The American Le Mans Series celebrated its 11th year and 100th race at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. While the field for domestic racing's longest-running endurance sports-car race had shrunk to just 26 starters by the current economic climate, its overall quality was arguably unsurpassed. Audi again upped the ante by debuting its new R15 TDI diesel, a technological tour de force with an aggressive look to match. Peugeot returned with its 908, while Acura's presence was bolstered by privateer LMP1 entries from Duncan Dayton and Gil de Ferran. Mazda, meanwhile, brought two new closed-cockpit LMP2 entries to battle the '08-spec Fernandez Acura racing cars.
With Corvette Racing once again running uncontested in GT1, the largest and most competitive category remained GT2, with officially sanctioned efforts from Porsche, BMW, and Ferrari battling private teams utilizing Ford, Panoz, and Aston Martin hardware. (In case you're wondering, the Aston factory team has left GT1 to field an LMP1 entry, but this new car won't make its racing debut until Le Mans in June.)
As we've noted in the past, the C6.Rs will enter only three races this year: Sebring, the Long Beach Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After that, the GT1 C6.R will give way to a new GT2 racer based on the architecture of the '09 ZR1. All reports are that the GT2 car is spectacular looking, with an appearance even more dramatic than that of the current car.
With the bulk of Corvette Racing's development dollars going toward the new GT2 program, changes to the C6.R have largely been limited to those mandated by IMSA and its international counterpart, the ACO. These include a smaller air restrictor for the engine intake and 50 pounds of additional weight, bringing the car to 1,175 kilos (2,585 pounds). The livery, meanwhile, has been updated to promote the newly released GT1 Edition, which celebrates the immense success Corvette Racing has enjoyed in production-based racing over the past 10 years (see sidebar).
The team arrived in Sebring having performed exactly zero testing days in the C6.R since last year. This made the time spent at the event all the more precious, since it would be the only opportunity the crew would have to fine-tune the car prior to Le Mans. As a result, the bright-yellow race cars were poised for every opportunity to be on the 3.7-mile, 17-turn track during the week leading up to the Saturday's race.
We spoke with Ollie Gavin after Thursday morning's practice session, at which time he was still a bit ambivalent about the No. 4 car's setup. Team engineers responded by making a number of changes to the car, and Gavin took the class pole position in that afternoon's first qualifying session.
Before the two-hour night practice on Thursday, the team changed the gearboxes on both cars. A torrential downpour early that evening brought cooler temps and provided an excellent opportunity to break in the newly installed transaxles under optimum conditions. The following morning, the crew performed its typical pre-enduro chore of swapping out the engines.
Saturday morning's practice got underway at 8 a.m. The No. 4 car completed the session without incident, but the No. 3 car experienced some problems with fuel pressure. The team immediately went to work to sort out the issue, and all was squared away in time for the race's 10:30 a.m. start. The green flag dropped on time, though not before a pre-race spectacular incorporating bagpipe bands and a Clydesdale-drawn Budweiser wagon with ALMS/IMSA impresario Don Panoz aboard to preside over the festivities.
The No. 4 car, with Gavin aboard, led into the first corner, with Jan Magnussen piloting the No. 3 car tucked in close behind. With no other competition in class, the war was again between the two Corvette stablemates. They ran nose to tail until the first driver change, when Johnny O'Connell was installed in the No. 3 car one lap ahead of his teammate. Olivier Beretta soon re-entered the fray just ahead of O'Connell but was unable to defend his lead position on cold tires. Going into Turn 7, Beretta got "into the marbles" and briefly ran off track. The momentary bobble was all Johnny O. needed to scoot by into the GT1 lead. With the cars optimized and the driver corps well balanced, only on-track incidents and pit stops would provide a potential advantage.
As the race wore on, the gap between the two Corvettes built up to between 20 and 30 seconds. The difference was mainly attributable to the No. 3 car crew, which was recording some breathtakingly quick pit stops. The race ended with the winning No. 3 C6.R setting a class record, covering 10 more laps than any GT1 car in Sebring history-all while running on clean-burning E-85 cellulosic ethanol fuel.
In fact, by finishing Sixth and Seventh overall in the race, Corvette Racing won the GT category's (GT1 and GT2 combined) Michelin Green Challenge award as the most environmentally friendly team in the GT field. Johnny O'Connell set records of his own, achieving the most starts as a driver and gathering his eighth victory at the Sebring race.
Along the way, the Corvette team welcomed two new members to the expanded driving squad employed at Sebring, Le Mans, and Petit Le Mans. After much testing to prove their abilities and talent, Marcel Fassler (No. 4 car) and Antonio Garcia (No. 3 car) replaced veterans Max Papis and Ron Fellows. Both drivers acquitted themselves well at Sebring, running creditable lap times and challenging the seasoned regulars. Fassler has previous experience in the C6.R, as he previously raced one of the factory team cars in the European FIA series. Garcia is an accomplished pilot in his own right, having gained experience as a development driver in the Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 effort and scored a class win with Aston at Le Mans last year.
The overall win went to Audi, with Peugeot pushing the Germans hard all the way to the end. Although the LMP1 Acura team of Gil de Ferran did take the race's pole position, the cars proved unable to keep pace with the Audi and Peugeot juggernauts. The Mazda team broke both of its cars, ceding LMP2 to the Fernandez Acuras. In GT2, the F430 Ferrari of Risi Competizione came out on top, besting the Porsche 911s
The Corvette team is hoping to give its GT1 cars a proper sendoff in the form of a class win at Le Mans. After that, the focus will shift entirely to the hotly contested GT2 category. All of the other teams in GT2 have a great deal of lead time on the Corvette effort, providing precisely the sort of steep learning curve the GM bunch thrives on. We can't wait.
A Familiar Hand Takes The WheelFormer Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter recently assumed control of the Corvette's future, taking over for outgoing Vehicle Line Executive Tom Wallace. Wallace often said that he appreciated Juechter's engineering prowess, since it provided the product-based solutions he needed and freed him up to fight the corporate battles. Our conversation with the new boss revealed that he's also a consummate "car guy"-and fully committed to upholding the Corvette's performance mystique.
Juechter's enthusiasm for Corvette performance became obvious soon after he arrived at the Corvette Corral in the paddock at Sebring. After showing up in one of the new GT1 Championship Edition C6s, he tore off to retrieve the inside cover of a Z06 center-console lid. He then tracked down Jan Magnussen to have the Danish driver autograph the part. "Nrbrgring, June 23, 2005, 7:42.99," wrote Magnussen in white ink.
The console was from the prototype Magnussen had famously piloted around the German track during Z06 development testing in 2005. The car had been scheduled for crushing, but Juechter had learned of the plan and managed to liberate this single piece for posterity.
After Magnussen signed the part, Juechter teased him about possibly improving his time at the Ring. The C6.R pilot immediately responded that he thought he could lap a ZR1 into the seven "teens" with no problem. Now that we would pay to see.
GT1 Edition Rolls Out At SebringCorvette Racing has dominated production-based sports-car competition over the last decade, collecting eight ALMS GT1 manufacturer and team championships, five 24 Hours of Le Mans class trophies, and 74 class race wins. Now, Chevy has decided to share some of that racing excitement with its customers by releasing a limited-production GT1 Championship Edition package for the C6 street car. (For more on RPO GT1 and its contents, see the "Currents" section of our last issue.)
The package's official unveiling occurred at Sebring on Friday, when six cars equipped with RPO GT1 were driven into the paddock by the six drivers of the Corvette Racing team. After an autograph session, the drivers climbed back into their special mounts and pedaled over to the Sebring Corvette Corral to show off the cars to the Vette faithful. The real C6.Rs, meanwhile, have been repainted in special black (No. 4) and yellow (No. 3) "GT1 Edition" livery.