for a sportscar racer. However, there are many other strong young guys around, including Richie Stanaway and James Calado, who are either fresh out of single-seaters or dovetailing racing programmes.
“My teammate in Australian V8 Supercars, Nick Percat, is also a fantastic talent, but I’d also include Tommy (Milner) in there too, as he’s only in his late twenties and he has a lot of experience, skill and ambition.
“They’re all stars of the future and are all going to be racing for many years after I’ve hung up my helmet. Someone like Jordan is an absolute livewire and we’re constantly being surprised by what he decides to do or what he puts on social media.”
TCF: “In your eyes, what one skill makes a successful GT racer?”
OG: “One of the most important skills for a successful GT racer is an ability to race at an extremely high level while dealing with everything else around you. Regardless of what car you’re up against, the chances are that you’ll be competing with a top-line, highly successful driver, so you need to be able to fight with them, but also deal with traffic by keeping one eye on what’s ahead of you through the windshield, what’s bearing down on you in the rear-view mirrors, and have an understanding of where you are in the race. The greatest GT drivers are able to do this year-on-year with very few mistakes.”
TCF: “You raised a lot of money for charity by competing in the London Marathon. Is helping others in this way important for you?”
OG: “Being able to run in the London Marathon and raise awareness and funds for different worthwhile causes is always a goal for me. It’s something I get a lot of satisfaction from.
“It took a while to reach my three-hour target and I was really disappointed to miss out by ten seconds in 2009, but I was then delighted to come back and clock a 2h54. However, I’ve run for many charities, many of which are very close to my heart because there are people in your life who are going through difficult times, and it’s an honour to run and raise awareness and funds for people who are in similar situations.”
TCF: “What else do you like to do in your free time?”
OG: “I do a variety of sports. I’ve become more interested in road bike riding in recent years and that ties in nicely with running. I have a long-term project, as my family home is 400 years old and requires a lot of maintenance, and we’re looking to make a few alterations to the house over the next 12 months, so that will fill a lot of my time.
“But I also have a young family, with children aged between nine and 14 and I’m kept pretty busy ferrying them here, there and everywhere, to and from clubs and events. I’ll have a very full timetable when I return from the next race at Road America.”
TCF: “If you could get a drive for any race next season that you haven’t yet entered, what would it be?”
OG: “The FIA GT race in Macau would be a fantastic event to compete in. I raced on the Macau Guia circuit twice during my F3 days and to drive a GT car around there would be awesome and a tremendous challenge, although I’d like to give the Nurburgring 24 Hours a go too. Maybe I’ll get a chance if there’s a Cadillac entry in 2016.”
TCF: “Which do you prefer – Le Mans or Daytona?”
OG: “Both the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Rolex 24 at Daytona are fantastic, iconic races, but the way the ACO puts on Le Mans, the atmosphere and the charisma of the race make Le Mans completely unique – it’s a race like no other.
“You get over 250,000 people turning up, the team is there for three weeks and the fact Circuit de la Sarthe is part permanent racetrack, part public road makes it unusual. Daytona has its uniqueness and the circuit itself is a huge challenge, but it isn’t comparable to Le Mans, which has those extra, special ingredients; whether it’s Tetre Rouge, braking into Mulsanne or the entry to the Porsche Curves, there are so many fantastic parts to the lap.
“Then you factor in the number of classic races, how many legendary drivers have competed there and the history of the track. It’s difficult to beat and I think 90 per cent of the drivers in the paddock would say the same.
“Having said that, I’ve had an awful lot more success at Le Mans. Daytona hasn’t really been a happy hunting ground for me, as I’ve only finished on the podium once and that was this year. Sometimes being successful at a circuit distorts your view, as it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling for it.”