The 79th running of the 24 hour endurance race in Le Mans, France was an event-filled affair and the Corvette Racing team was not exempt.
A massive crash, by Alan McNish of Audi, in the first hour of the race, saw the safety car out for more than an hour as crews worked furiously to repair the damaged Armco barrier. Disaster stuck Audi again in the seventh hour, putting the race under an extended full course caution. Both drivers escaped without serious injury.
Corvette Racing’s turn came up about eight hours later, when Jan Magnussen, driving the #74 Corvette C6.R, suffered an incident very similar to the Audi episodes.
“I was coming out of the Porsche Curves behind a Porsche, and it looked like he was going to make room for me after the fast chicane after Corvette Corner,” Magnussen said. “I went in there, he turned in on me, and instead of just hitting him I tried to take some of the curb and straightline the grass. The curb just kicked the rear out and I went into a huge tank-slapper, hit him, and then hit the wall.”
After starting from fourth in class on the grid, the #74 Compuware Corvette C6.R, driven by Oliver Gavin, had taken the lead in the first hour during the extended safety car period following McNish’s accident. Both Jan Magnussen and Richard Westbrook would get a turn behind the wheel of the #74 Corvette before the first six hours were complete.
Multiple safety cars are used when called for on the 8.4-mile circuit. The #73 Corvette was caught behind the second car following the early accident, putting it down by a third of a lap. Beretta had moved the #73 car up two spots at the start, handing the car off to Tommy Milner after a double stint at the wheel. Milner turned the car over to Antonio Garcia four hours into the contest. A tire puncture would drop the #73 car to sixth place, but Garcia managed to recover two places before the first quarter of the race was done.
At 7:40 into the race, the second Audi accident put the field behind safety cars for almost two and a half hours while track repairs were completed.
As the sun set on the French countryside, Corvette Racing engineers knew to anticipate changes that cooler temperatures would bring. “Of the various phases of the race, 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. is the biggest struggle to keep the cars working for our guys,” said engineering director Doug Louth. “Dropping track temperatures, tire pressure adjustments, various setup tweaks, and six drivers doing their best to adapt behind the wheel make this a fluid portion of the race with many ups and downs.”
Halfway through the race, the #74 Corvette C6.R had a one-minute, 15-second lead over the next class competitor. The #73 Compuware Corvette C6.R was running fourth with 149 laps finished. Following the loss of the #74 Corvette, nearly 16 hours into the race, the #73 Corvette of Beretta, Garcia and Milner, was in second place, one lap down from the class-leading #51 Ferrari.
The team set about to move into the lead, cutting the gap by seconds on every lap. Rainy conditions in the 20th hour saw Garcia picking up 1.5 seconds per lap. After a driver change and with a little over two hours remaining, Milner passed the Ferrari and kept on going. When the checkered flag fell, the #73 Corvette C6.R had completed 314 laps and built up a lead of two minutes and 29 seconds over the second place GTE Pro-class Ferrari.
Garcia had the final stint in the car. “I was very happy with how the race turned out, even though it did not always go our way,” he said. “We had ups and downs – we didn’t get a break with the first safety car, we had punctured tires, and so on. Every time I was in the car, I tried to go as fast as possible and stay out of trouble. You have to never give up here, and just keep pushing. Today it paid off.”
“In the final minutes, everything comes into your mind,” he added. “It went perfectly, a real easy last stint compared to all the ones before it. This was the first time I drove a car at the finish at Le Mans, and it was very special. There is no better time to win this race than in the centennial year for Chevrolet.”
For Olivier Beretta, this weekend’s victory represents his sixth win at the Le Mans 24 Hours race. For Antonio Garcia, it is his third time and for Tommy Milner, his first career victory at Le Mans comes in his first season with Corvette Racing.
Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan was pleased with the victory. “If I were to write a script to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet and the 10th anniversary of Corvette Racing’s first win at Le Mans, this would undoubtedly be it. Louis Chevrolet was himself a racer, and his motto, ‘Never give up!’ is a philosophy we embraced from our first visit here. I think the result today embodied the spirit of Chevrolet’s co-founder and of that iconic phrase.”