Corvette’s recent win at the 61st running of the 12 Hours of Sebring was one that still has Corvette fans buzzing. The team’s performance in the pits and on the track reflects the core values of this Corvette Racing team. The team knew they would have their hands full in the season-opening American Le Man Series race (ALMS). The new Viper and BMW Z4 were making its debut at this classic race. In addition, the Risi Competition team was returning to ALMS after a one-year absence and were poised to be a big threat to Corvette. Twelve cars were entered in the GT category at Sebring and the following manufacturers were represented: Corvette, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Viper, BMW, and Porsche. The GT qualifying battle boiled down to three cars: the #4 Corvette driven by Oliver Gavin, Richard Westbrook, and Tommy Milner; the #62 Ferrari 458 driven by Gianmaria Bruni, Olivier Beretta, and Matteo Malucelli; and the #97 Aston Martin driven by Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke, and Bruno Senna. All three cars qualified below 1:59 with Gianmaria Bruni setting the fastest time at 1:58.815. Oliver Gavin was a tick behind at 1:58.934. Darren Turner turned a 1:58.990 to take the third qualifying position. The #3 Corvette driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, and Jordan Taylor was fifth with a time of 1:59.348. A total of forty-two entries qualified for the last Sebring race sanctioned by ALMS. In September of 2012 a merger between Grand Am and ALMS was announced at Road Atlanta. The new series name was unveiled at a Sebring press conference. It is named the United Sportscar Racing Series and the first race will be the 2014 24 Hours of Daytona.
In many ways the two Sebring Corvettes were only changed in subtle ways. Development dollars are being transferred to the new C7R that will appear at the Daytona 24 hour race. However, one interesting safety feature that was added to the rear of the cars is a radar detection system. ALMS combines multiple classes of racing cars from blinding fast, like the Audi prototype, to the very slow Porsche GT3 cup cars. The Corvettes are slower than the prototypes classed above them, and faster than the GT3 Porsches below them. The overtaking speeds of a top prototype approaching a Corvette are enormous. The radar detects a car approaching around 300 to 400 feet behind the car. It provides an audible warning and video inside the Corvette cockpit. It is an innovative system that seemed to work well during the race.
Race day weather was dry, cool, clear, and perfect for racing. A large crowd was on hand and filled the starting grid before the race. The Corvette Grand Sport pace car led the field on one warm-up lap and the green flag fell at 10:45. Gavin immediately pushed his #4 Corvette into the lead and began pulling away from the GT field. Twelve minutes into the race, Antonio Garcia turned this car’s fastest lap in the race at a 2:00.525. Unfortunately Antonio hit the #05 Prototype Challenge entry and was assessed a 60-second penalty for unavoidable contact. The #3 problems were not finished, forty-six minutes into the race the Corvette went behind the wall for transmission repairs. The stop lasted for twenty-five minutes. Garcia immediately came back in to the pits with the car stuck in gear. This was resolved and he returned to the race well down in the order. This Corvette continued this pattern of issues until it was finally retired from the race at 7:41 with a broken gearbox.
Meanwhile the #4 Corvette was at the top of the class and stretching its lead. Without warning, Westbrook reported that the dash stopped working. Richard dove into the pits for repairs and the crew was able to change the faulty unit in less than one minute. Gavin took over and continued, but had to return to the pits because Westbrook was speeding when he entered to fix the faulty dash. With no dash or pit limiter, Richard was unable to determine his speed and was hit with the penalty. This dropped them from 10th overall and 1st in GT to 23rd overall and 9th in GT! In addition, they were almost two laps behind the GT leader. Things were not looking good for the vaunted Corvette team. However, this is where the team’s tenacity showed its hand. Both the crew and the drivers knew they had a fast racecar. They felt that they could still get a podium with quick stops and pushing the Corvette to its limits while it was on the track. It started to work, by 4:31 with the help of yellow flags and quick stops, the Corvette was up to 16th overall and 6th in GT. Milner was in the car and pitted to turn the #4 over to Westbrook. By 5:40 (6 hrs and 55 minutes) Westbrook burst into the GT lead with 192 laps in the books. Suddenly, Westbrook was called into the pits for a 60-second penalty for unavoidable contact. Again the charge was on to catch the leading Ferrari. At 7:50 Milner was 38 seconds behind and by 10 p.m. it was a gap of 9.537 seconds. Finally at 10:30, after the Ferrari went off course trying to push too hard, Milner took the lead and the checkered flag.
An amazing celebration took place in victory circle that included the drivers, crew, and key Chevrolet executives. Each driver, received a beautiful Rolex watch to commemorate their class victory. This was Corvette Racing’s first Sebring class victory since 2009. It was a perfect way to celebrate Corvette's 60th Anniversary and pay tribute to their first Sebring class victory in 1956. Corvette fans are very fortunate to have a team with this never-quit, tenacious spirit. We know they will apply this energy for the remainder of the last ALMS season and to the new C7R.
CORRAL YOUR ENTHUSIASIM: THE C7 PAYS A SURPRISE VISIT TO SEBRING’S CORVETTE CORRAL
Each year the Sebring Corvette Corral continues to grow in popularity with Corvette owners and fans. The corral is the perfect place to park your Corvette in a protected area during Sebring’s race weekend. It is also a great place to meet passionate Corvette owners and key executives involved with building and marketing the Corvette. The four-day advance ticket price to gain access was $275 this year. This included admission tickets for two people, parking, corral access, and lunch on Saturday. The corral is hosted and staffed by Chevrolet Communications. They provided excellent materials and posters to hand out to people who were attending. A large tent with tables and chairs was a great place to get out of the Florida sun. Closed circuit televisions provided live race coverage and plenty of snacks and cold drinks were available all day. Two large grandstands located on the track's bumpy Turn 17 was a great place to get a close view of the factory Corvettes in action.
The big excitement this year was the unveiling of the new C7 Corvette Stingray on Friday. This is the same car that was displayed at the Detroit and Amelia Island auto shows. Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter and Harlan Charles, Corvette Product Marketing Manager, were present to answer questions about the new Stingray. The reaction from owners was very positive and the most frequent question was: “how much will it cost?” Unfortunately, pricing had not been finalized at that time, but thankfully it turned out to be not too far off from the C6 pricing.
Jim Campbell, US Vice-President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, attended and enjoyed interacting with Corvette owners. Retired Bowling Green Plant Manager Wil Cooksey and his wife Liz were present and enjoyed meeting with their many Corvette friends. Wil and his team really brought quality into the Corvette assembly process that set the benchmark for building today’s Corvettes. Dave Tatman, the current Bowling Green Plant manager, gave an update on how they are progressing with changing over the assembly line to start C7 production. Dave reports they are on schedule and production will begin early fall.
Corvette Racing’s Doug Fehan gave an update on the 2013 season and his thoughts on the 2014 merger with ALMS and Grand Am. Doug was very positive about the change, and the Corvette Racing crew has begun work on the new C7R. Testing will begin after the team returns from this year's Le Mans race. An auction was held to support the ALMS ministries, and owners kindly responded to this worthwhile service with their donations. At 4 p.m. on Friday all six Corvette drivers came to the corral to sign posters and memorabilia that fans brought to the event. The drivers were very accessible and seemed to enjoy the interaction with their fans.
The parking lot was full of every generation of Corvette from C1 to C6 on Saturday. It was a great opportunity for a Corvette fan to peek under hoods and talk with owners about their rides. It is also fun to look at how many owners have added their personal touches to their Corvettes. You might get some ideas on what you might want to add to your Corvette. The Sebring race weekend could not have ended on a higher note when the #4 Corvette passed the leading Ferrari in the waning moments of the race to take a well-deserved GT victory. It was a very exciting Corvette moment.