If you’ve ever seen the battered, limping cars that make up the field in the final hour of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, you’ll know that running an endurance race for a full day is no easy task, but it’s what goes into just getting to the track that is really astounding. For the teams running the world’s most famous endurance race, it’s more like the 24 Days of Le Mans. Cars need to be packaged and shipped to Europe weeks in advance, then they are rebuilt, inspected, tested, and readied for the drivers, many of whom are running other races halfway across the globe up until the day before they are expected in the driver’s seat in France. The test day for the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans is June 5. Since the Chevrolet Corvette Racing team has won its class eight times since 2001, we sat down with team manager, Ben Johnson, program manager, Doug Fehan, and driver of the No. 64 Corvette C7.R, Jordan Taylor to learn how the experts get ready to race.
Rookies and Veterans
The Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans is 8.5 miles of mostly public road that is closed off just for the 24 Hours, meaning there aren’t any other big events where drivers or engineers get a chance to learn the track and its oddities. The Corvette team doesn’t have any rookie drivers this year. Taylor, for example, has driven it so many times he can’t keep them all straight, but he says it never gets easy. “I think this will be my fourth or fifth year going back [it’s his fifth] and every year you learn something new. Having won last year was great. It might relieve a little bit of the pressure. But still Le Mans is probably the toughest race that we do all year. It’s the longest track we go to so when you’re trying to figure things out you’re only seeing a corner a couple times a stint whereas in America you’re on a track where you see it over and over and over again and that repetition helps. People say it must be easier going back as a defending winner but you know, it’s definitely not easy.”
One person on the team who is a rookie is team manager Ben Johnson. Despite having worked with Chevrolet Racing for years on the engineering side for Pratt and Miller and being in France numerous times during the homologation process with FIA for the Corvette C7.R, Johnson hasn’t ever been to the big race and he’s looking forward to finally experiencing it. “Talking to people about what to expect, it seems like Le Mans transcends being a race. I’ve been to Daytona, but the feedback is that this blows it out of the water. A lot of the guys, even the most cynical or jaded-seeming racers get excited to go to Le Mans. It doesn’t take much to get them to want to go. It’s the Super Bowl of what we do.”
Spreadsheets, Calendars, and Brand-New Rules
As boring as it sounds to say that races are won and lost in Excel documents, organization is a key element to getting Corvette Racing’s various important folks and machinery to France on time and ready to race. “I’ve done a lot of research on what the team has done historically to be successful and my job is to get all that info into one spot,” says Johnson. “My job is to have the organization cornered. It’s a lot of documentation, a lot of calendars. I’m the guy who everyone else can come to for the answer about where they need to be and when. Let me Google it for you, that’s what I’m there for.”
Getting two cars, two crews, and six drivers to France takes planning. At the time of this writing, the cars have been in France for about a week. They arrived in England in late May and were hauled to Le Mans, France. Fehan and crew met up with the vehicles a few days later to begin prepping the cars for the test day. “The cars have all kinds of shipping materials on them,” explains Fehan. “The protective foam, all that has to be stripped off, the car is all disassembled to check for damage from shipping, then reassembled and they put the final setup on the car. It goes through a preliminary scrutineering process so they have to have proper ride height, proper ballast placement, overall weight. All of that has to be triple-checked and then we go out and run on that afternoon for the practice.”
After practice the cars are checked over again, and then the crew has a short break, although drivers and managers have media and administrative duties. The Sunday of race week (June 12, 2016), everyone is back in Le Mans for final tech inspection, qualifying, and finally, racing on June 18. That’s when the 24 Hours officially starts.
For some of the drivers who split time in other cars or series, the schedule is even more grueling. Jordan Taylor runs the Corvette Daytona Prototype (DP) car in the American IMSA series with his brother, Ricky, and while the GT class gets a break leading up to Le Mans, DP runs in Detroit the day before the test day in France, meaning the Taylor boys have to cross an ocean just to make it to practice. Jordan outlined their schedule for us: “We race Detroit in the Prototype then Saturday night fly straight to Paris, land Sunday morning, straight to Le Mans. Should get there at 11 a.m. and at 1 p.m. be on track at Le Mans, then drive back to Paris that night, fly home Monday morning. Home a day and half and then we go to Kansas for a Konica Minolta event then back to Le Mans for 10 days and then we’re home for a couple of days and then straight to Watkins Glen.” Despite the tight schedule, Jordan and Ricky should arrive in Paris on June 5 pretty pumped. Their No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP took the top podium spot at the Belle Isle race on June 4.
We asked Jordan how the DP cars compared to the GTE Pro class that the C7.R will be running at Le Mans, and he said they are very different animals. “Everyone who goes between is kinda shocked at how different it is,” says Taylor. “In the Prototype it’s very stiff, it’s a very low ride height, a lot of downforce, a little bit more power. You slide around a lot more on the tire. So you can be very aggressive in the car, the harder you push it the more lap time you get out of it. When you drive a GT car it’s almost the opposite. It’s very easy to overdrive. You have to be very smooth. Very precise. You really have to change your mindset going between the two. Having done it now for five years it’s gotten easier but still every time I go back and forth it will take a couple laps to reset. Every year at Le Mans, throughout the race I get more and more comfortable with it. It’s always a challenge, but I’m not complaining!”
For 2016 the C7.R Corvette is new for all the drivers, with a new aero package introduced at Daytona. Taylor’s teammates, Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, will have had a few more races in it than he will, but he says everyone seems happy with the changes. “I’m only in the car for one race a year but from what I’ve seen, it’s definitely been a successful upgrade to the car—what with winning Daytona and Sebring, those are long distance races that bode well for Le Mans. From the little I’ve driven the car and from what I’ve heard from the other guys it just makes the car more comfortable to drive and for a 24 hour race that’s really important.”
Fehan adds that the Corvettes racing at Le Mans will be almost identical to what we saw at Daytona, which incidentally, is a car that’s less high tech in many way than its production version, with steel rotors rather than carbon ceramic and a 5.5L, 492hp, naturally aspirated V8 as opposed to the Z06’s 6.2L supercharged 650hp engine. For the race car, it’s all about endurance and airflow. “It’s about low drag, high mileage, trying to find the balance between getting the car stopped and turned and getting maximum speed out of it on the straightaways,” Fehan tells us. “The biggest change is the engine restrictor size is different at Le Mans than Daytona. Le Mans is a little smaller restrictor. Tenths of a millimeter. Oh, and fuel is now the same. This is the first year. IMSA, over the off-season, we all agreed that it would make a huge amount of sense to be running fuel of the same configuration, so the fuel in the U.S. is now the same as what we’ll be running at Le Mans. What we affectionately refer to as ‘E20.’”
How to Win (Avoid Losing)
When you have many different kinds of cars running in the same class, keeping them all on equal footing is a challenge. We’d heard rumors that some teams try not to win too often early on, for fear of being loaded down with weight or restrictor penalties right before Le Mans, but its clear from Corvette’s season so far that the team has been under no orders to sandbag. Fehan says there’s no such thing as winning too much.
“Le Mans is a unique racetrack in that it’s a lot of acceleration-based configuration. By that I mean, 70 to 75-percent of the time the throttle is to the floor. That doesn’t mean they are operating at top speed, but that they are coming out of a corner and the straightaway is long enough that they can try to accelerate as fast as they can. That calls for a different balance of performance than we have in the U.S. races. Winning in the U.S. is not necessarily based on how fast the car is.”
Of course, just being fast at Le Mans won’t win you any races if you can’t do it all day and all night. If you break or run out of gas with 6 miles of track between you and the pits, you’re gonna have a bad go of it. “You can not afford to make a mistake on your fuel consumption, says Fehan. “You definitely want to squeeze that last lap out, but you need to do it with some degree of certainty. If you run out of fuel at Le Mans, you are out of the race. They don’t let you pick it up, tow it back and refuel it. You are out. Fuel economy is almost as important as overall speed there.”
If there is a problem on track, the driver has to somehow limp the car back to pit lane, even if that means wrenching on it him or herself. Fehan recalls a particularly painful example: “The car has to be able to make it to the pit entry line under its own power. We had one year where we had a car leading, and it came up about 100 yards short. It stopped, it was damaged, we tried everything we could to move it that last hundred yards, and we couldn’t. It was out of the race. If you go off into a gravel trap, they will pull you out of the gravel trap, but you have to make it back under your own power to the pits. If you go off someplace, you can send crew people there, but they can only advise the driver and they can’t bring any additional parts. The driver has a tool kit, a flashlight. They have to stay plugged into the car. They can’t walk back to the pit lane, get a drawing or information, and go back to the car.”
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Under a rule called Force Majeure, the race officials have the ability to grant a team the opportunity to do what’s needed to fulfill their commitment to compete in the race, although this is usually only allowed in situations before the start of the race. For 2016, Chevrolet will have the two race cars and a spare chassis, just in case there’s an incident before the race that damages a car—which happened in 2015. “Had we had a spare chassis last year, we could have requested from the sanctioning body under the Force Majeure rule to be able to build it and been able to compete,” says Fehan. “Protocol suggests that in the past they have granted that permission to others so this year just to be safe we’re bringing that spare chassis. They want as many cars competing in the race as possible so it helps everyone out if they give that special consideration. We hope we don’t need to use it, obviously.”
The trick to winning? Don’t find any ways to lose.
The Blue Elephant in the Room
All year both Chevrolet and Ford have been playing it cool about Ford’s sudden appearance in Chevy’s French sandbox. Chevrolet’s PR folks are sick to death of hearing the question, “So do you want to beat Ford most of all?” How can we not ask it, though? 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first Le Mans win. Corvette is defending class champion. You know Chevrolet wants to play keep-away with the prize. Fehan stuck to the script. “No. It’s not a factor. And I don’t say that being dismissive of the Ford effort, I just say that every time we go over there our intensity dial is turned to 10. It doesn’t matter who the competition is. You don’t win eight out of 16 events at the 24 Hours of Le Mans without knowing what you’re doing. Now, at the close of business, if we should win and there is one additional competitor in the field, one additional manufacturer, I wouldn’t want to say that that victory wouldn’t even be sweeter, but the level of intensity is unchanged. Our objective is to win. We pay absolutely no attention to what the other guy is doing. Zero. We keep our eye on our pitch, and that’s the one we need to knock out the park. It doesn’t matter who threw it.”
Jordan Taylor was a little more enthusiastic about the idea that Corvette racing Ford is different than racing Porsche and Ferrari. “Corvette and Chevrolet have been representing America over there for years and it’s nice to have some friendly competition. I think its good for the sport to have that rivalry, especially on a world stage like that. They’ll have four cars, a lot of bullets in the gun, so to speak. They can split strategies and try different setups on the cars. It’s easier to trial and error things with a big team like that. I think it’s good for us, though. It will definitely be a little bit sweeter if we’re able to win with them in the field.”
One Last Thing
If you’ve been following Corvette Racing, you might recall that Jordan Taylor had a giant mullet in 2014. What was the deal with that? “I had one when I was a child, and at the end of 2013 I posted something about how if I got a certain number of followers I’d grow my mullet again and I didn’t get nearly the number of followers, but then Ryan Hunter-Reay said I was just talking the talk and wouldn’t walk the walk, so obviously I had to commit to doing it and 18 months later I had a pretty serious mullet. By the time it was ridiculously long, I wasn’t just gonna cut it off, so we raised about $15K for charity before I cut it. It was definitely awkward to have for so long. The people at the racetrack obviously knew that it was a joke and laughed about it but you know, living every day life with a mullet is pretty embarrassing.”
The Taylor guys will do just about anything for a good joke, and we highly recommend following Jordan on Instagram at @jordan10taylor for more mullet and Corvette photos and videos. “There are so many drivers that are like, robotic and computerized and people get sick of it. They all sound the same, thank the sponsors the same. I think I can be a good business representative and still have fun.”
Get in the mood for some yellow Vette action with this gallery of Le Mans and Daytona racing shots.