The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) opens each season with its granddaddy of events, the 12 Hours of Sebring. Sebring alone has the history, the panache, and the importance to lend the series credibility. With an early March date, teams from all over the world use the opportunity to begin serious tuning for the Le Mans 24-hour race scheduled in June. The bumpy surface and crotchety twists and turns are the perfect proving ground to test car and driver. Indeed, 12 hours on the tortuous Sebring circuit are equivalent to 24 hours of abuse at La Sarthe. After a winter of tweaking, taking a car to Sebring determines whether those adjustments will stand the demands of endurance racing.
Sebring started as an auto-racing venue in the '40s, when enthusiasts scoured the country looking for venues to unleash their pent-up passion after four years of war. America in those days was full of young people trained in all things mechanical, bred on discipline, and honed in an environment of excitement and danger. After WWII, the country was also overstocked with expansive, lightly used concrete airstrips-a perfect crucible for the evolution of sports-car racing. The airport at Sebring was one such airstrip, where 58 years ago a bunch of like-minded car nuts launched America's endurance-racing tradition. Walking along the side of the track, you'll traverse fields filled with steel aircraft tie-downs intended to keep a B-17 Flying Fortress at bay. The undulating surface of the Sebring track is the legacy of the site's martial origins.
Corvette Racing arrived at Sebring the weekend before the race to continue its development program on the new GT2 C6.R. This car was launched last August to run a limited schedule in the ALMS, entering the last five races of the 2009 season. It was an ambitious move, as it would require a major shift from an established GT1 program to the dictates of GT2 just six months into the racing year. (The team had run the first few races and Le Mans with its existing GT1 entrants.) While the C6.Rs' success in GT1 had literally run the competition out of the class, the GT2 category was thriving and even contained several factory-supported teams. Corvette Racing naturally decided that GT2 had became the best place to showcase its hardware and abilities.
Using the Corvette ZR1 as a basis, the '09 GT2 car incorporated a normally aspirated 6.0L engine developed and built by GM's Wixom engine facility. For 2010, the car sports a 5.5-liter engine that puts it in compliance with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest's (ACO) future plans for one international GT class featuring those powerplant requirements. The smaller engine has had its share of teething problems, a fact that became evident during prerace testing early in the week. Fortunately the team managed to get them sorted out in time for the first official practice on Thursday.
Both the No. 3 and No. 4 Corvettes sported a new black-and-yellow, star-spiked livery, but apart from their appearance and the new engine, they were essentially the same GT2 cars that raced in 2009. Pratt and Miller, enlisted by GM to help develop the Corvette Racing program, usually produces two fresh chassis each year. But in this day of fiscal conservatism, it was decided that the '09 cars would be used for 2010 as well. In fact chassis 001 (the No. 3 car) is also the development chassis on which all of the initial testing miles were done to iron out the GT2 specification in Corvette guise.
Temperatures fell into the 40s during Thursday's night practice, offering the teams a chance to see what their cars were capable of in conditions of darkness and cooling ambient air. Each of the six drivers (Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell, and Antonio Garcia in the No. 3 car, with Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, and newcomer Emmanuel Collard driving No. 4) had to certify themselves by completing a three-lap stint at racing speed around the darkened circuit. As the session was drawing to a close, Magnussen was finishing up his stint in No. 3 when he experienced a serious shunt. While downshifting for Turn 13, the rear tires broke loose, looping the C6.R and sending it backwards into the adjacent tire barrier. Reviewing the car back at the paddock garage revealed significant damage to the rear, requiring the replacement of the suspension, the rear bodywork, and more. The No. 3 crew, led by chief Dan Binks, set about rebuilding a car they thought they had already dialed in to perfection.
The Friday schedule holds a one-hour morning practice and a 25-minute qualifying session in the early afternoon. The C6.Rs' gearboxes had already been freshened on Thursday, and the cars now received new engines designed to last through to the end of the 12-hour race. With 15 minutes left in qualifying, the yellow-and-black Corvettes took to the track and ran respectable times. The session closed with Magnussen and the No. 3 car in fifth position and Gavin 0.3 seconds behind in sixth. The Rahal/Letterman M3 took the top spot but was later relegated to the back of the grid for failing the engine-stall test. This moved the C6.Rs up to fourth and fifth starting spots for race day. The front row in GT2 was now made up of the No. 45 Flying Lizard Porsche 911 on the pole and the surprising No. 17 Falken Tire Porsche RSR right alongside.
As the starting flag fell, the Falken Porsche quickly took the lead in GT2, with the Lizard car in hot pursuit. The Corvettes methodically worked their way up to second and third in class by the second-hour mark, just before the fickle hand of fate struck No. 3. It was spouting fluid from an unknown source, and the team, sensing a potentially difficult fix, sent the car to the garage to diagnose the problem. It turned out to be a leaky power-steering hose. The hose was replaced, and the car headed back out on the track, but not before making a stop at pit-out to serve a penalty for dropping fluid on the track. All told, the delays meant the No. 3 returned to the track eight laps down to the leaders. In this extremely competitive GT2 field, that distance looked to be all but insurmountable.
Meanwhile, the No. 4 was running perfectly, keeping pace with the class leaders. At about three hours into the race, No. 3 was sent to the pits for routine service and to swap out O'Connell for Magnussen. The car was now out of service sequence with No. 4 due to its earlier power-steering-hose problem. With pit work completed, No. 3 was sent out to charge back into the action. It was then that a perfect storm of miscues and misfortune descended upon the GM crew.
As No. 4 was running down the back straight, a "low fuel level" light suddenly illuminated. Driver Collard radioed the potential problem to the pits, and the engineers demanded that he make an abortive dive into the pit-in lane for refueling earlier than planned. It was Collard's first stint for the Corvette team in real racing conditions, and he was intent on hitting his marks and making a perfect stop. As he dived into his pit space, he found Magnussen speeding out in front of him. The collision was instantaneous and significant, despite the low speeds involved. The nose of No. 4 lodged in the left front quarter panel of No. 3, just behind the front wheel. The crews quickly separated the cars and sent Magnussen out. The No. 4 team quickly decided that the car would have to go to the garage for repair. Once there, the front nose clip was replaced and suspension items attended to. The car was sent back out to rejoin the fight, well down to the competition.
No. 3 then returned to the pits to have its own damage repaired. The left front tire had completely shredded due to the damaged wheelwell, and the cords had wrapped themselves around the brake disc and spindle. The remnants of tire were removed, and the fender was pulled out and bandaged with yellow-impregnated bonding tape to complete the repair. No. 3 was finally sent out to race again, only to be forced back to the pit with its sister car so the pair could serve penalties for contact. This put both Corvette entries even further down in the running order.
The whole fiasco spelled doom for the C6.Rs at Sebring. They were running several laps down in a class that had 13 other entries competing within seconds of each other. In years past, if a good team faltered in GT2, it might still end up Second or Third. Now, with such a tight field, any incident sufficient to cause damage means an Eighth or Ninth Place finish at best. It was a major disappointment for a Corvette team accustomed to fighting for the lead wherever it goes.
While the C6.Rs performed very well for the rest of the race, they couldn't seem to outrun bad luck. At one point, No. 4 was struck by an errant rear tire that had come free from the Falken Porsche. Driver Gavin was extremely lucky that the rubber projectile hit the front of his car and bounced over the cockpit, rather than into the windshield. Late in the race, the car also suffered a loss in power to the headlights, a significant problem when running at night and yet another consequence of the damage incurred earlier.
The close of the race found the Corvettes in Eighth and Ninth in class (15th and 16th overall in a 34-car field) behind a spate of Porsches and Ferraris. The Ferrari 430 of Jamie Melo took the top spot in GT2, while the diesel Peugeots ran away from the rest of the prototype field to claim First and Second overall. The BMW M3s garnered an impressive Second and Third in GT2 despite their back-of-the-pack starting positions.
Corvette Racing acquitted itself well considering the numerous setbacks it was dealt throughout the event. The cars and the team performed well in the face of overwhelming adversity, putting them one step closer toward the ultimate goal of mounting a competitive effort at Le Mans.