Corvette Racing Faces Greatest Challenge in 24 Hours of Le Mans
America's Premier Sports Car Team Aims for Sixth GT1 Victory in Classic Endurance Race
LE MANS, France - Five times in the last six years, Corvette Racing has won its class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The competition has been intense and the obstacles formidable - but the challenge has never been greater than in this year's edition of the world's biggest and most prestigious sports car race. To win a sixth GT1 title in the event's 75th anniversary on June 16-17 will require another perfect performance by America's premier production sports car racing team.
"Success in racing is 25 percent great team, 25 percent great car, and 50 percent good luck," observed Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. "The Corvette team has been blessed with all three. When a team wins on a regular basis, it's expected to do it all the time - but that's extremely difficult, especially in a race as demanding as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
"Each year we get a little smarter, but so does the competition," Fehan noted. "The Corvette team has worked very hard and we're very well prepared. We wouldn't come to Le Mans if we didn't think we could win."
With 15 entries in the GT1 class for production-based sports cars, the competition for the Le Mans prize is ferocious. Chevrolet's two-car factory team will face six Aston Martin DBR9s, two Saleen S7Rs, a Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT, and a Ferrari 550 Maranello. But Corvette has strength in numbers as well, with two independently entered Corvette C6.Rs (including last year's Le Mans winner) and a Corvette C5-R carrying the Chevrolet banner. It's one of the biggest Corvette turnouts since a trio of Briggs Cunningham's Corvettes and Lucky Casner's Camoradi USA Corvette competed in the French classic in 1960.
"We go to Le Mans to compete against the world's best, and this year is going to be our most challenging yet," said Johnny O'Connell, who will share the No. 63 Compuware Corvette C6.R with Ron Fellows and Jan Magnussen. "We've got to be mistake-free and just keep running, running, running. The other teams might have speed on us, but about the 18th hour they're going into uncharted territory. We've been there before, and that's our strength. We've got the heart, the experience, and the right people. Corvette Racing just never gives up."
Oliver Gavin agreed: "I think this year, of all the years, is going to be a really tough test," said the Briton who will co-drive the No. 64 Compuware Corvette C6.R with Olivier Beretta and Max Papis. "We face very strong competition from Aston Martin and Saleen, but we know our own strengths: teamwork, strategy, and a strong, reliable and very fast race car. We'll be pushing our rivals and ourselves hard for 24 hours. It's going to be a real classic."
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is contested on the high-speed 8.5-mile Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans, which includes portions of the purpose-built Bugatti race circuit and two-lane country roads. This year's race is the diamond anniversary of the event, which has been contested annually since 1923, except during and immediately following World War II. With nearly 300,000 spectators at the track, more than 2,000 journalists covering the event, and millions watching the worldwide television coverage, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is sports car racing's Olympics, World Series and Super Bowl compressed into one exhausting day and night of racing.
The logistics of racing at Le Mans are daunting. It takes 25 tons of equipment and 30 people to support Corvette Racing's transatlantic odyssey. Every nut, bolt, and spare part must be shipped to France from the team's headquarters in suburban Detroit. An 18-wheel tractor/trailer was shipped to England via ocean freighter in May and driven to the Sarthe circuit. Then just days after the American Le Mans Series race in Salt Lake City, the two Corvette C6.R race cars and 48 crates were airlifted from Chicago to Europe.
"You can't drive to the local hardware store to pick up something you forgot," explained team manager Gary Pratt. "When we race in the ALMS, we bring three transporters filled with parts and equipment, and almost all of that has to be shipped to France. There are two sets of spares for each car, from bodywork to suspensions. We bring eight engines, six transmissions, toolboxes, and 110-volt generators - along with American peanut butter, shower curtains, and other things you can't find in France.
"When Corvette Racing first went to Le Mans in 2000, we were the newcomers and the Vipers were dominant," Pratt recalled. "Now we're the team to beat. In the past it was possible to run a steady pace for 24 hours - but now you have to run at 110 percent all the time. The race has become 24 one-hour sprint races between fuel stops. We haven't always had the fastest car, but we've had the best car overall - the most consistent, the most forgiving, and the most reliable. Whether we win or lose this year, we're going to give it our best."
Like the drivers and mechanics, Corvette Racing's engineering staff has been focused on Le Mans since last year's race. "Engineering preparation for Le Mans is a year-round task, and 90 percent of our vehicle development and simulation is targeted for Le Mans," revealed. Doug Louth, engineering director for Corvette Racing. "We work on the tire specifications, aerodynamic package, chassis setup, and powertrain combination, aiming to put it all together for the month of June in France.
"From an engineering standpoint, one of the challenges of Le Mans is the diversity of the track and conditions we're faced with," Louth noted. "The track is unlike anywhere else in the world with a combination of long high-speed straights, high and low-speed corners, and track surfaces varying between well-worn public streets to new racing asphalt. On top of this, you have the changing conditions from the middle of the night to the heat of the afternoon that can result in a 70-degee swing in track temperature. The range of speeds is significant, from nearly 190 mph to as slow as 50 mph, so the trade-off between aerodynamic drag and downforce is unique. It's a more complex problem than we see at any other race."
Corvette Racing's long-term success at Le Mans has transformed the marque from an all-American performance icon to a global symbol of automotive excellence.
"The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a true test of equipment and true test of human endurance," Fehan noted. "I've always believed that as long as GM is building Corvettes, we ought to be racing them at this level. Corvette fans are unlike any in the world; their enthusiasm and dedication are unsurpassed. They're the reason we're racing."
The 24 Hours of Le Mans will start at 3 p.m. local time (9 a.m. EDT) on Saturday, June 16 and finish at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT) on Sunday, June 17. SPEED will televise 17.5 hours of coverage in North America starting at 8:30 a.m. EDT on June 16.
-credit: cr/gm racing