"Corvette Racing Takes Sixth Le Mans Win." The headline is spectacular enough in its own right, but there's much more behind the story than those few words can relate. GM Racing-now Chevrolet Motorsport-established the Corvette Racing team to fulfill a dream it committed to 12 years ago: to take on the greatest sports-car-racing challenge in the world. In 1999, the C5-Rs entered their first 24-hour event at La Sarthe, only to suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the Oreca Vipers. Since then, the Pratt & Miller-led team has ascended to a position of on-track dominance sufficient to frighten off even the most determined class competitors. With eight ALMS GT1 championships already under its belt and an overall race win at the Daytona 24-hour race (2001), there's little the team hasn't accomplished.
Rain and Rule Changes
As we've noted in past issues, this season marks the last appearance for the Corvette Racing program in the GT1 class. With the ACO talking about a combined GT category, and the competition unwilling to challenge the dominant Corvettes, the decision was made to finish out the C6.Rs' spectacular career with a 10th anniversary appearance at the Le Mans race.
Frankly, we're a bit surprised at the level of corporate commitment this decision bespeaks, given the current economic situation at GM. But the Corvette Racing program has always been about "doing it right," and completing a decade of GT1 competition with an exclamation mark in the world's premier endurance race is definitely the right way to do it.
To help ease the financial burden on the competitors, the ACO decided to eliminate the traditional pre-qualification test day and instead require the teams to present themselves for the first time at technical inspection on the Monday before the race. This meant that the first track experience for any of the teams would be Wednesday, for a six-hour practice slated for 6 p.m. to midnight. Thursday would offer a three-hour practice, followed by a single qualifying session from 10 p.m. to midnight.
Further complicating matters was an intermittent rain that pelted scrutineering on Monday and continued to plague the competitors all week. The predictions for the race were for relatively clear skies, with a slight chance of precipitation in the wee hours of Sunday morning. This meant that the teams would have to set the cars up for a qualifying procedure that had little in common with the demands of race day. Fortunately, this all played to the favor of Corvette Racing. With nine years of experience behind it, the team had plenty of data to utilize when deciding how to confront the challenge.
Monday's tech inspection put the cars through the usual gauntlet of procedures but provided little difficulty for the well-prepared Corvette team. The official end of inspection day concluded with a "family portrait" of the entire team, taken in downtown Le Mans under the shadow of a towering medieval cathedral.
Tuesday's preparations did offer a break from the usual routine. The ACO decided five days prior to this year's tech-in to require the teams to place electronic seals on certain parts of each car's engine. The idea was to prevent post-inspection tampering. Officials also decided to limit each team to a total of two engines for the entire week, including the race.
The Corvette team had already sent its race cars to France with the same engines they used for the Sebring and Long Beach races, as well as for a number of test days. The team had planned to practice with these engines on Wednesday, then swap them out before qualifying. The new regs forced the crews to trade out the engines on Tuesday before practice, giving them a choice of two fresh engines for the race. Team engine builder Katech responded with four new block castings, which were fitted with special electronic transducers provided by the ACO. These allowed officials to simply approach each car and wave an electronic wand over the engine to verify that it hadn't been tampered with.
The crews spent all day Wednesday preparing for a rain-soaked evening practice. There was a slight chance of precipitation during the race, so the engineers had an opportunity to evaluate various wet-setup scenarios. The night proved to be a tough one, as it rained for most of the session. This meant the cars were caked in wet residue from tires, exhausts, and the track surface. Of primary importance was that each driver complete three laps between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight in order to be officially certified for the race. The No. 63 team-with pilots Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen, and Antonio Garcia-completed its assigned duties, recording the fastest lap time with Magnussen at the controls. Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, and Marcel Fassler were just a hair slower in No. 64.
Thursday was a busy day, as the engineering squad had developed a new gearbox-ratio setup it felt would make the C6.Rs faster. Crew chief Danny Binks ordered the No. 63 crew to swap in the transaxle for evaluation during that night's practice/qualifying session. The night's cold temperatures and intermittent rain meant constantly changing conditions for the drivers. Magnussen took advantage of the gear change to take the class pole position. Beretta's next-best time in class placed the two Corvette Racing entries side-by-side on the starting grid.
Friday was purely a preparation day, with no on-track activities planned. The only item on the calendar was the traditional Pilotes (drivers) parade, held away from the racing circuit in downtown Le Mans. The Corvette team was extremely busy cleaning up the cars after a pair of off-track excursions in practice. With that task completed, it changed out the engines and installed new gearboxes with the recently reformulated ratios. The day was also an opportunity for Corvette Racing's Mike West to display his electric guitar talents in what has become a Le Mans favorite. The No. 64 car crew chief put on a rocking rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a la Jimi Hendrix, drawing every available spectator into the area in front of the Corvette garages for the show.
Supremacy... and Surprises
Saturday's race began with a 45-minute warm-up at 8:30 a.m., which went off without a hitch for the factory Corvettes. The morning was clear as the competitors lined up on the pit straight for the traditional starting festivities. First, however, there was the traditional prerace hubbub involving air horns, screaming fans, musical instruments, half-naked girls, and race cars-an interesting combination enjoyed in a way only the French can manage. As usual, this all went on for two hours before the scheduled 3 p.m. starting time.
Crew chief Binks had arranged with a private French Corvette team to be out on pre-grid ahead of everyone else. As both teams exited the garage and entered the track, they lined up for a little impromptu race of their own. Eight crew members-four on each car-would push their respective Corvettes to a finish line marked in red tape some 100 yards away. As the start was signaled, the French team sprang out to an early lead, but the factory Corvette crew quickly built up momentum and finished half a car length ahead. This bit of fun was much to the delight of the fans in the grandstands and served to dispel a little of the prerace anxiety.
The race got underway on time, with the prototype Peugeots jumping into the lead. From the start, the two Corvette Racing cars fell into a 1-2 GT1 class lead that would endure through the night. The two ex-factory C6.Rs of the French Luc Alphand team were right behind them, with a privateer Aston DBR9 and a Lamborghini filling out the rest of the GT1 field. The No. 63 and No. 64 cars swapped the lead throughout the first 12 hours, with No. 64 emerging at dawn ahead of its sibling, the beneficiary of excellent driving and a couple of lucky breaks provided by the ACO's full-course-yellow procedure.
The French use two safety cars positioned about half a lap from one other. The field is allowed to pack in behind the cars as they circulate the course, but a competitor's positioning relative to the leaders depends on which safety car he gets behind. If a driver isn't lucky enough to end up behind the one at the front, he's effectively guaranteed to be half a lap down from the lead cars when the race restarts. As Beretta put it while under an early-morning yellow, "Am I behind the good safety car or the bad one?"
The weather held as the race carried on into Sunday. At one point during the previous night, the No. 63 car had put 2:07 between itself and its teammate, principally through the stellar driving of Jan Magnussen. Sunday, however, found the car 19 seconds behind its sister Corvette, and with both C6.Rs circulating the course flawlessly, there seemed little hope that it could regain the lead. This left the No. 63 crew hoping for help in traffic, superior pit-stop performances, and, if the rain returned, savvy tire-compound choice.
What no one at Corvette Racing anticipated after more than 22 hours of flawless racing was a catastrophic gearbox failure. Marcel Fassler, who was piloting the No. 64 car, suddenly radioed that he had lost "motivation." He pleaded with Mike West and the engineers to work out a way to get the car back to the pits for repairs, but it was not to be. The problem arose so quickly, it caught the team completely off guard. These gearboxes are constantly monitored in real time, so changes in operating parameters are usually caught before a problem develops. The readout for No. 64's gearbox looked fine for most of the race, but suddenly transaxle temps rose slightly, then spiked, and bang . . . no gearbox.
Under Le Mans rules, Fassler could be the only one to touch the car while it was on the racing circuit. If he could somehow get the car to the pits, four crew members could then help him push it back to the garage for repair. Normally he could have limped the car in on the starter motor, but whatever malady beset the gearbox had wiped it out as well. So, with further progress impossible, course marshals pushed the car off the racing surface, and it was retired from competition. Under Le Mans rules, if a car doesn't take the checkered flag, it doesn't qualify as having finished. So even though No. 64 actually completed more laps than the No. 66 Aston, it was the British car that would eventually end up on the podium.
No. 63 continued to motor around the Le Mans course, maintaining a dominant lead to finish First in GT1 and 14th overall in the standings. Just before the checkered flag, the team brought the conquering car into the garage to remove the grime that had accumulated on its outer skin over the previous 24 hours. A similar beautification regimen was lavished upon the C5-R prior to the team's first win in 2000, so it was fitting for Corvette Racing to close out a decade of GT1 Le Mans competition in like fashion.
The No. 73 Luc Alphand C6.R took Second Place GT1 honors to the cheers of a very happy French team. In the prototype class, Peugeot finally outraced Audi to notch a 1-2 overall victory and send the partisan crowd into a celebratory frenzy. It seemed that every able-bodied Frenchman and -woman in attendance jumped into pit lane to exult in the victory and watch their home team take its place atop the podium.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of this win for the Corvette contingent. Six Le Mans class victories firmly establish the C5-R/C6.R team as one of the most formidable endurance-racing efforts in motorsports history. The experience gained at La Sarthe, the extraordinary effort expended, and the emotions experienced along the way all make the factory-backed GT1 program an important addition to the Corvette's proud racing legacy.