They came. They saw. They conquered.
It was a long, hard-fought race with lots of ups and downs and plenty of twists. But in the end, for the third time in the past five years, the Corvette C5-Rs came out on top in dramatic fashion at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Last year, the C5-Rs had their butts figuratively handed to them at Le Mans by the Prodrive Ferraris, in large part because the Goodyear racing tires simply couldn't compete with the endurance of the Michelins on the Ferraris. Corvette Racing did a tremendous amount of homework since then, determined this year to have the best team, the best cars, and the best spot on the podium. Not only did they develop new side windows, front fascia fairings, and a different rear wing angle in order to better handle the high-speed straights of Le Mans, but the Corvette Racing Team also took an unprecedented step in switching to Michelin rubber, as well. Corvette and Goodyear have shared a relationship several decades long, but racing is racing, and the need to be competitive rules all.
Before the race begins, A.C.O....
Before the race begins, A.C.O. representatives give each competing car a thorough tech inspection.
The Corvette Racing team's efforts paid off right from the get-go, when Max Papis, who joined Johnny O'Connell and Ron Fellows in the No. 63 C5-R, set a new record for the GTS class in an initial April test session. The C5-Rs made a substantial and immediate 10-second improvement over their lap times in '03. With a best lap time of 3:49.982, it was the first GTS car to ever break the three-minutes-and-50-seconds mark, while the No. 64 trailed by less than 0.1-seconds on the 8.46-mile circuit at that point, and the fastest of the Ferraris lagged by more than four seconds.
As race time neared, the 64 car, piloted by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Berretta, and Jan Magnussen, began clocking the fastest times, but throughout the practice sessions, the C5-Rs continued to overshadow the Ferraris by several seconds. That is, until the very last qualifying session on Thursday night, June 10, when the No. 66 Ferrari 550 M eked away the GTS pole on qualifying tires. The Ferrari drivers have experienced the super-soft, super-sticky Michelin qualifiers before, but this was the very first time for the C5-R guys, who just didn't know how hard they could push them. "Pole position would have been great to achieve, but we are totally focused on being at the front after 24 hours of racing," said a determined Gavin.
Hail to the conquering heroes!...
Hail to the conquering heroes! Oliver Gavin, Olivier Berretta, and Jan Magnussen take their rightful spot at the top step of the podium after winning the GTS class.
Although the GTS pole position eluded them (by only three-tenths of a second), as soon as the race began the No. 64 C5-R team proved a force to be reckoned with. They took an early lead in the GTS class and hung on, while the No. 63 C5-R piloted by Fellows encountered its first off-course excursion early in his second driving stint at the Arnage Corner. The team lost five laps in the pits as they hurried to replace the front fascia, and fell back to seventh position in GTS.
As darkness settled over Le Sarthe, the 64 Corvette continued to show dominance, as Gavin, Berretta, and Magnussen moved up to fifth position overall, cranking out fast laps and quick pit stops. At the eight-hour mark, as the clock struck midnight, Berretta had stretched their GTS lead to roughly two minutes over the No. 66 Ferrari in second. The 63 car had been making a strong comeback until Fellows had a tire blow at 170 mph heading toward the Indianapolis Curve, sending it spinning into the railing. Then to compound matters, a prototype spun into the C5-R as it sat in the kitty litter. After Fellows limped the wounded 63 back to the pits, the crew managed to replace the front and rear fascias, repair the rear suspension, and replace gearbox oil within half an hour, only to have it brought in for repairs again on lap 97 when O'Connell was hit and spun by a prototype on the Mulsanne Straight.
The Tertre Rouge, at the beginning...
The Tertre Rouge, at the beginning of the Mulsanne straight.
The Corvette crew spends much...
The Corvette crew spends much of the night repairing bodywork damaged in multiple off-course excursions during the first third of the race. After such an eventful eight hours-especially for No. 63, it was daunting to even think about what the next 16 might bring.