St. Pete: Corvette Racing preview

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As a lifelong resident of Monaco, Corvette Racing's Olivier Beretta knows a little something about street races. A glittering jewel in the international racing scene, the Monaco Grand Prix has sent powerful open-wheel machines racing through Beretta's neighborhood since 1929. On March 31, Beretta will race on another bayside street circuit when the American Le Mans Series stages the inaugural Acura Sports Car Challenge in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"There is always a special atmosphere when you race in a city because you are closer to the fans," said Beretta, who scored his record-setting 29th career ALMS victory in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 17. "I grew up in a town with a very famous Grand Prix, and I have driven in many street races Рfrom Pau, France to Trois-Rivi̬res in Quebec and last year in Houston, Texas. It's always nice to discover a new track, so I am looking forward to my first race in St. Petersburg."

Beretta and his teammate Oliver Gavin are aiming for their third straight GT1 championship with Corvette Racing. Their chief antagonist this weekend won't be the sister No. 3 Corvette C6.R driven by Jan Magnussen and Johnny O'Connell. It will be the unyielding concrete walls that line the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary circuit.

"Like all the street races, you are allowed no mistakes," Beretta explained. "If you brake just a little bit late or lock the wheels, you can end up hitting the wall. I will not say it is more challenging than other tracks, but you are more tense than when you are racing on a road course where you have more runoff."

When F1 comes to Monaco, the cars are nearly equal in performance. That won't be the case in St. Petersburg, where Beretta and his Corvette Racing teammates will have to contend with faster prototypes and slower GT2 machines.

"We have to look out the front when we are overtaking and look to the rear to see who is overtaking us," Beretta said with a laugh. "We have raced in GT1 for a long time, so I'm used to this. Ray Gongla, my crew chief, does a fantastic job of spotting for me. It's like he was sitting next to me in the car. We've worked together for four years now, and he knows exactly when it's time to talk to me on the radio. He is like my co-driver, and I can concentrate on driving because I know that someone is always looking out for me. With Ray spotting for me, it's like having two more eyes. I trust him completely."

One member of the Corvette Racing family who knows what to expect on the streets of St. Pete is Johnny O'Connell. He drove a Cadillac CTS- V in last year's SCCA SPEED World Challenge GT race in St. Petersburg, finishing second after a charge through the pack.

"After racing in St. Petersburg last year, at least I have some idea of the track layout," O'Connell said. "For the most part it's a really good circuit. There is a section that is quite tight and difficult, and there are some wide-open passing areas. It's going to be very interesting in the tight areas because of the difference in speeds of the four classes. Of course, any time you race while surrounded by concrete walls, it's a really big challenge. Based on how well the Cadillac CTS- V performed there last year, I expect the Corvette C6.Rs to be awesome."

The Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg, the second round of the 12-race 2007 American Le Mans Series, is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 31. GM Racing

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