At the end of May, Corvette Racing was off to France in preparation for the world's greatest sports-car endurance race. Everybody who's anybody in motorsports aspires to be top dog at the yearly Le Mans 24-hour enduro. The challenge Le Mans represents is what drives global corporations such as GM to return each year and take on the competition.
When the Corvette Racing team first went to France in 2000, it had its hat handed to it by the more experienced Oreca Viper teams. Since then, Corvettes have claimed the top step of the podium five times in seven consecutive tries. Given the enormous expenditures these efforts require, it's clear GM remains serious about production-based racing.
Once in France, the team had a few days to prepare before prequalification on Sunday. The prequal day proved to be a wet experience, with the C6.Rs only able to make around 50 laps of the circuit. With the teams not allowed back onto the track until qualification more than a week later, car setup would prove a challenge.
The next six days gave team members a break from the hectic prerace schedule. Some just stayed around Le Mans and caught up on well-deserved rest (after all, they had left for France only a week after the Utah race), while others went to Denmark to watch Dane Jan Magnussen race touring cars. Magnussen won his series of heat races and gave his Corvette compadres a good show.
Back in the Loire Valley, the Le Mans extravaganza started the following Monday with the fan-favorite tech inspection. The tech-in was once again a real show, with the two yellow Corvettes first to run the gauntlet of tents in single-file fashion under the scrutineering of French officials. After the cars passed the evaluation, they were set up in the official display area and the whole team was asked to pose for a "family photo."
The spectacle takes place each year in the main park located in downtown Le Mans (30 minutes from the track), in the shadow of the medieval Le Mans Cathedral. The locals, who have adopted the French-sounding Chevrolet Corvette as their own, pack the park to capacity, and racing team members do their best to accommodate them. If you're under the age of 10 and bold enough to ask, chances are good you can score some time in the driver's seat of a C6.R.
With tech behind it, the team set about preparing for qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday. Weather predictions for the two days were all over the map, and the lack of track time at prequal left the engineers guessing when it came to car setup.
Wednesday's official practice session ran from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., with a one-hour break to tweak the cars before qualifying runs from 10:00 to midnight. Magnussen took the reins of the No. 63 car and promptly threw down an astounding time of 3:49.406 to claim the provisional GT1 pole. His time was around a second faster than Oliver Gavin's run in the No. 64 car and the fastest a Corvette had ever circulated the Le Mans circuit in qualifying.
When a driver puts up a great time like Magnussen's, officials from the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (the race's sanctioning body) usually ask that the car be resubmitted for a follow-up technical inspection. As the check is performed after qualifying closes at 12:00 a.m., the team is even later in getting the car back to the garage and ready for the next day's session.
Despite predictions of rain, Thursday night brought virtually ideal conditions for qualifying. Teams were able to further refine their setups in the cool, night air, and lap times started tumbling. If a Corvette was to maintain the pole, the team would have to step up the pace.