To road-racing aficionados, Le Mans is a mystical place. Its heritagedates back to 1923, when the Automobile Club of the Sarthe held itsfirst race. Each year over 400,000 people pack themselves into thefamous 8.48-mile circuit. What makes Le Mans so fascinating to race fansis its unpredictability. Competitors may face mechanical problems, heat,rain, fog, and cold--all in one 24-hour period. To win or even finish,racers must run flat-out, be trouble-free, and minimize pit visits.
This year, a record heat wave was predicted to hit Circuit de la Sarthe,with ambient temperatures expected to climb into the low 90s. This meanttemperatures inside the cockpits of the front-engined GT-1 cars weregoing to reach at least 165 degrees--hot enough to kill food-bornebacteria. After an exceptionally hot race in Texas in 2000, in whichcockpit temps soared to a blistering 185 degrees, Corvette Racingdeveloped an air-conditioned driver-support system. A smallair-conditioning unit inside the car pumps cool air into the driver'shelmet, mouth, and feet. Taking care of its drivers is one reasonCorvette Racing is so successful.
Another is Doug Fehan, the team's manager and chief strategist. Doug hada plan to win the race; he called it "The 3:55 Rule." If the Corvettescould average 3 minutes and 55 seconds per lap, Fehan reasoned, it wouldreduce stress on the cars and drivers, and keep the rule-makers happy.The rule-makers in question were led by ACO Race Director DanielPoissenot, who told GT-1 competitors they would be required to run 3:55minimum lap times. "If your car consistently runs under that time," saidPoissenot, "it will be penalized with extra weight in 2006." Dougdecided to heed Daniel's warning. Instead of pushing for hot lap times,he looked for lost seconds during pit stops. Doug felt confident thatshort pit stops and a 3:55 pace would bring the Corvettes victory.
His plan began to unfold during qualifying, where the two entered C6.Rsplayed an extended game of cat-and-mouse with a pair of Ford-backed,Prodrive-prepared Aston Martin DBR9s. (For those of you who don't followthe news out of Detroit, Aston Martin is wholly owned by Ford, maker ofthe Taurus and other fine products.) At the end of the day, the Astonshad qualified One-Two in the GT-1 category, with both cars besting the3:49.982-second lap record set last year by the Corvette C5-R. OliverGavin was the fastest C6.R driver, qualifying Third in GT-1 in the No.64 car, while the No. 63 Ron Fellows/Johnny O'Connell/Max Papis entryqualified Fifth in class. Perhaps sensing what was ahead, Aston driverTomas Enge said, "That was just practice. It's the race that counts."Doug Fehan just smiled.
As predicted, race day was clear and hot when the French tricolor fellfor the 4 p.m. start. During the first hour, the No. 64 Corvette keptswapping the GT-1 lead with the Astons. The cars were running 12th,13th, and 14th overall at this point (the No. 63 Corvette was 18th), buta series of stop-and-go penalties for knocking down cornering conespushed the No. 59 Aston Martin down in the order.
During the second hour, the No. 64 C6.R experienced two left-rear tirefailures, bringing the No. 63 C6.R into Second place in GT-1.Lightning-quick pit stops, meanwhile, kept the No. 64 in contention.More important, both Corvettes were still within striking distance ofthe leading No. 58 Aston.
As darkness fell, this intense inter-brand battle continued. The cars'bright lights and the thunder of their engines penetrated the darknessand the quiet of the night. At 6 a.m., the No. 58 Aston and the No. 64Corvette were on the same lap, still swapping the GT-1 lead. The No. 59Aston had made up the laps it lost to the earlier penalties and washounding the No. 63 Corvette. By the 17-hour mark, the three top GT-1competitors were within 4.5 seconds of each other in the blistering90-degree heat.
Suddenly, the leading No. 58 Aston roared into the pits. An off-courseexcursion had broken the front undertray splitter. Had the misstep beenthe result of heat-induced driver fatigue? While the damage was beingrepaired, the No. 64 Corvette took the GT-1 lead. Shortly thereafter,the No. 59 Aston wobbled into the pits with a blown left-rear tire. TheCorvettes were now First and Second in GT-1, and Fehan's strategy seemedto be working. Aston Martin's David Brabham sat in the pits with an icepack on his head and an exhausted look on his face. It was clear thatthe heat in the aluminum coupe was becoming unbearable. Meanwhile, DougFehan was keeping his cool by eating ice cream.
The turning point of the race was sudden and decisive. At the beginningof the 23rd hour, the No. 58 Aston slowed to a crawl, apparently out offuel. Because on-course refueling is not permitted, the car was pushedto the side of the track and retired. Soon afterward, the No. 59 Astonran off the course and damaged its radiator, necessitating yet anotherunplanned pit stop. There was no stopping the Corvettes now.
Jan Magnussen brought the No. 64 C6.R across the finish line in Fifthplace overall and First place in the GT-1 Class. Johnny O'Connellfinished Sixth/Second in the No. 63 car, while the No. 59 Aston limpedacross Ninth/Third, fully sixteen laps--or 136 miles--behind the winningCorvette. In the end, 22 had cars retired, and 27 had finished.
Back in the pits, Doug Fehan got high fives and slaps on the back forhis part in bringing this victory to Corvette. Congratulations toeveryone at Corvette Racing for another outstanding Le Mans victory.Viva le Corvette!
Exclusive Le Mans Web Pics!
Space-Age Technology Helps Keep the Corvette On Top
Space-age technology is a key factor in managing the success of theCorvette racing program. A quick look under the hood of the C6.R revealsa plethora of sensors and electrical plug-in receivers for downloadingtechnical information on how the car is performing and behaving. Some ofthe more interesting advanced technologies employed to help the team andits drivers are in-car video and special "reflective light" sensors thatdetect the attitude of the car.
The rearward view through the back of the C6.R is severely limited, so avideo camera is mounted in the tail of the car to give the driver aclear look at what is behind him. The camera is mounted in the middle ofthe rear fascia, above the word "Motorola" and below the Corvette'strademark crossed-flag insignia (middle). The images from this cameraare shown on a small flat screen mounted inside the cabin of the C6.R,near where you might find a typical rearview mirror (top right). Thesystem gives the driver a good wide-angle look at his pursuers.
A second very interesting innovation is the "side-slip monitor." In thepicture (bottom) you will see a small, round light shining on the groundbelow the rear bodywork on the right side of the car. This is a sensorthat measures the side-slip of the car while on track. The informationfrom this sensor is then reported back to the pits, where engineers candecipher if the car is behaving as expected.
--Gregory P. Johnson
PARADE DES PILOTES
The world's most glamorous pre-race event is also one of its mostunusual
By Walt Thurn * Photography by Author
Each Friday before the 24-hour race, the Automobile Club of the West(The ACO, or "L'Automobile Club De L'Ouest," is the governing body forcar and motorcycle races in France) holds its annual Parade des Pilotes.A total of 48 vintage-car owners offer up their vehicles to transportevery racer who qualified for the next day's race. Over 100,000 peopleattend to get a close look at their favorite drivers, who do their partby handing out beads and signing autographs as they make their waythrough the city of Le Mans. The Corvette was well represented at thisyear's parade, with cars from Corvette Europe, the Corvette Club ofFrance, and the (American) C5/C6 Registry helping to provide a good lookat our favorite sports car.
Corvette celebrities were also well represented. Corvette Chief EngineerDave Hill drove a pre-production yellow export Z06, while veteran racerDick Guldstrand was a Chevrolet guest of honor and also participated inthe parade. It was nice to see Guldstrand--who co-drove an
L-88 Corvette with Don Yenko and Bob Bondurant at the 1967 LeMans--getting this well-deserved recognition.
The parade starts in front of Old Le Mans, with the Cathedral of St.Julian in the background, and weaves its way through a three-mile routein downtown Le Mans. Bands, clowns, celebrities, and drivers (andundoubtedly a few folks who fit more than one category) fill the streetsfor this huge, description-defying event. If you ever make it to the 24Hours of Le Mans, consider this pre-race soiree an indispensable part ofthe experience.