Throughout the winter, Corvette Racing fine-tuned its two C6.R GT entries to prepare for the 2011 season. This included revising the driver lineup, engineering a new shifter, and refining the car’s aerodynamics. Winter testing proved that these changes were successful, and the team was optimistic coming into the 59th annual 12 Hours of Sebring.

Richard Westbrook and Tommy Milner replaced Emmanuel Collard and longtime Corvette driver Johnny O’Connell behind the wheel. Westbrook and Milner will also join the other drivers for the endurance events at Le Mans and Road Atlanta. O’Connell has moved to the new World Challenge Cadillac CTS-V racing program, where he joins another longtime Corvette driver, Andy Pilgrim.

The Corvette Corral also underwent some changes this year. In the past the Corral was the responsibility of the National Corvette Museum, but this year GM was more heavily involved. Nevertheless, NCM members were still on hand to help with a variety of tasks such as parking and guest relations. This was fortunate, since the Corral enjoyed record crowds throughout the weekend.

Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter introduced the new black “Jake” edition Grand Sport to the audience, and fielded plenty of questions about both the ’12 Vette and the upcoming C7. Alas, Juechter was not forthcoming with any juicy news about the C6’s replacement.

Over in the Pratt & Miller garage, large crowds gathered and waited in the sun for the drivers’ autograph session. Fans brought all kinds of memorabilia to be signed, including hats, scale models, shirts, posters, and photographs. All six drivers were present, and they did their best to accommodate the many requests for signatures at this popular fan event.

Qualifying on Friday was an all-out battle among Corvette, Ferrari, and BMW. Ferrari won by 0.182-second over the No. 04 Corvette driven by Westbrook, Oliver Gavin, and Jan Magnussen. Ferrari came to the event with four new 458 Italias, but last year’s 430 model captured the GT pole with a time of 2:01.561. The No. 04 Corvette was a tick behind with a 2:01.743, and the No. 03 C6.R qualified ninth in GT at 2:02.633. This close grouping of times shows just how tough the competition is in the GT class.

Race day was clear and hot, and record crowds filled the grid to get a close-up glimpse of the 56 race cars, three of which were Corvettes. In addition to the two Corvette Racing entries, Larbre Competition from France brought C6.R chassis 001, which it had previously purchased from Pratt & Miller. The team will campaign the car in Europe during the 2011 season, including the Le Mans enduro. Larbre has been very successful across the Atlantic, and the team’s impressive performance seems likely to continue with its latest vehicle acquisition.

When the green flag fell at 10:30 a.m., Gavin was stuck to the rear bumper of the pole-winning Ferrari 430. At the end of the first lap, he had passed the Italian car and was putting a gap between himself and the rest of the GT field. As the tires heated up, the gap closed and the lead began changing hands with each lap. It was pretty obvious that the No. 04 Corvette was able to run with any of the GT competition. No. 03 stayed in the background in the early part of the race, with driver Olivier Beretta letting his teammate Gavin set the pace in the other Corvette Racing entry. Thirty-eight minutes into the first hour, the No. 50 Larbre Corvette pitted and was pushed behind the wall to fix a shifter problem. The car continued after losing several laps. The first Corvette Racing pit stops took place at 12:18 p.m., one hour and 48 minutes after the start. Magnussen replaced Gavin in No. 04, while Milner replaced Beretta in No. 03.

Shortly after their pit stops, Magnussen had an incident as he entered Turn 17 beside Patrick Long in the Flying Lizard Porsche. Long hit a bump and slid into the right side of the Danish driver. Both cars spun, and the Corvette stopped in the middle of the corner. Unfortunately, Johannes van Overbeek in the No. 001 Ferrari 458 Italia was unable to avoid him and clipped the right rear of the Corvette. The Ferrari went into the air, came back down with heavy damage, and was out of the race. Magnussen limped into the pits to get the Corvette’s right rear suspension repaired and body damage taped up. Two laps were lost during this process. Making matters worse, the pits were closed during the repair and No. 04 lost another lap due to a pit-stop penalty. After two hours and 43 minutes, the No. 50 Larbre Corvette was withdrawn with a wounded engine after completing 37 laps.

It was now up to the No. 03 Corvette to capture the class win. At the 10-hour mark, the C6.R took the GT lead during a pit-stop exchange with the two leading BMWs. The GT lead kept switching among the three cars until the checkered flag fell. The No. 03 Corvette finished Third overall in GT, 49.294 seconds behind the winner and on the same lap. No. 04 was Fourth, one lap behind the winning BMW. Corvette Racing is off to a good start, and it looks like the team is a legitimate 2011 championship contender.

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