Le Mans is not just a race; it's an event, a huge party, a world gathering, a life-and-death struggle, an experience like no other. The track's 14 kilometers and 28 turns have long been the proving ground for every automaker serious about its presence in the motorsports world. Le Mans is also the ultimate opportunity for many a "pilote" to showcase his talent, test his determination, and, occasionally, demonstrate his heroics.
Indy may stake a claim of historical parity, and Sebring may be acomparable test of endurance, but the annual Le Mans extravaganza tops them all for longevity, speed, manufacturer participation, public attendance (a record 235,000 spectators turned out this year), party atmosphere, and overall influence on the evolution of motorsports.
In truth, the race is more like a three-week experience than a 24-hour event. The teams arrive early for prequalifying, the starting field having been announced by the ACO (Automobile Club de'Ouest) a few months earlier. If your team is lucky enough to be selected, or if your previous year's racing record warrants an automatic invitation, you are still required to show up for qualifying. During "Pre-Qual," each of the three drivers designated for the entry must complete a few laps in thecar at a speed sufficient to confirm its suitability for competition. If you are as well prepared as the Pratt & Miller/Corvette Racing Team effort, Pre-Qual is a mere formality. Other teams will spend the next week trying to finish their cars or tweaking them to a competitive level.
Corvette Racing arrived in France better prepared than ever before. The C6.Rs were a new commodity last year, and the learning curve on setup and preparation was steep. This time Pratt & Miller's engineers had a full year of testing and tuning under their belt. Satisfied with their performance at Pre-Qual, team members tucked away their finely honed race machines and set off for a few days of relaxation in Spain or the French countryside.
When race day arrived, both the cars and their minders were well prepared to take on the largest GT1 field--12 cars--in recent Le Mans history. This year the Corvettes faced challenges from two Prodrive and two privateer Aston Martins, a Lamborghini, a few Ferraris, a Saleen, and even an old Pratt & Miller C5-R, regularly campaigned by its French owners in the European Le Mans series. All in all, it was an extremely challenging field, one that promised to provide the best competition among the four classes (LMP1, LMP2, GT1, GT2) at this year's event.
In fairness, the Lamborghini, Saleen, and the Ferraris were playing catch-up, running architecture that was already a couple of seasons old. The Astons posed the biggest threat to a Corvette three-peat, and they were loaded for bear after disappointing finishes in both Sebring and last year's Le Mans contest. Still, in a 24-hour race, any team capable of surviving the entire grueling spectacle stands a chance of winning.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans really begins on Monday and Tuesday, when scrutineering is held in the park across the street from the city's magnificent old cathedral. In a longstanding Le Mans tradition, the teams are paraded out, one at a time, in the sweltering summer heat to be certified to run according to the ACO's regulations. The inspection process ends in a posed photo session for the entire team, followed by interviews with the drivers.
The real action gets underway Wednesday and Thursday. These days are designated as "official qualifying" and run from 7 p.m. to midnight. The qualifying schedule for both days starts with a session that runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is followed by a one-hour break for tweaking the cars. A second session runs from 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. The Frenchsummertime provides daylight to well after 10 p.m., so the first session is run in daylight. The second session takes place in twilight and darkness.
This year, the Corvettes and Astons waited each other out throughout the first day's qualifying. The second day's qualifying finally got spirited when Ron Fellows, driving the No. 63 C6.R, threw down an impressive qualifying time just before the end of the first session. Everyone waited to see how the Astons would respond. Were they holding back?
The answer came that evening in the final session, as the Astons secured the first, second, and fourth qualifying positions on the starting grid. The C6.Rs ended up third (No. 64) and sixth (No. 63). In truth, the Astons were probably capable of hitting the fast numbers anytime theywished, as the DBR9 has always shown great speed at Le Mans. The Brits were just waiting to see what time they had to beat to top the Corvettes. Smashing the GT1 field with a devastating number would only have served to put the ACO on notice that the Astons may require a performance penalty (extra weight or air restriction) next time around.
Also significant to the equation was that the Corvettes were running with full fuel loads throughout the second day's qualifying. The Corvette team had found that the off-season work by Katech (their engine builder) and Bosch (electronics) had produced a package that was capable of going 14 laps on a full tank, whereas last year's cars were managing only 13. This is a big deal when you're refueling every hour for 24 hours. The longer stretches between pit stops add up to a significant performance edge.
With the cars assigned their qualifying positions, the teams spent Friday preparing the cars for race day on Saturday. For the Corvette team, this means a complete teardown and rebuild of both cars, including transmission and engine changes. The Pratt & Miller team members buildtheir own cars, so for them this is just another day at the office. It can be a long, busy day, however, as the GM engineers always seem to come up with a last-minute tweak they want to employ. Nevertheless, both cars were ready to go by Saturday morning.
Le Mans on Friday also means the Parade of the Pilotes. It's held in the town city center and is quite a spectacle, as all of the drivers are out in force to rub elbows with the public. The event is well attended by the racing fans and is a great excuse to ring the party bell.
With Saturday's race finally upon them, the team began a waiting game until the 5 p.m. start (one hour later than usual, as dictated by World Cup Soccer play in Germany). There are elaborate festivities ahead of the race, and this year's were especially intense, as the ACO was celebrating its 100th anniversary. For the drivers, the wait must feellike holding back a fidgeting thoroughbred at the starting gate. With the red mist glowing, the only thing he can think is, just drop the starting flag and get on with it.
Finally, the cars are on track, and the starter's flag releases the pent-up energy of 49 highly strung cars and their anxious pilots. Gavin in the 64 car quickly pushed the pace and gained second in class, passing one of the Astons on the first lap. Johnny O'Connell followed suit by passing the Saleen on the third lap, putting the 63 car intofourth position.
The race's first full-course caution happened with just 20 minutes elapsed. The lead cars all took the opportunity to pit. Quick work by the Corvette team resulted in the 64 and 63 cars' getting back out on to the track ahead of the Astons and gaining positions one and two in class.
At one hour, eight minutes into the race, however, the 63 car suffered the first of what was to be a series of problems that would dog the team for the next 23 hours. O'Connell hit something slippery entering the Porsche Curves and slid into the tire barriers, damaging the rearbodywork, rear wing, and left front suspension. Johnny was able to get the car straight into the garage, and 11 minutes later (and three laps down from the leaders) Max Papis emerged to bring the repaired car back into action.
Meanwhile, the 64 car had a minor brush with a prototype entry and had to make a stop for repairs to the front air intake and nose. The damage was minimal, and the car went back on song, charging along through several driver changes to remain first in class for the next six hours. The 63 car, now in a groove, proceeded to claw its way back intocontention, improving from ninth to seventh in class during the same time.
The first 12 hours saw the Aston 009 car and the Corvette 64 car swapping leads and fighting each other every inch of the way. The 63 car was starting to gain ground on the field when another hit of bad luck forced them to replace a slipping clutch, resulting in an 18-minute pit stop (and another five laps lost). Frankly, it was amazing to watch the crew pull the car into the garage, replace the faulty clutch, and have the Vette back out in competition in so little time. Although the incident punted them back farther from the leaders, the 63 team still held Sixth Place in class.
Past the 18th hour of racing, the 64 car was chasing the first-in-class 009 Aston. Astonishingly, the cars were now ranked fourth and fifth overall for the race--a testament to the endurance and speed of the cars in GT1 and an indication of the attrition this race exacts on the entirefield. The 63 car persevered though the night to find itself sixth in GT1 but also 10 laps down to the leaders.
With about three-and-a-half hours left, the 64 car was still in pursuit of the 009 Aston. The war between them was a pitched battle that was arguably the class of the competition at this year's Le Mans. It was around this time that the 63 car and team suffered a mortal blow to their bid to make the podium. This time it was the gearbox. Theengineers were reporting that the temperature levels in the box had suddenly spiked and failure was eminent. With no other decision to make, the team brought the car in.
As soon as the car hit the garage, Danny Binks' boys had it in the air and the gearbox extracted. It came out in a huge cloud of smoke and the acrid smell of burnt gear oil. The team soon had the box completely stripped down to the case. With the help of all available hands from both Corvette crews, including the expertise of some Xtrac (builders ofthe gearbox/differential) personnel, the car was back together and out on the track in just over an hour. It was a miraculous feat, but the Corvette was too far behind at this point for it to matter.
Meanwhile, the 64 car pressed its relentless attack of the Aston. Just when it was looking as though the Corvette wouldn't have time to run down its foe, the lead Aston pulled off the track with an ailing clutch. The forced 45-minute pit stop (remember, Dan Binks and his crew took 18minutes for the same job) allowed the 64 car to assume the lead in class and fourth overall in the race. The Aston team tried to get the car back into contention, but for them it was too late to catch the flying Vette.
The race ended with the 64 car--driven by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, and Jan Magnussen--taking First in GT1 and an impressive Fourth overall. Meanwhile, Ron Fellows fought valiantly to bring the 63 car in at Sixth Place in class, Twelfth overall. Finishing a surprising Third in class was the French C5-R entry, making this year's strong Corvette showing a truly multinational affair.
Congratulations to Pratt & Miller and GM's Corvette Racing team. They put on a masterful display of how the endurance-racing game is played and proved once again that the Corvette is the class of the GT1 field. That a privateer team, running an earlier-generation chassis, also landed a podium spot simply serves as further evidence of the Corvette's supremacy.
This race brings out every emotion within the human spirit. Everyone involved experienced elation, depression, laughter, sadness, smiles, tears, energy, and fatigue. At the end, you aren't sure whether to cheer or cry. Usually, you end up doing both.
Endurance Tire Management
The tires are one of the most important ingredients in any type of racing. You can have the world's fastest, most resilient car, but if you can't get the power to the ground, it doesn't make much difference. Pratt & Miller and the Corvette Racing Team take great pains to prepare their Michelin tires for the abuse ahead. All tires are brought to the racetrack by their manufacturer rather than by the race teams. Throughout the week and during the race, a constant shuttle is runningbetween the Michelin truck-where the tires are issued, mounted, and balanced-and the team garage/pit area (Image 1).
After the mounted wheels come back to the team, they're filled with nitrogen gas (nitrogen provides a smaller, more reliable change in air pressure as the tire is heated up in competition). This is done with the help of a machine that fills all four tires to a specified pressure at the same time. The tires and wheels are then assembled in sets, and the pressures adjusted according to the advice of the engineers (Image 2).
The Corvette team goes to great lengths to ensure the tire compounds are utilized to their full potential. During long-distance races such as LeMans, Sebring, and Petit Le Mans, the team employs a tire-warming procedure before each tire change/pit stop. Just before the change, the tires and wheels are placed in a warming house, which is fed hot air by a forced-air heater (Image 3). The tires remain there until the very last minute before the change. This procedure allows the tires to comeup to temperature very evenly. Once on the car, they achieve racing temperatures much faster and more reliably.