New Cars, New Champions and New Competition Highlight Corvette Racing's Fifth Championship Season
DETROIT - Corvette Racing dominated the American Le Mans Series for the fifth straight year in 2005, but it wasn't easy. The introduction of the new Corvette C6.R race cars, the emergence of powerful new rivals, and the impact of new rules shaped the season for Chevrolet's two-car factory team.
The yellow Corvettes raced to 10 victories in 11 starts, including the team's fourth win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Chevrolet won the ALMS GT1 manufacturers championship for the fifth consecutive year, and Corvette Racing swept the drivers, team and pit crew championships. When the checkered flag fell on the victorious Corvette C6.R of newly crowned GT1 champions Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta at the ALMS season finale in Monterey, Calif., it marked Corvette Racing's 45th win in international endurance racing and the team's 31st 1-2 finish.
A Year to Remember
"I would say it is my best season as a professional race car driver," said Gavin as he reflected on the previous eight months.
Gavin and Beretta had a slow start in their run for the title as victory eluded them in the first three events, but they gained momentum as the season continued. They first stood in the winner's circle in June, when they shared the limelight with Jan Magnussen in Le Mans. When the ALMS resumed in North America, Gavin and Beretta were on a roll. By the end of the season, they won seven times, captured five poles, and recorded the fastest lap in eight races.
"Olivier and I had been threatening to get a run of wins together last year, but things just hadn't gelled," Gavin recalled. "All of a sudden things just started falling into place for us and it looked like it was going to be our year. We got some breaks, and luck has an awful lot to do with winning any championship. Yes, the car was fast and the engineering staff, Doug Louth, and Joe Kiefer have done a brilliant job. Winning the championship and the final race at Laguna Seca was a very, very satisfying end to the year."
Gavin and Beretta's chief competition came from within Corvette Racing as defending champions Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell scored three wins in 2005, captured two poles, and finished as runners-up in the title chase.
"I think we have a lot to be proud of on Corvette Racing," said O'Connell. "After a season like this one, Ron and I will train hard and come back hungry."
So close was the competition between the two Corvettes that the team scored nine 1-2 finishes. Five times the twin Corvettes finished on the same lap.
"You're splitting hairs when you look at the difference between the two cars," said Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. "It comes down to a pit stop or traffic in a single corner. The amazing thing is that those cars run nose-to-tail in race after race."
Corvette C6.R: The Next Generation
New Velocity Yellow paint wasn't the only trait that distinguished the Corvette C6.Rs from their championship-winning C5-R predecessors. In fact, the C6.R was a different animal under its carbon fiber skin.
"There is no question that we had a steep development curve with C6.R," said Fehan. "We developed this car for a year before it appeared in public, so it had many miles of testing before its first race at Sebring. You only have to look at the differences between the C5-R and the C6.R - a 1-inch shorter wheelbase and 5-inch shorter body - to appreciate how much work had to be done. You can't just reskin an old car and expect it to win."
The changes in the sixth-generation Corvette's exterior were striking: a single, large grille opening for the engine air intake, radiator, and brake cooling; flush headlights for better aerodynamics; and a smaller, sleeker shape that reduced drag. But there were invisible changes as well.
"Both the chassis and the aerodynamic package changed considerably," explained Steve Wesoloski, GM Racing road racing group manager. "The new regulations required more extensive use of the production car's chassis structure, retaining items such as the central drivetrain tunnel, the windshield frame and the rear bumper. These requirements affected the C6.R's weight distribution, and we had to understand how that change influenced its on-track performance. We also introduced new low-friction suspension attachments that made the car quicker to react, and that required the engineering team to make corresponding changes in the setup throughout the season.
"When you introduce a car with shorter front and rear overhangs, you have to understand what that means for the aerodynamics," Wesoloski continued. "We did a lot of CFD (computational fluid dynamics) analysis before the start of the season, but until the car is actually running on the race track, you can't accurately determine the effects of changes in ride height on the aero balance of the car. There were adjustments made throughout the season as we learned more about the characteristics of the C6.R in actual race conditions."
There were also new horses under the hood as well. The 2005 season saw the introduction of the LS7.R racing engine, a further refinement of the GM small-block V-8 that has been the world's most successful production-based racing engine over a span of 50 years. Lighter and more powerful than previous Corvette powerplants, the LS7.R shares technology with the production 505 hp LS7 the powers the 2006 Corvette Z06 supercar.
"While the small-block V-8's fundamentals and configuration remained unchanged, the LS7.R's internal components were designed to reduce horsepower losses due to internal friction and to reduce rotating mass," Wesoloski revealed. "We took a considerable amount of weight out of the engine, helping the balance of the car while also improving performance. Comparing the lap times at Road Atlanta from the race in April to Petit Le Mans in October, much of the improvement in lap times was the result of six months of engine development."
Corvette Racing Statistics
The following is a statistical summary of Corvette Racing's championship season in 11 events (10 ALMS races and the 24 Hours of Le Mans): Victories: 10 (three by No. 3, seven by No. 4) 1-2 Finishes: 9 Fastest Qualifiers: 7 (two by No. 3, five by No. 4) Fastest Race Laps: 8 (five by Gavin, three by Beretta) Total laps: 4,014 (2001 by No. 3, 2013 by No. 4) Total miles: 14,654 (7315 by No. 3, 7339 by No. 4)
Bumps in the Road
There were some rough patches in Corvette Racing's road to the championship. Running first and second in the season-opening Sebring 12-hour race, both cars sustained heavy damage in accidents at the 8-hour mark. In Portland, Beretta was hit by a spinning prototype; in Lime Rock, Fellows was forced into a tire barrier by an impatient LMP1 driver. Yet in every instance, the cars were repaired and the drivers finished the race on the podium.
"As a team, we were not at all happy about our Sebring result," Fehan recalled. "We had worked for a year on the C6.R to ensure that we would be able to go out and win. We don't like finishing second and third. I didn't have to say anything when we got back to the race shop because you knew what was on everybody's mind. We were determined to make it clear we were not ready to relinquish the throne."
Gavin agreed: "There was a great deal of resolve and dedication by the team that we were going to turn this around and not get affected by one bad result," said the Briton. "We actually managed to come away from Sebring with a reasonable outcome, finishing second and third. Considering what happened to the cars, that was really a marvelous performance."
Louis Chevrolet, race car driver and co-founder of the car company that bears his name, had a motto: "Never give up." Corvette Racing lives by that credo.
"The crashes we had at Sebring and Lime Rock would have destroyed other cars, but our guys drove them back to the pits and said, 'Come on, let's go!'" Fehan remembered. "The Corvettes ran some of the fastest laps of the race after they were repaired in the pit lane. That's the result of great design, fabrication and the ability of the crew. The Corvettes have earned their reputation as being virtually indestructible."
Winning in the Marketplace
Corvette Racing's accomplishments extend beyond the race track. The success of Chevy's works team reflects the technical and human resources of General Motors, the world's largest automaker. The racing program is an integral part of GM's strategy to use motorsports to develop technology, people and processes that benefit customers.
"Corvette is a performance icon that competes successfully against international competition on the track and in the marketplace," said Corvette marketing manager Karen Rafferty. "Corvette is synonymous with passion, and the brand is enthusiastically supported by owners, race fans and Chevrolet dealers."
That support was evident as thousands of Corvette owners participated in Corvette Corrals at ALMS events and a contingent of Corvette owners cheered the team to victory at Le Mans. The team was spotlighted in a one-hour "Rides" documentary on The Learning Channel and featured in dozens of publications and on web sites around the world. O'Connell and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon put the new race-inspired Corvette Z06 supercar through its paces for a special on SPEED.
"Activities such as the Corvette Corrals are an opportunity for Corvette owners to celebrate their enthusiasm for the marque and for us to thank them for their support," said Rafferty. "Customers were able to get close to the drivers, and that doesn't happen in many racing series."
Corvette Racing's championship-winning C6.Rs will be replaced by two new cars for the 2006 campaign that begins at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 18. The team's to-do list for next season includes continued refinement of the underbody aerodynamics and engine specifications as permitted by the series regulations.
"Just when I think the Corvette team has done all that can be done, they surprise me," said GM Racing director Mark Kent. "I just can't wait to see what they do next, and I'm glad that our racing efforts will be part of making the next generation Corvette even better."