In June, the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans spectacular once again welcomed the Corvette Racing team with open arms. The French people have a special love for the bright-yellow Corvettes, and the C6.R crew members, for their part, love soaking up the adulation from the many thousands of enthusiastic fans.
The 2007 edition of the La Sarthe race promised an epic struggle in the GT1 class, where no fewer than 15 cars were set to compete. The scheduled entries included six Aston Martin DBR9s, five Corvettes (the two factory Vettes, plus two ex-factory C6.Rs and a C5-R), two Oreca Saleens, a Ferrari 550, and Lamborghini Murcielago.
Race week once again kicked off with a tech inspection held in quaint downtown Le Mans. The factory C6.R team, clad this year in Corvette-motif Hawaiian shirts, is a perennial fan favorite at the event. The crew really gets into the festival atmosphere, going so far as to offer young race fans a chance to sit in the driver's seat of one of the awesome C6.Rs. As always, the faces of the children burst with excitement as they were hoisted into the business section of the race car. For a seven-year-old, it is hard to imagine a greater thrill.
With tech-in and a full day of race prep behind them, the Corvette team was ready for evening and night qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday. For 2007, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) made a significant change aimed at improving the famous French circuit. The tight Tetre Rouge corner, which leads onto the Mulsanne straight, was altered. Previously, entry and transition through the turn was on bumpy and uneven pavement, which upset the car and forced a difficult exit onto one of the most important parts of the track.
This year's alteration involved rounding out the corner itself and providing 3-degree on-camber banking on very smooth pavement. The change shortened the length of a lap by 21 meters, or just under 70 feet. The results are a safer ride and potentially faster lap times for the drivers, along with improved sight lines for the spectators. To prevent any nasty surprises, the teams were given a chance to experience the modified track at pre-qualifying, held three weeks before the race itself.
Race-week qualifying has two purposes: to establish grid positions and to certify the drivers-each of whom must complete three laps of the circuit-for the race. This year, the French weather proved capricious, with alternating periods of rain and sun serving up an ever-changing track surface during qualifying. With three different types of rain tires available-in addition to the dry selection-engineers had their hands full deciding which compound would serve up the optimum result.
With the weather so unpredictable, deciding when to send out the drivers became a guessing game for team strategists. But when the forecast called for more of the wet stuff on Thursday and beyond, the crews decided to spend Wednesday's session establishing the best time possible as conditions permitted. This approach worked out well for most, providing enough dry pavement in the late hours to put down some pretty good times.
Given that the ACO had offered the Astons and Saleens significant advantages in air-intake-restrictor size and other critical areas, no one was surprised when a DBR9 and an S7-R qualified first and second, respectively, in GT1. The No. 64 Corvette ended up third, while the No. 63 car took fifth. The GM crew had expected to be mid-pack, so this result actually came as something of a pleasant surprise.
True to the forecast, Thursday's qualifying was filled with rain. Although the session offered no real hope of improving on grid position, the wet conditions did give teams the perfect opportunity to work on their race setups. The day's only drama came when the lone Lamborghini skidded off the course, suffering extensive damage. With only two days until the race, it appeared the GT1 field would be reduced to 14 cars.
Saturday's 3:00 p.m. start was another new wrinkle. The ACO has manipulated the traditional 4:00 p.m. kick-off time in the past few years to accommodate TV coverage of other major events such as World Cup soccer and national elections. Race organizers believe this new, earlier starting time-and resultant earlier finishing time-will result in larger crowds both at the race and watching at home.
The biggest surprise early on was the return of a Lamborghini to the GT1 grid. In typically unpredictable fashion, the ACO had allowed the Lambo team to simply replace its wrecked race car, rather than rebuilding it. But despite this unexpected bit of luck, the Murcielago didn't look to be a factor in GT1.
The Corvette Racing C6.Rs, meanwhile, looked strong from the outset. Jan Magnussen quickly moved up to third in class in the No. 63 car, while Oliver Gavin, in No. 64, was holding strong in fourth. But just as the two Corvettes seemed poised to run up the backs of the leading cars, misfortune struck. All power to the rear wheels of the No. 64 car suddenly disappeared. Gavin, under the direction of Crew Chief Ray Gongla, attempted to diagnose the problem using the car's onboard diagnostic tools.
The final verdict was a failure of the car's carbon-fiber driveshaft-the same problem that had befallen Gavin and company at the St. Petersburg race earlier this season. With one car already out of the running, the Corvette Racing team closely monitored the revs and other engine readouts coming from the No. 63 car. This seemed to work well, as the car fell into lockstep behind the GT1-leading Aston 009 and 007 cars.
Jan Magnussen, now in the lone Corvette Racing entry, did have a close call at around the seven-hour mark. As he entered the Dunlop curves, one of the Audi LMP1 drivers decided to pass him mid-corner. The two cars collided. The Corvette's right-front fender caught the left-rear bodywork of the Audi, sending Magnussen on a wild, 180-mph ride through the gravel traps ahead of the Dunlop bridge.
The Dane did a miraculous job of maintaining speed and direction, literally driving through the rocky obstacle and back onto the course without skipping a beat. While the left rear of the Audi was nearly torn off, forcing the car to pit for bodywork replacement, the Corvette was allowed to complete the race without corrective work.
The weather cleared during the night, and Sunday morning brought near-perfect racing conditions. Shortly after the 16th hour, the 007 Aston came in for an extended pit stop precipitated by suspected transaxle problems. This allowed the No. 63 Corvette to assume second in class. Unfortunately, the leading 009 Aston was posting lap times two to three seconds faster than the Vette, increasing the gap separating the two cars every time it rounded the track.
The Aston team was so confident in its lead that it began "single stinting" its tires-that is, putting on fresh rubber at each pit stop. The Corvette team tried cutting down the Aston lead by double-stinting tire and driver replacement, thereby saving elapsed time each hour a pit was required. The strategy helped some, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the lead DBR9-now up by a full lap-would be extremely difficult to catch.
Meanwhile, disappointed members of the No. 64 C6.R crew sublimated their frustration by pitching in with tire preparation and other duties on No. 63. Crew chief Gongla and company even helped members of the Luc Alphand Corvette team rebuild the gearboxes in their C6.R and C5-R. While the French team was very grateful for the unanticipated help, all the extra toil throughout the night took a heavy toll on Gongla and the rest of his crew.
By midday Sunday, it was becoming apparent that the race finish was to be drenched in rain. A look at the on-line weather site the team was using revealed that everything west of Le Mans was completely socked in by foul weather, with heavy precipitation moving directly toward the Loire Valley. Although the meteorological shift presented a challenge, team members also felt the rain might provide their only chance of catching the Astons.
When the downpour did come, it was relentless. Ron Fellows, a highly experienced foul-weather driver, capitalized on the change in conditions to gain from 8 to 15 seconds per lap on the GT1-leading 009 Aston. With time winding down, the hope was that the Aston driver would be forced to quicken his methodical pace and perhaps make a costly mistake on the slick track surface.
Sadly, it was not to be. With only 30 minutes remaining, the ACO decided to bring out the safety car and hold the field in position throughout the completion of the race. In the end, the No. 63 Magnussen/O'Connell/Fellows C6.R took Second in class and Sixth overall, finishing 6:08.031 behind the GT1-winning 009 Aston. While it was not the result Corvette Racing had hoped for, it was an admirable showing under the circumstances.
"There's disappointment in not winning, but this is an impossible race to win," said Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. "Just the honor of competing with the world's best sports car teams and finishing on the podium is a huge reward. There's no shame in finishing second. We've actually finished second here before and lived through it."
Aston's strong showing at Le Mans only stoked rumors that the factory-backed DBR9s would return to ALMS racing full-time at some point during the '07 season. Assuming the Astons are finally ready to compete with their Corvette nemeses on an equal footing, that's one heavyweight showdown we'd love to see.