Johnny O'Connell admits that he hasn't quite grasped the notion that he is a champion in the 2003 American Le Mans Series, despite having clinched the GTS class title by finishing fourth, alongside team-mate and co-champion Ron Fellows, in last weekend's event in Miami.

In eight races, the duo has won three times in their Chevrolet Corvette C5-R, but, ever the racer, O'Connell was unhappy about the result of the race at Miami, where he was leading until contact with another car sent his Corvette into a concrete barrier on the tight street racing circuit. The team effected repairs sufficient enough for him to finish the race and earn points, but he and Fellows could only watch as the rival Prodrive Ferrari team beat them for the third consecutive race.

"It hasn't set in yet, especially as rotten as our result was at Miami," he said, "But it is gratifying to finally get a championship, having been so close the past two seasons. What really makes it special is sharing this one with Ron. Both of us commit ourselves 110 per cent all of the time, and we entered the season with really only one goal on both of our minds, and that was the championship for both the manufacturers and drivers."

O'Connell and Fellows will officially receive their championship rings and trophies when the ALMS holds its season awards banquet on 19 October, but their first order of business is the season-ending race, the Petit Le Mans, at Road Atlanta on the preceding day.

Chevrolet leads Ferrari by only eight points in the race for the all-important manufacturers' championship, and O'Connell and Fellows will enter the race with clinching that title as their number one goal. Last year, Fellows and O'Connell won their class in the race, and it was O'Connell's first-ever win at his home track. He lives only a few miles west of Road Atlanta.

"It meant a whole lot to me to finally get a win at Road Atlanta, as it is such a special race track," O'Connell admitted, "We've always run strong there, but then also usually have bad luck at some point or another during the race. Winning very much gets that monkey off your back."

The two-car factory Corvette team received a double blow at Miami, not only because of O'Connell's crash in the race, but also because the sister car, driven by Kelly Collins and Oliver Gavin, was totally destroyed in an accident during the race morning warm-up. Collins was at the wheel at the time and walked away unhurt, but the car had to be withdrawn from the race.

"The car that Ron and I ran was really not hurt that bad, so we are covered there," O'Connell revealed, "But I think Oliver and Kelly will move over to the test car, which is the one they ran at Laguna Seca. It's exactly the same as what we have."

The Prodrive Ferrari team, which campaigns a pair of Ferrari 550 Maranello machines, has entered a third car for Petit Le Mans to bolster its chances of overtaking Corvette in the manufacturers' race.

David Brabham and Jan Magnussen, who formerly drove for the factory Panoz team in the ALMS, have been driving for the Prodrive team since July. The pair were together for two of the three wins in the team's current streak, while Brabham paired with Briton Darren Turner for the Miami win when Magnussen had to miss the race due to a schedule conflict. Tomas Enge and Peter Kox share the other regular entry, while the team has not yet named the drivers for the third car, although old favourite Alain Menu is being touted for one of the seats. The Swiss drivers former co-pilot, Rickard Rydell is on European Touring Car duty that weekend and is unlikely to make it to Georgia.

The Corvette versus Ferrari battle has created some of the most exciting racing in the American Le Mans Series this season and has captured the attention of race fans around the world. And while there is mutual respect, there is also a heated rivalry between the Corvette and Prodrive ranks that has created some verbal jabs.

Kox and Enge were delighted to point out that they had lapped both Corvettes in the recent series event at Laguna Seca, and that Prodrive had extended Corvette's record of never winning on the California track. O'Connell acknowledged the superiority of the Ferraris in that race, but not in the team's wins at Road America and Miami.

"They have won the last three but, really, luck was on their side," he said, "Bad traffic allowed them to get close and win at Road America. They won straight up at Laguna, but then got really lucky with our misfortune at Miami. Really, the only track they were better in my mind was Laguna.

"To beat the Ferraris at Petit, we will of course have to be strong and prepared. Jan and David have certainly been a nice addition to their team, but I don't think they are more of a threat than Tomas and Peter are. I would say that Prodrive is similar to us in that either car can win."

 

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