After three official practice sessions leading up to the 1000-mile Petit Le Mans, Corvette Racing proved to be the class of the GTS category, but rivals Prodrive Ferrari was not all that far behind.

Oliver Gavin, driving the #4 Compuware Corvette C5-R, recorded a time of 1min 19:206secs during morning practice on Thursday to top the accumulated times set in all three sessions, and eclipse Corvette's previous 2003 qualifying time at the Road Atlanta circuit, set during round two of the 2003 series in June, by nearly two seconds.

"Our new chassis is quite good on this circuit, particularly through high speed corners such as turns twelve and one," Gavin revealed, "We have our cars pretty much where we want them."

Gavin, Kelly Collins and Andy Pilgrim will drive chassis #010 at this weekend's season finale, after an accident during the previous round in Miami forced the team withdraw chassis #008 and call their test car into action. The new car was built to the same specification as the #3 Corvette C5-R, but has already seen action this season, when Gavin shattered the qualifying lap record at Road America by nearly two seconds.

After two hours of practice on Thursday, however, the Care Racing-supported Prodrive Ferrari team admitted that it had had a mixed day. Having led the class in unofficial testing on Wednesday with the #80 550 Maranello, the team slipped back into the clutches of Corvette and trailed at least one of the yellow in two of the three Thursday outings.

Whilst the #88 car topped the GTS class timesheets on Thursday afternoon, with a time of 1min 19.607secs set by Peter Kox, team returnee Alain Menu was not happy with the balance and set up of the car, and will be spending much of the time available before tonight's session with his engineer and team-mates Kox and Tomas Enge to work on ways in which to improve the handling of the Ferrari.

The #80 crew of Jan Magnussen, David Brabham and Anthony Davidson are also set to spend some hours with engineers and the data accumulated to date in order to make improvements. Magnussen, who had the majority of seat time this afternoon, was uncertain as to the reason for his dissatisfaction with the Ferrari's performance, but is certain that times will be lowered as the weekend continues.

Enge, fresh from his first rally victory in the Czech Republic last weekend, had a heart-stopping off-road moment in the morning's first practice session, when his car suffered a puncture and crashed heavily into the tyre barrier at turn twelve.

"I felt the car behaving strangely as I came over the crest of the hill towards turn twelve, and then realised it was a left front puncture," he reported after being released from the medical centre, "I tried to slow the car down as much as possible but it is difficult with only three wheels. The car is okay and repairable, and the boys worked flat out to get it out again."

The damage was primarily to the front of the car, with the chassis being unaffected, and the team did a magnificent job repairing it in double quick time to get it out on the track for the second practice session of the day, when Kox went quickest in class. It was the team's second serious accident of the week, as car #80 had also been the subject of a heavy crash during Saturday's damp testing session.

"It's been a marathon and not the ideal way to go into an endurance race like this, but the boys love a challenge," team principal George Howard-Chappell said, "I'm proud of the way they've risen to that challenge. We came here quite well stocked with spare parts and bodywork, but the stock is looking a bit thin now. We haven't quite got to the re-cycling stage but we will if necessary!"

Fr?d?ric Dor, making his debut at Road Atlanta, has had much of the seat time in car #08 so he can familiarise himself thoroughly with the track. J?r?me Policand has the benefit of two previous visits to Road Atlanta, as has the ever-youthful Jan Lammers, although the Dutchman was last at the track some four years ago for the 1999 Petit Le Mans.

 

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