They came. They saw. They conquered.
It was a long, hard-fought race with lots of ups anddowns and plenty of twists. But in the end, for the thirdtime in the past five years, the Corvette C5-Rs came out on topin 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.
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.
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 performance of the No. 64 Corvette speaks for itself," said Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan. "As I've always said, winning this race will require 25 percent great team, 25 percent great car, and 50 percent luck. Right now on the No. 63 team we only have 50 percent, with luck escaping us."
The luck faded momentarily for the No. 64 C5-R when, around 1 a.m., Jan Magnussen was cut off by the then-race-leading No. 88 Audi prototype in the Ford Chicane and was spun into the tire barrier. By the time the crew had repaired the bodywork, that incident cost the No. 64 team their lead and set them in second place six laps behind the No. 66 Prodrive Ferrari of Enge, Kox, and Menu. Vibrations in the 64 car would persist for hours, and the team would ultimately need to replace the nose yet again before dawn. Meanwhile, the No. 63 team, down to only two drivers because Fellows had his chimes rung too badly in his second crash to continue, plugged away at their deficit all night until, as the sun shone brightly Sunday morning, O'Connell and Papis were up to third in GTS, four laps behind the No. 64 in second.
Until late morning, it appeared that this might be the way the race would finish, but then the Fates turned against Ferrari. In the 19th hour of the race, the No. 66 Ferrari had a suspension failure, which cost it crucial time in the pits replacing a stub axle and repairing body damage. This allowed Berretta in the No. 64 Corvette, who'd been shadowing the 66 car's times, to make up the six-lap deficit. In truly dramatic fashion worthy of a Hollywood script, Berretta, now on the same lap as the pitted leader, came into the pits to end hisstint just as Prodrive finished repairs on the No. 66 Ferrari. Magnussen jumped behind the No. 64's wheel, and got the Corvette back on track mere feet ahead of the now-second-place Ferrari!
The race for First Place in GTS was intense for several laps, but problems persisted for the Ferrari and it eventually faded from the pace that left the uncontested class lead to the 64 C5-R, and allowed the No. 63 Corvette to take a strong second spot for the remaining few hours of the race, and ultimately a 1-2 victory at Le Mans, finishing sixth and ninth overall.
The GTS win this year was hard-fought and well-earned over the entire 24-hour period. Ferrari brought out their best and fought quite well, but the Corvettes were better. Gavin, Berretta, and Magnussen were fast from beginning to end. Until this year, the C5-Rs had been unable to wring more than a single stint out of their tires at Le Mans, but this time they were running double--and even a few triple--stints on their Michelins, turning seconds lost in the pits into miles gained on the track. And we tip our hats to Johnny O'Connell and Max Papis, who both put in remarkable performances for 10 hours apiece.
Some four decades ago, just after Ford and a rascally driver/engineer by the name of Carroll Shelby had suffered defeat at Le Mans by the Prancing Horse, Shelby retorted, "Next year, Ferrari's ass is mine." And in the following summer of 1966, as Ford GT-40s finished 1-2-3 at Le Mans, it was. In 2003, the C5-Rs suffered a similar defeat by the Italian sports car icon.
This year, Ferrari's ass belongs to Corvette!