If GM's quest for success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans could be judged with one word, it'd be progress. Every race since the car's inception, the car gets a little quicker, the team becomes a little more efficient, and the drivers become that much more honed- in on driving this exotic creation. The 2000 Sebring 12-hour race was the only exception, and it aided in the learning curve.
At the 68th running of the 24-hour race, the Corvettes came in second to the Vipers again. No, the finish wasn't as close as at the 24 Hours of Daytona, but that event in Florida is a cakewalk compared to the grueling classic at the eight-mile plus Cirquit de le Sarthe. Why? The C5-R's greatest attribute is handling, and much less of that goes on at Le Mans, with so many long straights. The Mulsanne straight at Le Mans is longer than one entire 3.56-mile lap at Daytona! Simply put, the C5-R is still no match in raw power for the more developed Viper GTS-R.
That's not to say that the Corvettes didn't run well. After all, they split the ORECA Viper squad in qualifying. One of the big red machines did get the pole, but Canadian Ron Fellows and transplanted Englishman Andy Pilgrim snatched second and third place on the GTS grid away from the Vipers. If that's the case, how can we say that the C5-R is no match?
Tires play a giant role. It's no secret that Michelin has dominated what many call the world's greatest race (aptly named, since Le Mans gets more international participation than even the Indy 500). They've won for many years in a row, and it looks as if Goodyear's massive step back from motor racing has nipped them in the technology department. Judging from lap times after longer runs and the ability to do double stints on tires, it was quite obvious that, on equal tires, the Corvettes could have given the Vipers an equal race. With Goodyear's outstanding relationship as an original equipment supplier to Corvette, don't look for the team to switch to Michelin any time soon, though Pirelli's agreement with the Cadillac squad must be looking mighty appealing to the Pratt & Miller-run C5-R team right about now.
Small mechanical failures are what took the Corvettes out of serious contention in 2000, and fixing those issues, like a starter motor episode that cost the team a lengthy delay in the pits, come from experience and making progress with the cars. Those who took advantage of Speedvision's 24-hour coverage of the race saw the Prototype-winning Audi squad change the entire back half of the car in less than five minutes, solving the gearbox issues that have plagued all Le Mans teams with long pit stops in the past. While the GTS cars like C5-R don't have such drastic driveline issues, that infamous tranny swap will have teams re-inventing themselves for the 2001 event-and don't think that Pratt & Miller aren't thinking the same thoughts.
The C5-Rs, which switched a few races back from the previous 365ci powerplant to a 427ci mill (allowed due to rule changes), made a giant step forward in competitiveness at Le Mans, and that showed with the Vette's ability to at least stay with the Viper down the straights. That's been the Viper's strategy all along, to use a long sixth gear and the V-10's incredible torque to maintain Prototype-like top speed, all while getting decent mileage. Changing gear splits and engine sizes did the trick for the C5-Rs, so don't look for that to change much in next year's effort.
Speaking of next year, look for the factory Chrysler teams to drop the works Viper out of next year's entry list, giving the General Motors squad a big advantage. While the Viper team takes a year off to ready an all-new car for a 2002 debut, the C5-R could stomp. After all, they'll have worked out the little bugs and might have better tires for 2001. But, while we all want to see a Corvette win, no one wants to gain that victory by default, and they won't, since it's likely that the steady Viper privateer squads might get a few more development bits-and they'll be on the Michelins!
With all said and done, we should see one or both C5-Rs on a few of the final stops on the American Le Mans tour, though they disappointed the growing crowd by not showing up at the Sears Point round. The goal, we're told, is to take home a winning trophy in 2000. With shorter races on tighter tracks, it could happen. s for Le Mans 2000, the team will gladly take the experience and second place cup.