The biggest, most important race of the year for Corvette Racing took place in France on the weekend of June 13th-14th. The race in question has been held each year since 1923, and is known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Not only is this one of the biggest and most important races of the year, but it’s also the one furthest from Pratt and Miller’s headquarters in New Hudson, Michigan. In fact, Program Manager Doug Fehan, his boss Jim Campbell, and the rest of Corvette Racing management have remarked this as their most important race. So why the emphasis? Well, that will soon become apparent.
Corvette Racing At Le Mans
Le Mans is not just a 24-hour race, it is a weeklong marathon for crews, drivers, and all involved with the teams. In the case of Corvette Racing, it is actually a three-week marathon as they arrived for the test weekend two weeks prior, and rather than packing up and heading back to the USA, they stayed in France.
The week of Le Mans starts on the previous Sunday with the scrutineering in the Place Du Jacobins in the center of Le Mans town, and continues on through Monday. The drivers do an autograph session and there are various admin duties on Tuesday back at the track. On Wednesday, the real business of the week starts with the four-hour practice session during the afternoon and evening.
Thursday is again practice and qualifying with two two-hour sessions during the evening. Friday is the Parade du Pilotes (drivers parade around Le Mans town center) as well as the teams’ opportunity to prepare the cars for the race which is due to start on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. The pitlane is open to the public from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Friday, so the preparations are all made under the public gaze.
The Wednesday practice session was incredible, with the Porsche 919 Hybrids setting a new lap record of 3:16.887 with Neel Jani at the wheel. Unfortunately, Thursday’s first session was a disaster for Corvette Racing, as the #63 C7.R with Jan Magnussen at the wheel crashed heavily in the Porsche Curves causing a red flag for a safe recovery of Magnussen, the C7.R, and barrier repairs.
The car crashed as a result of a small stone getting wedged into the throttle mechanism, causing the throttle to stick open. As Magnussen began to setup for the lefthand turn within the Porsche Curves, the car speared across the track straight into a concrete wall, destroying the right front.
The force of the impact turned the car and spat it into the Armco barrier on the other side of the track, crushing the right rear of the car.
Thankfully, Magnussen was okay, though the same could not be said of the #63, which was withdrawn from the race as it had suffered damage which could not be repaired in time. Our initial thought upon learning that Magnussen was okay was instant relief, followed by depression knowing that only one Corvette would be competing for the “biggest, most important race.”
So we started to wonder, “How could an organisation as big as Corvette Racing not have a spare chassis in case such a thing happened, especially when they’re nearly halfway around the world from home? Surely the cost of building a complete spare chassis and shipping it to France must be insignificant when compared with all of the other money spent to enter the world’s biggest and most important race.”
We speak with Doug Fehan on a fairly regular basis and happened to ask him a similar question last year: “What if something terrible happens to one of the cars in qualifying?” His answer was simply, “We have a spare car sitting in Detroit just in case something extraordinary occurs.” Sadly in 2015, Corvette Racing sold this car to Larbre Competition and as luck would have it, they haven’t built another spare chassis. Pratt and Miller are building two new chassis for the 2016 season, but they are being constructed in accordance with next season’s regulations, and they are not yet ready.
So please Jim Campbell, Mark Kent, or whoever it is that holds the purse strings; get this rectified for next year. We would sure like to see a third chassis sitting in a crate or on a truck for the 2016 Le Mans event, as this situation cannot happen again, especially with Ford re-entering the ring next year.
Ford Performance announced at Le Mans last week that they will return to the race with a four car-assault on the GTLM Pro Class, the class in which Corvette Racing competes. Ford will enter the 2016 FIA WEC with a two car team and also the Tudor United Championship with a two car team run by Target Chip Ganassi. These two teams will then combine into the four car team for Le Mans… and probably a spare chassis or two.
LeMans Must Go On
The Saturday warmup session went poorly for the privateer Larbre Competition Corvette C7.R #50 running in the GTE AM Class, as Gianluca Roda crashed the car heavily in the Porsche Curves not far from where Jan Magnussen had crashed the #63 Corvette Racing C7.R on Thursday night.
Roda exited the car okay, but could the team repair the car in time for the race? Well the answer was they had a lot of help from Corvette Racing as they had a whole team of mechanics sitting around just itching to get their hands dirty. The team descended en masse on the Larbre pit and helped rebuild the car and it did indeed make the start of the race.
The start of the race was spectacular with the Porsche 919 Hybrids and Audi R18 e-Tron Quattros going at it at the front of the race, as if it was a 20-minute battle rather than a 24-hour war. The #17 Porsche followed as the #18 Porsche and #7 Audi trailed closely behind. The three-pack was running hard, but the #19 Porsche and the other #8 and #9 Audis were all in close attendance.
Corvette Racing’s #64 qualified in last place in the GTE PRO Class, so they had a battle on their hands working through not only the PRO Class cars, but also some of the AM Class cars too. Oliver Gavin drove a fantastic first stint and worked his way through the traffic, bringing the #64 into contention for the PRO Class lead.
A safety car appeared about 1 hour and 23 minutes in, when the #92 Porsche 911 from the PRO Class had a massive engine fire. The retirement of #92 meant that Corvette and Porsche only had one proverbial bullet in the gun, in contrast to Ferrari with the two AF Corse cars and Aston Martin Racing with their three. During the first safety car period, the #50 Larbre Corvette C7.R returned to the race from a gearbox issue.
The second driver into the #64 was Tommy Milner, and he too drove very well. He spent most of the first part of his stint fighting with the #97 “art car” Aston Martin and then battled Fernando Rees in the #99 Aston Martin for the lead of the class. As the pit stops cycled through, the Aston led, then the Corvette, and then the Aston.
The race progressed into the late evening and eventually full darkness. Unfortunately for Corvette, the #50 Larbre Competition C7.R retired from the race having finally succumbed to the gearbox issues that plagued the car through the first eight hours of the race.
Jordan Taylor took over for Tommy Milner and again drove both fast and faultlessly, helping the Corvette to build a small lead in the GTE PRO Class. All the other cars had issues or their drivers made mistakes, except for the #64 Corvette Racing C7.R which kept lapping with amazing consistency.
By morning, there were just three cars in contention for the win–the #64, the #51 Ferrari, and the sole remaining Porsche #91. The #97 Aston Martin had long since retired, having stopped out on track early in the night, while the #95 and #99 Astons were too many laps behind. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari was still running, but was about five laps down compared to the three GTE PRO Class leaders.
The #64 Corvette did a scheduled brake change overnight, and apart from this, it was just a regular cycle of driver changes every three pit stops. The car would take fuel on every stop and got new tires every two or three stops depending on the compound and wear rate. The #64 was building a nice lead until the #96 GTE AM Class Aston crashed, bringing out a safety car which wiped the Corvette’s lead with Olly Gavin at the wheel.
Throughout Sunday morning, the #64 led with the #51 Ferrari and the #91 Porsche in hot pursuit. Ultimately, the #91 suffered mechanical problems and dropped back, leaving just two cars fighting for the Class victory.
A Full Sweep Of The Clock
With two hours to go, Olly Gavin was in a dogfight with Toni Vilander at the wheel of the #51 Ferrari. Vilander made a small mistake clipping a green bollard, which caused a major issue for the Ferrari as it appeared to break a driveshaft or cause a gearbox issue. The car immediately returned to the pits for repairs, but lost seven laps before returning to finish third in the GTE PRO Class.
The sister car, #71 AF Corse Ferrari, inherited the second step on the podium and the #64 Corvette took the GTE PRO Class victory by five laps at the end of the race, finishing 17th overall with 321 laps completed. We also found it rather interesting that the #64 qualified last with a best lap of 3:57.081, but finished first with a best lap of 3:54.823 during the race.
Congratulations to all of those at Corvette Racing and everyone that helped keep all the Vettes in the running. We wish everyone a safe and successful season.