Every new beginning presents new challenges. The team at Corvette Racing is no stranger to overcoming challenges, as it has done just that since its return to Grand Touring Racing in 1999. Back then, the starting grid was dominated by Porsche and that pesky team Oreca Viper GTS-R. Today, the newly formed TUDOR United SportsCar Challenge presents what may be its most difficult challenge to date. The familiar adversaries of Porsche and Dodge – make that SRT – are still in the thick of battle, but so are Ferrari, BMW, and Aston Martin. Corvette Racing can no longer cruise to an uncontested victory. To make this field even more difficult this season, Chevrolet went out and built a new Corvette. This means a new car. A new engine. A new chassis. Everything that led Corvette Racing to both class and manufacturers’ championships in 2012 and 2013 is out the window. This is all new.
The first race of the season isn't Sebring as seen in years past, it's Daytona. And it's 24-hours straight. Take a moment to understand what it means to race for 24-hours straight. That's twice around the clock and roughly 7,000,000 engine revolutions. This is considered too much fatigue for two drivers and teams use three just to complete the race! However, the car doesn't get to take a nap, nor do the engine and gearbox. In Florida, this also means dramatic temperature and weather shifts. At its coldest, weather was recorded in the low of 40's and its highest in the low-70s. The team has to monitor tire temps, cooling system, gearbox, and engine performance to maintain peak performance alongside some of the best racing teams in North America. Needless to say, the challenges the race team must overcome are mechanical, mental, physical, and emotional. To make matters worse, this was the first time we've seen a factory-supported GT Corvette at Daytona since the C5.R days - they happened to win in their last appearance. While still familiar with the track, Daytona is somewhat new territory.
The new car, as you can see, is pretty much the baddest looking vehicle ever created by humans – it even sounds the part. Under the hood, that symphony of destruction is conducted by the all-new LT5.5 developed in-house and built alongside its partner in crime for many successful years of Chevrolet Racing, Pratt & Miller. While the 5.5L engine is considerably smaller than its road-going variant, it meets the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and LeMans regulations for competition. Don't let the small displacement fool you, it's no slouch. The naturally aspirated aluminum V-8 benefits from the technology of direct injection, which allows for a more efficient burn and better fuel economy – a figure that's extremely important in an endurance race. Generating an estimated 488hp, the dry-sump mill can propel the new chassis to faster lap times than the outgoing C6.R and, most importantly, right in the mix with the other GTLM cars in its class. There's no doubt that the C7.R will start to take the class by storm as Corvette Racing begins to learn its personality.
The No. 4 Vette piloted by Oliver Gavin qualified 4th in class. Thanks to an electrical issue, Jan Magnussen was unable to qualify the No. 3 car placing them at the back of the pack in 11th. Tommy Milner/Robin Liddell and Antonio Garcia/Ryan Briscoe split time on the No. 4 and No. 3, respectively. In spite of starting in 11th place, the No.3 car battled its way through the field to hold the class lead by the 6.5-hour mark, which it held until an overheating issue permanently sidelined the Chevy for the remainder of the weekend. Discouraged, but not out, the No. 4 car held strong and seemed poised for a class victory. Then, with about three hours left on the massive Rolex watch, Tommy Milner came over the radio to report a catastrophic rise in gearbox temperature. With no way to complete the race using the transmission, he was forced to bring the car into the paddock to have its gearbox replaced – it was diagnosed as a bearing failure. This ate up about 30-minutes and put the Vette far out of pace to podium. Unfortunately, that was all she wrote and a full-course caution ate up precious time the Vette needed to cut through the field. It arrived back on track in 5th place where it would remain.
While a win at Daytona would have highlighted a great start to the new chassis, the drivers and team took a lot of positives out of their efforts and look forward to the 12-hour battle at Sebring in late March. That's a little over a month's time to solve the cooling issue and bearing failure to make sure it never happens again. For the other drivers, seeing the C7.R fast approaching in the rearview was downright scary in the infield road course section. The car could slice through all the GT competition with its excellent balance and braking performance – even pushing some prototype cars to the outside despite having considerably less downforce [in the GTLM class]. There is a lot of promise in this car. After a few bugs are shaken out, Corvette will return to its winning ways. We'll see you at Sebring in March!