Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature

Friday favourite: The “brutal” Florida track that bookended Gavin's Corvette story

His first and last wins in an 18-year career with Corvette Racing came at the notoriously bumpy Sebring track in Florida, so perhaps it’s understandable that it should stand out for Oliver Gavin as his favourite track. The Brit reflects on what makes it special

#4 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, GTLM: Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler, #3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, GTLM: Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, Mike Rockenfeller

#4 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, GTLM: Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler, #3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, GTLM: Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, Mike Rockenfeller

Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

The 3.741 miles of bumpy asphalt that makes up Sebring International Raceway is most certainly unique. And in choosing it as his favourite track, Oliver Gavin makes several references to the airfield venue’s one-of-a-kind nature that, in his estimation, narrowly elevates it above the Circuit de la Sarthe where he took five class victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Former Corvette Racing stalwart Gavin raced at Sebring between 2001 and 2020, in every year of his American sportscar career aside from 2000. But despite professing not to be the biggest fan of “very humid and hot” Florida and having “a bit of a love-hate relationship” with the former Hendricks Army Airfield site, it proved a happy hunting ground for the Briton.

Gavin won the GTS division on his first visit in 2001, adding further class victories in the 12 Hours in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2013 and 2016. He and Tommy Milner also triumphed at Sebring in July 2020 when it staged the first round after the COVID-enforced hiatus, a two-hour 40-minute thrash, by just 0.480 seconds over the sister Corvette C8.R of Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor.

Until the union between the Grand-Am Series and American Le Mans Series formed today’s IMSA SportsCar Championship in 2014, January’s Daytona 24 Hours was never on Corvette Racing’s schedule so Sebring was traditionally its first round of the year. Therefore, Gavin says “it’s a track that I ended up driving a lot, testing at relentlessly”, which gave him an excellent feel for its many nuances.

“It’s got a number of characteristics about it that just made it really special to me,” muses the 1995 British Formula 3 champion. “It sort-of book-ended my American racing career and I just grew very fond of the track.

“It’s really a unique place. Nowhere else in the world is like it in terms of the bumps, the corners, the sand that you inevitably get on the track in certain spots, and running the 12 Hours there you do get some pretty unique moments. If you happen to be in the car when the sun is going down, you’re driving right into the sunset down into Turn 17 and that’s a pretty special experience I had a number of times.”

Spectacular sunsets are part and parcel of the Sebring experience and contribute to its unique feel along with vicious bumps and heat

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

Spectacular sunsets are part and parcel of the Sebring experience and contribute to its unique feel along with vicious bumps and heat

The famous final turn Gavin references, a long, 180-degree right-hander, is one that he puts on a par with Brands Hatch’s Paddock Hill and the Eau Rouge-Raidillon complex at Spa due to its totally distinctive approach. A corner that “you’ve got a long time to think about” down the back straight, Gavin says every phase of Turn 17 is difficult as the need to continue turning under braking means the car is habitually unsettled, a phenomenon which the bumps don’t help, while the line is “almost impossible to see” so he typically would be “driving by feel”.

“Experience there is critical,” he says. “Having done it so many times, you were trying to place the car in the natural spot where you knew that you could thread your way through the least of the bumps and the most grip.”

Experience pays at other parts of the track, too. Gavin says the fast Turn 1 left-hander requires acute judgement “to turn the car in a little bit blind, just aiming for the wall on the left-hand side” in the knowledge that “the bumps are extreme and there’s a big one right at the exit”.

"I loved the challenge of the track, the challenge of the race, competing against other cars there. It’s one of the hardest races in the world to win and it can be absolutely heart-breaking" Oliver Gavin

Over the years, Gavin also learned to be careful approaching the Turn 10 right, which is “notoriously tricky on the brakes, you can easily lock rears”, and to anticipate that when tyre life deteriorates for the car to complain through Turn 11: “A flat-out left-hander that in every Corvette that I ever drove, it was always challenging the traction on the car”.

Gavin calls Sebring “a rhythm track” that “you can drive just using the bumps and the transitions through the different bits of tarmac”.

“You very quickly recognised what was right and what was wrong around there,” he explains. “You knew when you’d got the car really hooked up and you were on a very good lap just by how on its toes it was, its ability to get the corners rotated and done in just a really efficient, timely fashion so that before you knew it, you were out of the corner and onto the next straight.”

The harshness of the bumps, combined with the stifling heat, means Sebring isn’t widely popular even if its challenge is widely respected. It’s a point Gavin accepts: “I can see why many drivers just hate the place because it is so physical and it’s so aggressive on you as a person, it’s aggressive on the car, it’s aggressive on the team.”

The apex for Turn 1 is blind and requires huge commitment

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

The apex for Turn 1 is blind and requires huge commitment

But, to Gavin, it’s precisely the “just brutal” nature of Sebring that makes it so appealing to conquer.

“That’s what I liked about it,” he says. “I loved the challenge of the track, the challenge of the race, competing against other cars there. It’s one of the hardest races in the world to win and it can be absolutely heart-breaking.”

Perhaps the most surprising of Gavin’s Sebring successes came in 2001, his first visit in a Saleen S7-R run by Franz Konrad’s team that kickstarted “my love affair with the track”. Poleman Gavin had only completed eight laps in the car prior to arriving at Sebring but, together with Konrad and Terry Borcheller, finished a lap ahead of the best Corvette C5-R in a remarkable sixth overall as the American-built car took its first major competition win.

“The budget was small, we were up against the might of Corvette and we didn’t really stand a chance,” he recalls. “The car had only run for three hours non-stop in testing without an issue, so to do 12 around a place like that – which is notoriously one of the hardest racetracks in the world – was really a long shot.

More favourite tracks:

“But the car hung together, but at one point we had the rear deck hanging off and the radio was broken and Franz couldn’t hear us, there was all kinds of craziness going on. If that rear deck had flown off, it would have broken into about 100 pieces and we didn’t have a spare one so we would have been out of the race. But somehow we managed to get Franz into the box and get it fixed, which he did himself. We got back out of the track and we ended up winning!”

He prevailed again at Sebring on his first outing with a Pratt & Miller-run Corvette in 2002, when Saleen was pegged back with 70kg ballast and 15% smaller air restrictors for failing to meet 2002 eligibility rules. The C5-R he shared with Johnny O’Connell and Ron Fellows finished ninth overall.

After a propshaft failure with a little over two hours to go denied a likely victory in 2003, clutch problems sidelined the car in which he’d charged from the back of the grid to the lead by the third hour in 2004. Another potential win went begging in the new C6.R in 2005, when a 40-minute delay repairing damage inflicted when Olivier Beretta tangled with a backmarker opened the door for Prodrive’s Aston Martin DBR9, as Gavin’s car could only finish third in the GT1 class.

Sebring has been a happy hunting ground over the years for Gavin, pictured celebrating GT1 victory in 2007

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Sebring has been a happy hunting ground over the years for Gavin, pictured celebrating GT1 victory in 2007

But his 2006 victory after three years of hurt was more than worth the wait as, together with Beretta and Jan Magnussen, Gavin finished third overall in a race best remembered for the landmark first win of Audi’s R10 TDi diesel racer. At the height of the legendary rivalry with Prodrive, which Gavin says “drove the team on, whether that was in strategy, the pitstops, the execution of those by all the guys”, the result was a “pretty spectacular” accomplishment.

Although it wasn’t in the 12 Hours, Gavin’s final victory for Corvette at Sebring in 2020 also stands out amid the unique circumstances as COVID-19 continued to exact its horrendous toll. It was his only victory in the C8.R before announcing his retirement from driving towards the end of the year, and somehow only fitting that Gavin won at the track in every model he'd ever raced for Corvette – having pipped BMW to the top spot with the C7.R in 2016.

“COVID was absolutely raging at that time, but we got back racing and Florida was the place to go,” remembers Gavin, who now runs his own driver management agency and driving academy. “It was very special that day to be able to get that victory and that was victory number 51 for me with Corvette Racing, and I’m very proud of that statistic.”

At the scene of his first victory for Corvette in 2002, Gavin collected his last in 2020 with the C8.R

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

At the scene of his first victory for Corvette in 2002, Gavin collected his last in 2020 with the C8.R

Be part of Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article The new Swiss sportscar ace following in his father's wheeltracks
Next article IMSA GTP lessons helping Chevrolet, Honda with IndyCar’s hybrid unit

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe