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My Life & Cars – Oliver Gavin, five-time Le Mans class winner

Recently retired from the Corvette Racing team after 20 years, Oliver Gavin talks about how he got there, and what comes next

Timing has rarely been so inopportune. Oliver Gavin, a Corvette Racing employee for two decades, is sitting before me in the team’s pit box just as their second car dramatically exits the Le Mans 24 Hours mere hours before the chequered flag. The light of my dictaphone has just pinged red and I’m suddenly all too aware of the fraught atmosphere it’s capturing.

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Gavin, though, is a man of great experience; he’s competed at La Sarthe 19 times, clocking up five class wins, but not without some of his own painful stings along the way. ‘The race can turn on the tiniest thing and there’s danger at every corner,’ he tells me, with admirable pragmatism given the emotional scenes playing out around us. ‘It can really bite you. For all the success I’ve had over the years, it can also go wrong with just an hour to go. You’ve got a good car, a good crew, you’ve driven well, everyone has made the right decisions and something freaky happens.

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‘In 2011 we had a moment just like this. We were a lap and a half ahead at about 9am. Jan Magnussen was in the car, coming through Porsche Curves, and an amateur driver was just in the middle of the road in the last kink. Jan was trying to pass him and dropped a wheel in the sand; they had a bit of contact and Jan lost the steering arm. It just happens. We would have won that year. It takes a few weeks to get over it, the incident replaying in your head. But you know that next year there’s another chance; you reset and learn from the things that haven’t quite gone right. I can’t stay away. I have this relationship with the race that I just love.’

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It’s a point wholly proven by the fact he’s here in his supposed retirement, no longer driving a Corvette but still working for the brand. He’s now heading up the Oliver Gavin Driving Academy, which not only teaches drivers how to grapple the very limits of their car on track – using Bosch’s Boxberg proving ground in Germany – but hosts driving experiences of a more cultural kind, Gavin having led a group of American enthusiasts to this year’s 24 Hours aboard Corvette Stingrays via a visit to the landing beaches of Normandy.

But where did it all start for one of Bedfordshire’s fastest men? Idolising Gilles Villeneuve on TV as his dad and granddad, both passionate mechanics, watched Formula 1 at home. ‘The way he drove just captured my imagination. He was so spectacular; a genius behind the wheel that just hooked me in. Shortly after that my father took me and my brother karting at Rye House. We jumped in and had a go and just loved it. Dad said we could afford to buy a kart for all of us, so that’s what we did.

‘It was a brilliant time: very real, very raw, no politics or agenda. Just turning up, driving karts and loving it. There were the odd fall-outs – we had one race up in Barnsley and it was pissing with rain all weekend, a muddy quagmire, and all the karts ended up in bits. We were covered in muck loading the van back up and Dad didn’t speak a word to us all the way home. He just pulled up at home, turned the van off and walked into the house. “We’re selling the karts, it’s over.” But by the middle of the next week we were all over it and back in the karts.’

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The bug had truly bitten and Gavin matured into single-seaters with reasonable success, winning the Formula First championship in 1991 and landing himself tests in a Formula Ford and Vauxhall Lotus. Confidence was riding high, but another ticking off from his father was just around the corner.

‘My dad had had an Alpina B10, a super-cool car, while my mum had a Peugeot 205 GTI. A pretty awesome two-car garage. But I wasn’t allowed to learn to drive in either of those. Dad wanted to buy the slowest car he could find for my brother and I, so he got a 205 diesel which I think would do 87mph with the wind behind you – downhill. There was a section of road close to my house – a crest then a fast right-hander, quite open. I’d just had a good test in the Formula Ford and I was pumped. As I got to the apex and looked down I was going 2mph quicker than my record and I’m thinking: “Yes, brilliant.” As I exit the corner the car starts to drift a bit and I hit the grass bank, but I think I’ve still got it. Then the car sits down as it comes off the bank and takes a sharp turn across the road and I’m headed straight for the ditch.

‘The car just goes over and over and over, rolling a number of times with me knocked unconscious. I was really lucky, it was a huge crash. At that time I felt invincible: just 18, thinking I’d had a really good season in Formula First and that my skills would get me out of any issue. As soon as my dad recognised I was okay he was not a happy man!’ It did all mean he got to drive his mum’s GTI afterwards, though, his dad clearly hoping the scare had been large enough for his son to learn a vital lesson.

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Gavin admits to not being a huge collector of road cars in the years that followed, getting most of his kicks on the racetrack. A string of quick Vauxhalls – Astra GSis and a Calibra 4x4 Turbo – accompanied his seat with Opel in the International Touring Car Championship, while there have been various Corvettes in his two decades working for General Motors. 

‘I’ve been lucky that through GM I got a C7 Z06, which I had for three years. That was wild on the roads of the UK – almost like a bull you were riding down the road. And I could see the relationship between the race car and the road car. The link between the programmes just gets closer and closer.’

While he raced in Formula 3000 and almost got a seat in an F1 car, it’s his endurance career and its intrinsic link to Corvette that he’s best known for. And for us Europeans, it’s Gavin’s Le Mans successes that sit front of mind. ‘The first one I did was with Saleen in 2001 and it rained for 18 hours. I was driving down the Mulsanne Straight in the S7‑R with water pouring through the hinges in the roof – into my lap and all over the electrical boxes. Somehow the car kept going. We had a squeegee stick so I could wipe the windscreen on the inside, all while trying to drive. It was nuts.

‘My first year with Corvette was in 2002 and I was just bitten by the enthusiasm and passion of the team. It was such a raw machine to drive back then. In the 20 years since, the machinery has really evolved; that C5‑R was just monstrous. It had an H-pattern gearbox, huge flames out of the exhaust and the overrun was mad. I had to come up with a system to protect my ears. We had no windows either, just nets. We had this 7-litre motor up front and no air conditioning system. It was the only way we could keep ourselves cool. Then we had to work on putting windows in it to improve the aero in the years that followed.’ He still got his debut class win in that first year in a Corvette, it’s worth adding.

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‘The golden era that always sticks in my mind involves the years racing against Prodrive,’ Gavin continues. ‘They came with the Ferrari and I was on the podium with Colin McRae in 2004. In 2005 they had the Aston Martin DBR9 and that was just a weapon; so hard to race against. It really had us scratching our heads, but the racing was immense and there was so much respect between the two programmes. The Aston boys and Corvette boys would all go out and shake hands before the race and I would have a bet with George Howard-Chappell [then team principal at Aston Martin Racing], a £50 wager on who would win. I was taking money off him in 2005/6 then giving it back in 2007/8. Great memories.’

The circuit itself holds plenty of memories too, of course. ‘Mulsanne Corner was always the part I loved. You’re focused on this one turn at the end of the straight. It’s a tricky braking point, but you’ve also got this amazing amount of grip. If you load the front axle in just the right way then hit the apex kerb you can slingshot out of the corner, rowing up the gears through the trees to Indianapolis. It really epitomises Le Mans for me. It’s all public road at that point.

‘The evening can be super challenging going into Indianapolis with the low sun just before it goes down behind the trees, though. No matter how deep you make the sun strip there’ll be three or four laps where you have the light right in your eyes. You’re doing 185 when you hit the brakes and you’re trying to carry the speed in blind, driving completely off memory. Relying on all your senses and built-up experiences.’ His favourite time of the race? ‘Across the line to take the flag! That’s super special. I’ve done it three times.’

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Which leads us to Gavin’s most indelible memory from Le Mans – his last class win, in 2015, coming through from the back of the field and beating everyone else after problems in practice. But one of his most vivid moments behind the wheel of a Corvette comes from the other side of the Atlantic, a few months later as Gavin diced with Antonio Garcia in another Corvette for class victory at the 2016 Daytona 24 Hours.

‘Mark Reuss was there in our pit box – the president of the company – and he spoke to both of us before we got in the cars. You’re thinking, “The big boss is here, and if we make a mess of this, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.” It was a highly charged moment. I was told we were going to race – hard and fair – and let the best man win. Antonio is such a brilliant guy, a great friend of mine, but I was jumping up and down in the seat willing the car over the line. I think I beat him by a metre. It was a bold move by the team and Mark had the courage to trust us. You want a boss like that!’

Indeed, for all his Le Mans success, Gavin has accrued more trophies in America, and as retirement loomed, Sebring put out a banner thanking him for his successes. ‘A lot of the American racetracks are quite raw,’ he tells me. ‘There’s not much talk of track limits in the US. It’s gravel or grass then it’s wall. The only one that is super sanitised is COTA. Sebring is one of the biggest you can ever possibly have as a driver. The 12 Hours is brutally challenging; bumpy, aggressive, and so hot. It’s a car killer. I always found it one of the greatest races we did with the team and I won there seven times. I must have driven that racetrack more than any other in my career. I could drive the place blindfolded just from the bumps alone.’

Gavin admits he knew it was time to retire when the drivers he’d been mentoring – Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor, the latter a refreshingly merrymaking character on social media – started chipping away at his lap times. His final race was in 2021, but the plan for his driving academy had been bubbling away for several years already.

‘I knew that I couldn’t race forever, that I needed to start thinking about my future. I’m the longest-serving Corvette racing driver – 20 years, 240-odd races, 51 wins – and I’ve been around for four generations of car. I spoke to Mark Reuss about the academy when we were testing at the Nordschleife with the Stingray all in its camo; I thought it’d be a five-minute chat and it turned into 45 minutes of him asking me loads of questions. I was bringing something he connected with. It felt like the right time to do something new and it couldn’t be with anyone else. If I was a stick of rock I’d have Corvette written through me.’

This story was first featured in evo issue 303.

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