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.