A candid discussion with Corvette Racing chief Doug Fehan

Up for the Challenge

John Machaqueiro Jul 1, 2013 0 Comment(s)
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The 2013 season will be one of change for Corvette Racing, as the team closes the chapter on both the long-running C6.R race car and its hugely successful run in the GTS/GT1 and GT ranks of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). The C7.R will debut at the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona, in a newly merged ALMS/Grand-Am series.

We sat down with Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan during the team’s private winter test at Sebring International Raceway in January. The topics of our discussion included seasons past and present, the impact of the new C7, the synergies between road and racing Corvettes, and plenty more.

VETTE Magazine: Looking back at the 2012 season, what do you view as the high points for Corvette Racing?

Doug Fehan: When we look at 2012 as a season, it’s difficult to single out an event, or an occurrence, that would be a high point. Clearly, at VIR, when we wrapped up the championship, there was a lot of excitement, smiles, back patting, congratulations—all the things that go with winning a championship. And I am not diminishing that in its importance, but I think you have to view the year as a whole, because we were in our second full year of development of the GT car. We had only won a single race the prior season. There were those in our business who liked to talk about our resolve, our passion, our desire, our skill level. Had some of that diminished? Was the shine off because we had won so much? Were we really just going through the motions?

None of that was lost on these team members. They recognized within themselves what they were capable of, what their goals and objectives were. Winning championships is why we show up every day to the job. So I think it was important that everyone grabbed that mantle before we began the 2012 season, and our mission was…to go out there and demonstrate to the world that we hadn’t lost that desire. We hadn’t lost the passion. We had done nothing but hone our skills during 2011, and that resulted in the 2012 championships, so it was the whole year as a package that really mattered; the whole year was the high point.

VM: What would you identify as the low points?

DF: You know, as I sit here, I would be hard pressed…I don’t think we had any really low points. Surely when you don’t win, or you come close, there is a level of disappointment. We were close at Petit Le Mans again this year. We thought we had a strategy that was going to bring that home. That was disappointing. Obviously we had two cars capable of winning at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When you work that hard, and you spend all that mental capital in preparing and executing that event, and have misfortune take you out, that’s disappointing. However, those disappointments are forgotten the minute you wake up the next day and you know what the next challenge is…so those couple of moments are ones that we choose not to relive. It wouldn’t be my choice that we go through that, but all they do is further inspire us.

VM: At the end of the 2012 season, what areas did the team identify where improvements could be made for 2013?

DF: I can tell you this: When we go back and review how the season went, regardless of the fact that we won the Driver’s Championship, Manufacturer’s Championship, Team Championship, and Michelin Green-X Challenge Championship, you don’t sit on your laurels. Two days later we were reviewing everything that we accomplished that year and how we could improve. From a materials standpoint, how do we get the car lighter? What can we do from a reengineering position? How can we make our pit stops more effective? Can we make our refueling system more efficient? All those little details that we know make a huge difference in racing. We were on top of that immediately after the conclusion of the season.

Corvette C6R Race 2/7

The GT weapons of choice for this, the farewell season for both the C6.R and the American Le Mans Series.

VM: What do you think will be the biggest challenge Corvette Racing faces in 2013?

DF: When we look at 2013 and the challenges, when you’re on top, there is only one place to go, and that’s down. I can guarantee you that everyone that finished below us has us in their crosshairs. So when you look at Porsche, and you look at Ferrari, at BMW, at Viper, at Lotus, there is one team they want to beat: That’s us, [and] we like being in that position.

VM: Looking at the list of entrants in GT, who do you expect will be your most formidable competitor for 2013?

DF: I don’t think you can single out a marque, or a team, because when you look at qualifying last year, you take the top eight cars, and they were about a tenth of a second apart. How could you differentiate which one of those guys is going to be the more formidable competitor? They are all great competitors. Just as we are here testing, they’re all at some place working very hard, with one thing in mind, and that’s Bring down Corvette. That’s why we are here preparing for that onslaught.

Corvette C6R On The Track At 3/7

With only three cars on track for the private two-day test at Sebring, the No. 3 Corvette of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, and Jordan Taylor was able to log countless miles without the usual race traffic.

VM: The 2013 season closes the chapter on the C6.R and competition in the ALMS. In your view, how useful has racing in the ALMS been in terms of technology transfer from the track to the showroom?

DF: Anyone who watched the [C7 reveal] on the 13th saw the effect that racing has had on the Corvette production vehicle. Tadge [Juechter] referenced it a couple of times. I can tell you that we have an open dialogue with Tadge and his group on a daily basis. The C7 is really the embodiment of everything we have learned since the inception of this program. From the aerodynamic package, to the engine package, to the suspension componentry, to the materials that are used, the car Tadge has produced in the C7 is as close to a race car as you can possibly get for the street. I am so proud of what they have done, and I am very pleased that we have been able to influence them in that direction, that they have openly welcomed that, and that Chevrolet and General Motors have embraced exactly what racing means to improving the breed.

VM: Beyond the technology transfer, how successful has Corvette Racing been in helping Chevrolet market Corvette road cars?

DF: I think you only need to look over in Europe, where Chevrolet was essentially an unknown brand 10 or 12 years ago, and now it has moved to the forefront because people recognize that Chevrolet is responsible for Corvette, and Chevrolet is responsible for Cruze, and for Sonic, and for Spark. These are all quality products from a quality manufacturer, with Corvette the tip of the technological spear, leading the way. It’s a great marketing program. I personally believe it has had a great effect. It has had a profound effect on how Europeans view Americans, and how they view Chevrolet.

VM: How favorable have the data been over the years in terms of Corvette sales to justify the race program?

DF: You know, sales are an important measure, because at the end of the day, we’re here for one purpose, and that’s to sell vehicles. [But] because we’ve had an economic downturn—both in the United States and in Europe—you can look at those numbers, and paper doesn’t care what you write on it, so you could twist those numbers to say anything you want to say. Here is the important thing: Even though sales have been at less than full production of Corvette over the last couple of years, because of economic reasons, what racing has done is manage to keep our customer base engaged, enthused, and paying attention to the products that Chevrolet is building—not just Corvette, but the products I’ve listed, [as well as] Silverado trucks.

Corvette C6R Testing At 4/7

While the Sebring session was a comparatively low-pressure affair, both cars’ crews will feel a heightened sense of urgency as the season nears.

VM: In a broader sense, how has the success of Corvette Racing helped shape the public’s perception of Chevrolet as a global brand?

DF: As I’ve said before, using Corvette to go out there and lead the way…does have a halo effect on everything that we’re selling in Europe, and in Asia as well. That includes Buick in the case of China, and even down into South America. Le Mans…is a global event that covers every continent. It is a wildly important event in every place but North America. Something like 685 million people watch this thing on TV. It’s a huge deal, and we have been able to leverage that to create an impression amongst all those people…that Chevrolet is a leader, and they understand the association between Chevrolet and the other General Motors brands.

VM: While Le Mans is the global stage for Corvette Racing to promote the Chevrolet brand, how effective has the team been in the North American market?

DF: I think we have done a good job thus far, and I think the amalgamation of the Grand-Am and ALMS is going to tend to move that forward. I think we are going to move the ball down the field. We have the great marketing arm of the NASCAR family in Grand-Am. We have the great technical mystique and the adventure that the ALMS provides. When you put those two things together, and you couple them at a point in time when you have NASCAR struggling with its fan base, a diminished TV number, and diminished fans in the stands—and you have an Indycar situation that seems to always be in flux—those lost fans are looking for something. They are out there. That is low-hanging fruit, so we are coming together to create a strategic partnership to move road racing forward. If we can capture some of those people and bring them under our tent, that’s going to expose them to Le Mans. I think Le Mans will be taking a much higher position in the racing world in North America.

Corvette Racing Team Driver Tommy 5/7

Twitter and Facebook updates have become part of the motorsports landscape. Here, No. 4-car pilot Tommy Milner pauses to bring his followers up to speed on the latest Corvette Racing developments

VM: For 2014, Corvette Racing will be campaigning the C7.R. How far along is Pratt & Miller in the development of the car?

DF: We currently have the first test car on the surface plate, under construction, and we will be on track with that car probably in the third quarter of this year.

VM: The C7 has a much more aggressive, angular design approach. Did the shape of the new car offer any fresh challenges or advantages in designing the C7.R?

DF: I think when you look at the vehicle, and you listen to what Tadge said in his [presentation], all the things that we try to create in racing to benefit our on-track performance are totally relevant to the production car. Better aerodynamics, lighter weight, lighter materials, better fuel economy—all the things we need in racing—are things buyers are looking for. So does it present us with some challenges? Anytime you have to build a new car, it’s a challenge, but we welcome that challenge. When we have a frame that is 40 percent stiffer and 90 pounds lighter, is that a challenge? Yes, but that’s a good challenge, so when we look at all the things they’ve put inside that new vehicle, it gets back to what I call our “cascade engineering” process, where better street car equals better race car equals better street car equals better race car, and so on. We’ve taken just another giant step forward, as we did from C5 to C6, C6 to Z06, Z06 to ZR1, and now C7. We have a much better production car from which to create the race car, which is going to give us a better race car.

VM: How much of an evolution will the C7.R be from the current C6.R in terms of technology?

DF: Just as in the production car, there is not a common part between the two. All the things that we are doing for C7.R are going to be better than we did for C6.R. That’s it in a nutshell without getting into any of the minutiae.

People who own a Corvette don’t own just a Corvette. They own a wide variety of other vehicles, and if we can keep them engaged by their love and passion for Corvette Racing, then we have kept our customers aligned, [and] eventually they will purchase a vehicle.

Corvette Racing Driver Tommy Milner And The Corvette 6/7

A pensive Tommy Milner spends a moment with the C6.R he’ll use to defend his Driver’s title this season.

VM: Focusing on the transfer of technologies, how significant has this race program been in shaping the C7 that was recently unveiled in Detroit?

DF: Tadge touched on it. Look at some of the things that you’ve never seen in a mass-produced vehicle. The way that they’ve managed airflow up through the engine, and the way they’ve positioned the radiator in the car. The attention that they paid to the bottom of the streetcar and how flat it is. The aero over the top. The overall height of the car, the shape of the greenhouse, and the angle of the windshield. All those little things make a huge difference. The emphasis they placed on the outside rearview mirrors. All those things that have an effect on the race car have been incorporated within Tadge’s program. He’s done a marvelous job! We couldn’t have asked for more.

VM: The LT1 engine was also announced back at the end of 2012. Will there be an LT1 derivative in the C7.R?

DF: No, the C7.R will be utilizing the same 5.5-liter engine that we are using here today. Having said that, direct injection will come directly off the [LT1] into this engine.

VM: Corvette Racing will be competing in a new series that has not been fully defined. What do you think will be the necessary ingredients to make this a successful platform to carry sports-car racing into the future?

DF: We don’t anticipate that there will be any significant rules changes in 2014. Part of the success of GT racing—this level of GT racing, which is arguably the best GT racing in the world—is the stability of the rules. I can tell you that myself, and all the manufacturers currently involved in GT racing, understand that rules stability is paramount. A great example of this is the continued utilization of the current 5.5-liter engine. That level of stability results in success, so I am not anticipating any issues at all.

VM: Will Le Mans still be the jewel in the crown of Corvette Racing, or do you see that focus shifting?

Corvette C6R Race Car With Doug 7/7

DF: Our intentions remain unchanged. Le Mans remains the cornerstone of what we do. Until such a point in time that something would cause that to change, we have no intention of changing.

VM: The last time Corvette Racing competed at Daytona was 2001. That year, it won overall. The team will be going back to Daytona to run the Rolex 24 in 2014. How useful will this be in preparation for Le Mans?

DF: I think common sense would tell you that anytime you can put another long-duration race into the schedule, that only tends to really harden what you do. We are looking forward to Daytona. We have experience at Daytona. We have success at Daytona. We welcome the challenge of going back there.

VM: How much does the fact that you’re racing at Daytona at the end of January next year change the rate of development? What will you need to do in preparation for that race in terms of testing, as opposed to coming to Sebring in March?

DF: As a team, the greatest challenge that we’re going to face is competing in 2013, developing the new car in 2013, and being prepared to hit Daytona at the end of January 2014. That’s a monumental task that we are totally capable of achieving. We’ve been there before, when we made the transition from GT1 to GT2. We fully understand what lies ahead. We started plans over a year ago…to get this done. It doesn’t mean it is going to be easy, but it means we are ready, and we are up for the challenge. vette

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We sat down with Fehan during the team’s private winter test at Sebring International Raceway in January to talk seasons past...
John Machaqueiro Jul 1, 2013

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