19 January 2001
Stephen Watson has been a Chamberlain Viper regular this season. The South African is acknowledged as being very quick, but when you’re faced with opposition like the Oreca Vipers, you need more than one quick guy to get a result – or not. It’s one of the oddities of GT racing that just because you’re in the same model as the recognised top team, you’re not necessarily as well equipped as them. Much the same applies to the Porsches in the GT class.
For this man, everything came right in the final round of the 2000 ALMS. It’s taken him a while to write this column, but a) how many racing drivers like sitting in front of a PC? and b) the first two weeks of 2001 have been one long round of flights and meetings as he puts together his programme for this year.
Stephen almost glosses over his mammoth effort in the car – but that’s understandable. The heat and intensity took their toll on even this fit fellow.
South Australia’s Minister of Tourism, Don Panoz, the organisers and the Adelaide community need to be congratulated on what was an absolutely superb event. A great deal of time and effort was spent ensuring all the teams’ requirements were met, and nothing was too much trouble - the organisation honestly could not be faulted. The only challenge left was the “Mega” Adelaide street circuit, which took its toll on many of the competitors: the concrete walls did not forgive their mistakes lightly.
I partnered Milka Duno and Ray Lintott in the Chamberlain Motorsport Viper. Ray had raced on the Adelaide circuit before but needed time to get to know the Viper. Milka and I were the reverse; both of us had raced the Viper a lot, but we had never driven on the infamous Adelaide GP track. I went out in the first session to bed in the brakes before handing over to my team-mates. In those first three laps, I knew I would enjoy driving the circuit at speed. My co-drivers shared the rest of the day’s session, and it was not until the night practice that I had my chance to push the Viper a little. I loved the circuit, and we closed the gap on the two works Oreca cars. It was decided that I would qualify and my team-mates would have the rest of the practice sessions and the warm up.
We were the first car out on the circuit in the qualifying session and I used the first two laps to get up to speed with the track in the daylight. The handling wasn’t quite right so I pitted to make a few small adjustments to the set up. Hugh Chamberlain was smiling when I stopped in the pits and told me over the radio that we were quickest in GTS - and both Oreca cars had completed flying laps. I thought they must have hit traffic, we had not been that close to them all year. We made the set up changes and I went for it. I had a good clean lap, set a time of 1:35.9 and returned to the pits. I jumped out and walked over to the TV screen and could not believe we were second quickest. The Oreca cars are known to have a substantial power advantage over us, and they run carbon brakes that are a lot more efficient than our steel discs. With six minutes left Belloc knocked us down to third with a 1:35:5. I knew I could go quicker, we had a bit of understeer but I was sure I could drive through it. I grabbed my helmet and told Hugh of my intentions.
There was little point really, Oreca’s overall team package was stronger than ours, but like true racers the Chamberlain team said, “let’s do it”. I pushed really hard on my quick lap, to the point that I had the Viper airborne over the first corner curbing, I was up on both the Oreca Vipers at the second split and kept fighting.
But I pushed too hard and locked the brakes into the last corner leading onto the main straight. I missed the apex and was consequently dead slow out of the corner. I crossed the line with a 1:36:02. Our telemetry would later show I lost about 0.7 seconds in my over-braking error. We had second place on the grid in the bag until then, but the team were still thrilled with my effort. Unbeknown to me, the TV cameras had followed me around the whole lap. Hugh Chamberlain duly asked me: “How can you have understeer when the wheels aren’t even touching the ground?” Ooops, caught in the act!
Qualifying for me was the most enjoyable half hour of the whole weekend. The team had not been that close to the Oreca cars all year. I eagerly awaited the start of the race – driver change practice was part of our regular preparations.
We knew as a team, we would not beat the Oreca cars over a race distance unless they had a major problem, but I wanted to give them a hard time in the first stint if I could. I decided if the opportunity presented itself to overtake the works Vipers, with minimal risk, I would go for it. I wanted this not only for my own personal satisfaction but to reward all the Chamberlain mechanics and the team as whole, for all the hard work they had put in, providing fast reliable cars all year.
I pushed Belloc from the green flag, trying to force an error. I expected them to be gone in five laps but after 10, I was still on his back bumper. He braked early for the hairpin at the end of the back straight, and I lunged down the inside, I was a little too far back. Two laps later I tried again, locking the front wheels but Belloc closed the gap firmly.
The Brabham Panoz lapped us two laps later into the same bend, I tucked in behind David and Belloc did not see me. We approached the next left corner neck and neck, but he had the inside line and was able to defend. In the heat, I knew we could not maintain this pace for long and an oil temperature alarm was a gentle reminder to ease off a bit. I handed over to Ray after 45 minutes and thought I was in for a long break before I had to drive the last stint of the race. I was wrong.
The cockpit heat in the Viper was too intense for Ray and he could only manage a 35 minute stint. Milka was unable to do much more, and I was back in the car again. In total I believe I drove just over 4 hours of the 5 hour 45 minute race and we finished 3rd in GTS.
The champagne tasted all the sweeter on the podium, but I was too tired to enjoy all the New Year celebrations. The team decided to use all the excess sponsorship funding that had not been spent on running and developing the cars on a fireworks display to see the New Year in – needless to say a dozen sparklers were lit and the countdown began. The circuit’s fireworks saved the day and brought to an end a fantastic race weekend and another year of competitive motor racing.
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