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.
The C6.R drivers were complaining that the cars felt "all over the place," and engineering staffers were having some disagreement regarding a possible solution. Ron Fellows, meanwhile, was lobbying for a change in rear spring rates. The engineers finally allowed the Fellows adjustment, and handling greatly improved. Olivier Beretta said the change "transformed" the car. Magnussen gave his assessment by setting a new pole of 3:47.699, almost two seconds quicker than his effort the night before.
And so it was that the No. 63 C6.R took the first-ever Le Mans GT1 pole for Corvette Racing. A Saleen S7R took second, the No. 64 Corvette was third, and the two factory-backed Aston Martin DBR9s filled in behind.
Friday morning found the crew back in the garage by 7:00 a.m., where it would change out engines and transaxles and go through both cars in preparation for the race's start the next day. While the drivers took part in the annual Piloti Parade in downtown Le Mans, crewmember Mike West put on a little show of his own. West, an accomplished guitarist, once again brought his electric six-string to Le Mans to give the fans a little taste of "The Star Spangled Banner," Corvette Racing style. West has gained quite a following for the annual display, and this year's performance did not disappoint.
Saturday brought a 9:00 a.m. warm-up session prior to the 3:00 p.m. race. The No. 63 car checked in perfect, but No. 64 sprang a leak in the transaxle, forcing the crew to make a last-minute swap. With all systems restored to perfection, the cars finally were ready to be pushed out to the pregrid.
In keeping with Le Mans tradition, the competitors and their cars were led out onto the front straight to be lined up according to their qualifying times. As Crew Chief Danny Binks' No. 63 car rounded the turn to the track, it found the No. 009 Aston right in front of it. As the cars came side by side, a foot-powered race between the two adversaries spontaneously erupted. The C6.R crew ultimately prevailed, passing the Brits just as they approached the end of the garage area. With the foot race over, the cars returned to their respective starting positions, and the prerace ceremonies began.
This year's festivities included everything from a drivers' parade to a bevy of Hawaiian Tropic girls strutting their stuff to pedal car races by French children. As always, it all went down against a backdrop of various national anthems, much enthusiastic flag waving, and other boisterous displays by the fans. There really is nothing else quite like it in motorsports.
At 2:00 p.m. the cars headed out for the pace laps, culminating in the dropping of the green flag. The GT1 class immediately settled into a well-ordered procession, with no one pushing the issue so early in the 24-hour race. The Saleen, interposed between the two C6.Rs at the start, held ground for a brief time until Oliver Gavin shot past to put the Corvettes in first and second place.
The Astons finally showed their true pace and set about climbing the class ladder, all the while laying down lap times equal to or faster than the those recorded by the Corvettes. It quickly became evident that this was a two-marque race, with the rest of the GT1 field struggling to stay close to the top four competitors.
The race settled into a back-and-forth battle between the Astons and Vettes, as pit stops and traffic offered opportunities for each to lead the class. Unfortunately, the No. 64 car ran into a slight problem when an electrical connection to the alternator failed. This forced the crew to change out the unit and pit the car out of sequence, dropping it back two laps from the front of the field.
Darkness settled on La Sarthe with the No. 63 C6.R in first, the 009 and 007 Astons second and third, and the No. 64 Vette having regained fourth in class. The 009 car continued to put up outstanding lap figures, however, and was slowly reeling in the leading Corvette. The early morning hours of Sunday brought rain and revealed that the two lead cars had again swapped places.
About halfway through the day, the 007 Aston ran into alternator problems of its own. Apparently the pilot had run off-course, causing a rock to become lodged in the belt pulley. The British team quickly changed out the belt, but when it attempted to restart the car, all that could be heard were a whirring starter and a series of clicks. This forced the car into the garage for further inspection.
The confusion allowed the No. 64 car to catch up and pass 007 while it remained in the garage disabled. The kicker was that the Aston was actually OK. The driver had inadvertently pushed the clutch pedal when he engaged the starter button. The alternator on the Aston is tied to the rear-mounted transaxle, so engaging the clutch disconnected the engine from the driveline and prevented the alternator from turning. As soon as the team figured out the situation, the car was pushed back onto the track in fourth position.
With afternoon approaching, the weather began to dry. The Corvettes were again on a hot pace, and it looked as if they might catch the 009 Aston. Unfortunately, the precipitation soon returned, slowing lap times by 10 seconds and foiling the Corvette charge. With the weather proving unpredictable, the teams were forced to make the difficult choice between installing intermediate and rain-compound tires.
As the rain came and went, the number of pit stops prompted by the changing conditions increased. By late morning, Jan Magnussen was installed in the No. 63 car after wet-weather specialist Ron Fellows had put in a full three hours.But when the downpour intensified, Magnussen became uncomfortable on the previously installed intermediate tires and demanded a switch to full rain rubber.
Nothing seemed to help the Corvette cause. If the C6.Rs gained a little ground, the lead Aston responded by dropping its lap times commensurately. The Brits were managing their race plan perfectly, staying out in front of the second place No. 63 car by almost two laps. If Corvette Racing was going to have a chance, it needed a break.
With about 1 1/2 hours to go, No. 63 car crew chief Dan Binks decided to take a chance and switch back to intermediate tires. The call proved prophetic, as the rain subsided, allowing the car to immediately pick up the pace. The 009 Aston responded too late. While the car pitted to cover the Corvette maneuver, the No. 63 Vette passed it on the track. Now on the same lap as the Aston, the C6.R looked like it just might do the impossible.
Alas, it was not to be. The No. 63 crew knew the car's right front brake pad was not predicted last the race. Although it was able to swap the pad in under than 90 seconds, the short delay allowed the Aston to hang on to First in class at the checkered flag. The two C6.Rs, meanwhile, were comfortably ensconced in Second and Third for podium finishes. Luc Alphand's French Corvette team (running an ex-Corvette Racing C6.R) scored a Fourth-Place finish, leaving the Saleen, two privateer Astons, and a Lamborghini to fight it out for the remaining GT1 positions.
It's indicative of the level of success to which Corvette Racing has become accustomed that the team was disappointed with its Two-Three finish in what is perhaps the world's greatest race. Still, having come so close to victory after losing to the Aston last year left fans to wonder what might have been. Maybe, as Dan Binks suggested, "We should just run until somebody breaks. That would be a race."