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May 26, 2019

Jules Gounon – On The Comeback Trail

Jules Gounon – On The Comeback Trail
Photo Credit To GT Masters

It was one of the biggest accidents Hockenheim had seen in years. The ADAC GT Masters finale was brought to a standstill as all eyes focused on the mangled wreck of Jules Gounon’s Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R, which had come to a sudden and jarring halt against the tyre barriers at turn 8. For several agonizing minutes, medics set to work to extract Gounon from the car, before he was taken to hospital in the back of an ambulance. Yet just three weeks later, he was back in a car at VLN10 and is now set to race at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January with Land Motorsport. James Newbold finds out his remarkable story.

“I was speaking with my father and he said ‘in life you have some jokers’, so this was one of the jokers I burned. I’m most of all happy to be here and have nothing on my body, because it could be a lot worse…”

Make no bones about it, Jules Gounon is a very lucky man. The force with which his Corvette crunched into the Hockenheim tyre barriers was enough to move the 4,000 kilo wall behind it several feet backward and knock out the on-board camera.

In another era, the affable Frenchman might not have lived to tell the tale, but the son of former Grand Prix racer Jean-Marc insists that it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for motorsport and told Racing.GT that he has no concerns about getting back in a car.

“The good thing was the impact was so hard that I blacked out – I don’t remember the sound, I don’t remember the impact,” he said.

“I think it was better that I was knocked out because then you don’t remember the impact and you don’t have nightmares about it.

“In fact I just remember the beginning of the action, I remember the spin and then nothing. I woke up in the car, there was smoke everywhere and it was hard to breathe, so the marshals were thinking with the big impact that it was fire. They pulled up the extinguisher, but the problem was the extinguisher was pointing in my eyes – I couldn’t see after that, because it was burning my eyes…”

Sadly for Gounon, the accident couldn’t have come at a much worse time in the context of the ADAC GT Masters title battle. He and former champion team-mate Daniel Keilwitz came into the final weekend with a two point deficit to the Land Motorsport Audi of Christopher Mies and Connor de Phillippi, but that was stretched to 12 points after a difficult race one in appalling weather, as Keilwitz fell from fourth to sixth late on.

With the Corvette starting race two just one place ahead of Mies and de Phillippi, they needed a rather large slice of luck to turn the tables. They duly got it when Mies made a rare error on his in-lap and slid into the gravel at the Sachs Kurve. It was only a momentary lapse in concentration, but was enough to drop the Audi outside the top 10 and swing the pendulum back the way of Callaway Competition.

Having taken over from Keilwitz in fourth, Gounon only had to hold position behind Rolf Iniechen’s Lamborghini to take the title. However, he didn’t know this…

“Before the pit window, Daniel was P4 and Christopher was P7. Daniel couldn’t overtake the Lambo of [Christian] Engelhart, so the plan was to put me in the car earlier and do an undercut, but when the Lambo came out at the end of the pit window I was just behind him,” Gounon explains.

“At this moment in the radio my team didn’t tell me Mies went off, so I was trying everything to pass the Lambo – we knew if we stay P4 and Land is P7 then it is not enough to have the title, but if we were P2 and Land was P7, then we were champions.

“On the radio they just told me that Kevin Estre [leading the race] had a drive-through, so I knew I was P3 and I say ‘okay, I just need to overtake the Lambo and then I can control the race.’”

What Gounon hadn’t factored into the equation was splitter damage on Iniechen’s Lamborghini, which was making the car increasingly unpredictable in high-speed corners. Gounon had attempted a move into the hairpin and was running right behind the Swiss through the flat-out right hand turn 7 kink when Iniechen clipped the kerb and got sideways. With nowhere to go, Gounon was forced into avoiding action and flew backwards across the run-off before hitting the barriers at unabated speed.

“If you see the crash, maybe you are thinking that I am trying to overtake the Lambo, but in fact I was already thinking about the next lap and just trying to follow him,” he said. “The problem is the Lambo lost the rear of the car, you can see it from my on-board camera. I was on full power because this one is easy flat, so then I was surprised, I lost the car and after that, finished!”

After a few angst-filled days in hospital, Gounon was released, but irritated. He admits that it took him some time before he could bring himself to watch the accident back again, but has now come to terms with the experience.

“I just stayed in the hospital for three days and then I could not stay anymore because I am a bit hyperactive like any driver!” he joked. “So I said to the doctor ‘hey, everything is alright, let me out!’

“In the beginning I could not watch the replay because I was really disappointed for the team, but one week after I looked at the race again. You always need to learn from the mistakes – it’s like Mandela said, ‘I never lose, either I win or I learn!’ So I looked at the race and I was a bit angry with myself, but if you know the situation that I did not know Mies was out [of the top 10] and I was pushing to overtake the Lambo to be sure I would win the championship, then that’s life.”

But despite the way it ended, Gounon has a lot to be proud of when he looks back on 2016. A graduate of the French Carrera Cup, Gounon had no previous GT3 experience and only signed the deal to drive the unproven Corvette on the eve of the season. Even with the experienced Keilwitz alongside, little was expected of the Frenchman, but he took to the GT Masters like a duck to water. The pair’s tally of three wins at the Sachsenring, Lausitzring and Red Bull Ring put them behind only the Team75 Bernhard Porsche duo of David Jahn and Kevin Estre – despite only completing two test days all year – and caught the eye of veteran team boss Franz Konrad, who had run Gounon’s father in the FIA GT championship a decade earlier.

Konrad subsequently invited Gounon to race his Lamborghini Hurcan in a parallel Blancpain Endurance campaign, which yielded little by way of results, but helped to accelerate the Frenchman’s learning curve, as he had to learn two cars simultaneously.

“My father was driving for Franz 10 years ago and I met him again at the Daytona Historic last year,” he explained. “We were joking around and then he told me ‘if you have a good result, I will give you your chance.’ So in the second weekend of the year in the Sachsenring I won the race, Franz called me and said ‘come to Monza!’

“It was a bit hard, for example in the summer, I did the 24 Hours of Paul Ricard with Stephane Ortelli in a Porsche Cup car, then the week after was Red Bull Ring in the Corvette, then the week after was the 24 Hours of Spa with the Lambo and then the week after was the Nürburgring with the Corvette again, so it was four weeks and three different cars.

“But when you want to be a professional racing driver or factory driver, you need to adapt yourself very fast to each situation. With Stephane Ortelli, Daniel Keilwitz, Christopher Zochling, everybody gave me a lot of advice and I was like a sponge in my brain just trying to learn as fast as possible.”

The next step on Gounon’s whistle-stop tour of GT racing will come at Daytona, where he will team up with GT Masters rivals Mies and de Phillippi – who pushed for Silver-rated Gounon to be included in the team – and and Porsche Supercup graduate Jeffrey Schmidt. With the exception of California-native de Phillippi, American-style racing will be new for everybody, but having come through the biggest hurdle of his career with a smile on his face, you can bank on Gounon taking it all in his stride.

“Sometimes bad stories create new opportunities,” he said. “I was very happy that Christian Land chose me to do this important race – the test was very good, and I really liked the Audi. Life is good right now!”

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.