Tens of millions of dollars. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours. Those are tough words to spit out, but their meanings are even harder to swallow when you come up second. While Chevy put forth a huge effort to enter a pair of Corvette C5-Rs at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, did they really think they could win the first time out? That would be wishful thinking. They were just happy to finish, and finish well.
"It's just ecstasy," said C5-R's Project Manager, Doug Fehan. "To show up for the first time, have two cars finish, have one on the podium...there's only one first time."
The drivers felt pretty satisfied too, having fared well against a much more experienced Team ORECA Viper squad.
Driver Justin Bell summed it up: "We came here with high expectations on many levels," he said. "I think we've achieved pretty much most of them except for winning. We came here to be fast and came here to be cohesive as a team, and we put on a good show. We have so much information for next year. We'll come back very strong."
Bell brought up a few important points, though. "We were disappointed about the fact the Viper could run 13 laps on fuel and they could double-stint on their tires."
The highly modified LS1 engine, almost unrecognizable against the production piece, barring its basic architecture, was a serious asset for the Chevy team-but only after they made the decision about a year ago to increase its size from 6.0 liters to 7.0 liters; a 427 small-block, if you will. The ultra-long straights at Le Mans favor a big engine pulling a long gear, and that formula certainly favors the Viper's V-10. For a much smaller engine, the "little" 12.5:1 LS1 did well.
Much of the Viper's advantage comes from experience with the dreaded restrictors, two small inlets that challenge the design of intake manifolds and hold the racing LS1's power to 620 hp at 6,200 rpm and 495 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm. The mileage, as Bell noted, is an especially tough nut to crack.
The fact that both cars finished is amazing, considering the heat. The 200,000-plus fans from around the world that show up at Le Mans might have been pleased with temps in the low 90s, but these closed-cockpit cars weren't designed to run in such conditions. Especially the tires, as every team had issues-some bigger than others-and the Chevy's Goodyear rubber just wasn't as up to the challenge as the durable Michelin tires. "We learned so much," said driver Chris Kneifel. "The Goodyear tires performed the best they ever have. They've done a good job of getting us closer to where we need to be." But it wasn't enough.
On a single lap, the Corvettes were fast. In fact, they split the almighty Viper squad in qualifying. C5-Rs took second and third spots on the GTS grid, beaten by only one Viper and leaving the rest behind. That, again, is a sign of the car being up to snuff on short runs, but unable to capitalize on what counts in endurance racing: durability.
Where does this leave the Chevy squad? They came up about a half-a-car short at the rain-plagued Mosport round of the American Le Mans series, where the team is making occasional appearances. Fehan says their goal is to win a race in 2000, so by the time you read this, hopefully they'll have hit their mark (possibly at the Road Atlanta's Petit Le Mans, a 10-hour event). As for next year's Le Mans, the going should get easier. Team ORECA Viper is expected to park its dominant red monsters to prepare an all new car for 2002, and the privateer Viper squads aren't seen as a match for Chevy's giant effort.
Does that mean the Corvettes are a shoe-in for victory? No. Do they stand a much greater chance with the three-time winners out of the way? You betcha. No one wants to win the world's greatest endurance race by default, but that may be the case in 2001.
We do know that this year's drivers were proud to be a part of the event.
"I'd better be here next year," Kneifel said. "I'll be really bummed if I'm not. There's unfinished business."How many representatives did GM bring to Le Mans? The number didn't reach a thousand, but it was well into the hundreds! As for the team itself, Chevy brought an onslaught of drivers, engineers, mechanics, and suppliers to support its return to the world's biggest race. Count the executives, chefs, PR people, etc., and the number was rumored to be around 600 people representing GM at the event.
While Goodyear has been pouring on a little more tech as of late, their massive pullout from F1 and CART racing has left them behind in terms of tire technology. This showed at Le Mans, where the Michelin teams-that means Chevy's competition in the Viper camp-could run longer without changing rubber. Many felt that on Michelins, the Corvette team could have been even closer.
It was the little failures that put the Chevy team behind, but after all, the C5-R is a much newer car and the team was on its first trip to Le Mans. Though they're getting away here, the Chevy guys found that heat killed the starter motors. That was no surprise, as record temps in Europe had the cars dealing with their toughest conditions ever.
"Just how hot was it out there, Justin?" With the temperatures in the closed-cockpit GTS racers reaching 170 degrees, drivers like Brit Justin Bell told their teammates like Canadian Ron Fellows to keep drinking those fluids-Bell went unconscious when exiting after a long stint.
Chevy Raceshop guru Gary Claudio confers with European star Franck Freon, and from their smiles, they must be discussing how much fun it is to finally realize a dream. Claudio worked with GM Motorsports boss Herb Fishel and C5-R manager Doug Fehan as coordinating managers for the Le Mans effort.
How's this for a long day. Arrive at the track at 6:00 a.m. Begin the race at 4:00 p.m. Stay up all night performing pit stops and fixing small, nagging issues that keep you out of the serious running. Finish the race at 4:00 p.m. Have a glass of champagne for finishing second in class, then pack up all of your pit equipment during the night. You'd be tired, too. Though both teams didn't make it to the podium in the GTS class, hats off to the #64 car and drivers Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, and Frank Freon for finishing 10th overall and second in class.