The 56th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring didn't bring new competition to the championship-winning Corvettes, but it did bring a new fuel technology. Namely, the cars adopted E85 cellulosic ethanol made from wood waste as their fuel source.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner fully supports the fuel switch as part of a push to expand ethanol availability to American motorists. At the '08 Detroit Auto Show, Wagoner pointed out that while there are over six million duel-fuel E85 vehicles in the United States, the vast majority of E85 stations are located in the Midwest. GM wants to solve this problem by adding E85 outlets around the country.
High-performance vehicles, and auto racing in general, are often criticized for having a negative impact on the environment. The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) decided recently to take a leadership role in quelling this criticism by introducing green technology to its racing series. Not only does this approach help silence critics, it supports the goal of finding new ways to wean American consumers off of exported oil.
In the off-season, ALMS partnered with the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC) to serve as its 2008 fuel supplier. For '08, all non-diesel competitors are required to run E10 (10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline). Three teams-including Corvette Racing-were selected to compete with the E85 fuel blend (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline). But during initial testing, Corvette Racing discovered that the C6.Rs' existing fuel cells weren't compatible with the new E85 fuel. The adhesive holding the cells together began separating, creating a safety hazard. As a result, it was decided that the cars would run the E10 blend at Sebring while new fuel cells were being built. These new cells will be in the Corvettes for the next race at St. Petersburg, where the cars will run on E85.
For the most part, the Corvette's GT1 competitors once again stayed at home. Only one other car-a privately owned Aston Martin entered by Bell Motorsports-showed up at Sebring, and it was more than 2 seconds slower than the C6.Rs in qualifying. The No. 3 Vette-driven by Johnny O'Connell, Ron Fellows, and Jan Magnussen-took the GT1 pole and was thirteenth fastest overall with a time of 1:57.013. The No. 4 car-driven by Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin, and Max Papis-was fourteenth fastest with a 1:57.412. In GT2, Lou Gigliotti's new LG Pro Long Tube Header Corvette qualified twenty-sixth overall and eleventh in class. The LG car looked impressive in its first outing and should prove to be a top class contender in the months ahead. Up front, a Peugeot Sport diesel LMP1 prototype secured the overall pole with a time of 1:43.976.
Once the green flag fell, over 150,000 spectators watched as the front runners swapped places during the early laps. Not surprisingly, the two Corvettes thundered away from the lone Aston. At the end of the first hour, the No. 3 C6.R had moved up two positions to eleventh overall, while the No. 4 car was fourteenth. At the two-hour mark, Beretta brought the car into the pits with an apparent drivetrain problem.
"I came out of Turn Nine, and it went completely loose," he reported. "I thought the race was gone. I was worried that the wheels would lock up, and I [wouldn't be able to] bring the car back to the pits. I didn't want to get stuck on the course."
The car was returned to the transporter, where the crew replaced the right halfshaft. The stop took nine minutes. The C6.R then returned to the race in twenty-fifth position overall, a full nine laps behind its class-leading stablemate. "We lost the inner tripod joint on the right side," explained team manager Gary Pratt. "It snapped one of the three drives at the spline. We've never seen this failure before."
The unexpected pit stop put the Aston into second place in class, two laps behind the leading No. 3 C6.R. By the fourth hour, the Aston was four laps down, while the No. 4 Vette was an additional four laps in arrears in twenty-first position overall. Shortly thereafter, the Aston spun due to a rear-brake problem and broke its front splitter. This required a behind-pit-wall repair, pushing the green screamer down to twenty-third overall. Unfortunately, Gigliotti's No. 28 GT2 Corvette also was withdrawn during the fifth hour due to an overheating engine.
By the seventh hour, the GT1-leading No. 3 Corvette was in ninth position, while the No. 4 Vette was thirteenth overall and second in GT1. Up front, the LMP2 Penske Porsches were battling the bigger, heavier LMP1 Audis for the overall lead. In the end, the Porsches pulled off an upset victory, taking First and Second, while the Corvettes finished Eighth and Tenth to capture yet another One-Two win in GT1. The Bell Aston finished Sixteenth overall-29 laps behind the winning Vette.
The win marked Johnny O'Connell's seventh class victory at Sebring-an all-time track record. The Corvettes, meanwhile, performed brilliantly on their new, eco-friendly fuel, stoking early expectations for yet another GT1 manufacturer's championship in '08.