The Corvette Racing Team traveled to Le Mans, France, with great expectations flavored with a little cautious anxiety. The run-up to the 24-hour enduro in June had been relatively successful, albeit with some teething problems. The Sebring race revealed some engine-management gremlins, which continued to plague the new GM-sourced 5.5-liter powerplant into Long Beach and Laguna. The C6.Rs were blanked from the podium at Sebring but took home a Second at Long Beach and a Third at Laguna-not the start the team was hoping for, but certainly acceptable given the relatively new status of the GT2 entry. Besides, victory at Le Mans is always the ultimate goal for Corvette Racing, and team members felt leaving Laguna that they were peaking at just the right time.
This year's scrutineering procedures were changed a bit, as organizers continued to try to make the event fan friendly while keeping the schedule cost effective for participating teams. Technical Inspection started on Sunday (instead of Monday) and carried on through Monday (instead of ending on Tuesday). However, practice and qualifying were still reserved for Wednesday and Thursday night. That left a full preparation day for all of the teams on Tuesday, where traditionally some entrants were inspected on Tuesday and then forced to return to the track and prepare for qualifying the next day. The Corvettes are always well prepared and skated through the technical inspection process, while scores of admiring French fans cheered them on their way.
Wednesday's practice session started at 4 p.m. and ran for four hours, leaving a 2-hour "wrenching" break before the first qualifying session at 10. The Corvettes ran very well, dropping their lap times to around 4 minutes. One of the Risi Ferraris, meanwhile, managed a sub-4-minute time to take the provisional pole for GT2. On Thursday, the teams were given two chances-from 7-9 p.m. and from 10 till midnight-to better their previous day's efforts and qualify their drivers for nighttime driving. Members of the No. 64 car team-Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, and Emmanuel Collard-easily put in their required circuits of the track, as did No. 63 car drivers Johnny O'Connell, Antonio Garcia, and Jan Magnussen. Gavin put down a very quick 3.59.435 to take a well-fought pole position in GT2, while Magnussen assumed the qualifying role in the No. 63 car and slipped in right behind the Brit at 3.59.793. (The Risi Ferrari actually posted a faster time than either but failed tech inspection afterward and was moved to the back of the starting grid as a result.)
From the green flag on Saturday, the C6.Rs maintained their 1-2 position. The Corvette Racing team was double-stinting its drivers and tires, so each driver was getting about two hours at the wheel per exchange. At the first pit service, Gavin handed off to Beretta to maintain first place in GT2. Magnussen, meanwhile, held his own and passed the No. 63 driving duties on to O'Connell, who assumed second place in class. Throughout the day, the No. 82 Ferrari (relegated to last position at the start) wended its way through the field, eventually grabbing second in GT2 to split the Corvettes. The Corvette-Ferrari-Corvette trio slugged it out through the night, giving fans a pitched battle to entertain them in the darkness of the French countryside.
Pressure from the intense competition resulted in the No. 82 Ferrari developing a bad gearbox, which eventually forced it to retire to the garage. The fight also took a toll on the Corvette squad, as the No. 63 car, with Garcia aboard, lost its engine shortly after pitting for service at about 7 a.m. Garcia was unable to limp the car back to the pits and was left stranded on the course-No. 63 was out of the race.
The No. 64 car continued to put down good times, running a full lap ahead of its closest challengers in GT2. But at 8:24 in the morning, while entering the Porsche Curves, Emmanuel Collard was surprised by an overtaking LMP1 Peugeot piloted by Anthony Davidson. Collard executed an avoidance move to miss contact with the French entry, but the maneuver ended up throwing him into the trackside barriers and seriously damaging the C6.R. Although the outside of the car was mangled, Collard was able to limp back to pit lane.
The bodywork was replaced successfully, but the damage from impact was far more extensive. As team principal Gary Pratt put it, "[The car] backed into the barrier really hard and took the inner frame bumper off, the rear tail wing, and the quarter-panels. The clutch was damaged, so we had to install a clutch and bellhousing. We changed the front nose box, and the exhaust was pushed under the rocker panel. Fortunately it didn't tear off the suspension, and all four wheels were pointing straight."
After a herculean repair effort by the Corvette team, Gavin returned to the fray and laid down a lap time of 3.59.356-even faster than his qualifying time!
But the Cinderella story was not to be. At 9:42 Gavin reported an engine problem, and just like that, the No. 4 car was also down for the count. After 16 hours of racing, both Corvette entries were out. Did the same malady afflicting the No. 63 car lead to the demise of 64? Or did the accident contribute to the engine failure that ended the team's last hope for a Le Mans finish? That determination would have to wait for a postmortem back in the States.
In the end the Team Felbermayr Porsche 911 GT claimed First Place in GT2. The blue-liveried Porsche had qualified next to last on the grid and was running dead last after three laps. The team had obviously kept a pace it knew it could maintain for 24 hours, and its plan ultimately proved to be a wise one. It just goes to show that no team can ever fully test and prepare for Le Mans; the track will always push every car and driver to their limits and beyond. Out of the 56 starting entries, only 28 finished, leaving many a dream smoldering trackside at Circuit de la Sarthe.
Corvette Racing will take the lessons learned in France and regroup for the remainder of the ALMS season. The team has only one goal in mind at this point, and that is to win this year's GT championship. That will be a tall order indeed, as the competition in class has thus far proved fierce and unrelenting. It will surely be a thrill to watch.