To the unmitigated delight of more than a hundred-thousand spectators and many millions of television viewers, Chevrolet's Millennium Yellow Corvette C5-R race cars earned top GTS class honors in famed 24 Hours of Le Mans race, run on June 15th and 16th. It was the second one-two finish in as many years for the factory racing squad, a feat that comes as no surprise to those familiar with the operation. Thanks to a program of continual development in all areas, every aspect of the Corvette Racing curriculum continues to improve, a fact amply demonstrated by the team's victory at Le Mans and everywhere else it has competed thus far this year.
Because of the program's maturity and string of successes stretching back to the Labor Day 2000 victory in Texas, the Corvettes traveled to France as clear favorites to win their class. But as is always true in the racing game-nothing was guaranteed. In order to win Le Mans the C5-Rs had to overcome one of the strongest GTS fields seen there in many years. Leading the opposition was a phenomenally fast Ferrari 550 Maranello brought to the fray by England's Prodrive. The beautiful red Ferrari out qualified the Corvettes and the rest of the GTS field, and managed to lead the class for most of the first half of the race, relinquishing the lead to C5-R No. 63 only sporadically. Slightly past the halfway mark however, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Ferrari suffered a disastrous oil fire that destroyed the car's interior, electrical systems, and most of the rest of the car.
Though they were not as fast as the Ferrari, owing in some measure to the weight and air restrictor penalties they carried for having failed to meet the ACO's liberal rules for production-based GTS cars, nobody was foolish enough to discount the three Saleen S7-R entries. Even with their penalties, the potent Saleens can still run at-or-near the front of the pack, but, as has been their fate, they were handicapped by reliability problems in concert with inconsistent driving talent and some bouts of bad luck. The best-placed Saleen, the Konrad Motorsports No. 66 entry, qualified 6th and finished 7th with 266 laps completed.
Surprisingly to some, but not to Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan who predicted it, the Corvettes' greatest challenge came from their old nemesis, the Chrysler Viper GTS-Rs. Labre Competition's No. 50 and Carsport Holland's No. 53 Vipers split the C5-Rs in qualifying while the Equipe de France GTS-R was close behind the two Corvettes right up to the end, finishing third in class. Interestingly, Oreca, the same team that regularly beat up on the Corvettes in 1999-2000 with their red factory-backed GTS-Rs, ran this third placed Viper.
In a complete reversal of the situation, the C5-Rs are now both more reliable and faster than the Vipers, and are so absent serious problems that Chrysler's (the Vipers are not Dodge products in Europe) GTS-Rs, even those run by capable teams like Oreca, aren't going to win. As the Le Mans' result indicates, the Corvettes did indeed run without any serious problems. The only issues the winning No. 63 car, piloted by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, and Oliver Gavin, had to contend with were a couple of flat tires. The other Corvette, driven by regulars Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, and Franck Freon, didn't suffer cut tires. but did lose some time when a stray wheel nut put a small hole in their oil pan. The car had to remain idle while the two-part super epoxy used to plug the hole dried.
The Corvette's second consecutive one-two finish at Le Mans was well earned and is one more among many honors the marque is enjoying as it enters its 50th anniversary year. Hopefully, the victory streak will continue and Corvette Racing will again win the American Le Mans Series team and manufacturer's titles at year's end, bringing still greater glory to America's sports car.