The experience of Corvette Racing at the 2018 Twenty-four Hours of Le Mans can best be summed up by the word “blah”—only one Corvette finished and the race itself was not very interesting or exciting for the faithful fans of fiberglass. Corvette C7.R #63 driven by Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller finished in fifth position on the track, but was promoted to fourth when a penalty assessed against the fourth-place finishing Ford GT #67 after the race moved that car down to eleventh. Corvette #64, piloted by Ollie Gavin, Tom Milner, and Marcel Fassler did not finish, retiring with mechanical problems.
Corvette Racing Celebrates Nineteenth Consecutive Year at Le Mans
The 86th running of the Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans in 2018 marked Corvette Racing’s 19th consecutive appearance at the French endurance classic. With eight Le Mans class victories under their belts since 2001 in three generations of Corvettes, the Corvette Racing team came equipped with experience, determination, and probably the best organization in the racing business. And they needed every ounce of their ability to combat fifteen other cars in the LMGTE Pro class from manufacturers such as Porsche, Ford, Ferrari, BMW, and Aston Martin.
The balance of performance criteria inaugurated several years ago by the FIA attempts to even out the performances of the different models by setting limits on various engine parameters and, as you can imagine, makes qualifying a tense, nail-biting ordeal. The best the Corvettes could do was ninth place for #63, 2.7 seconds off the pole and fourteenth place for #64, 3.4 seconds behind the pole position time. Starting position in a twenty-four hour race isn’t as critical as in a short sprint race, but it still means that the further back you start, the harder you have to work to get to the front. Come race day, the Corvettes had their work cut out for them to get to the front of the pack.
Twenty-Four Hours of Intense Effort without much Reward
Superb efforts by all three drivers scraping and clawing for position, and flawless pit stops by the crack Corvette Racing crew kept the #63 in the top nine throughout the race, finally settling into fifth place for the final quarter of the race. New regulations using multiple safety cars around the eight-mile track to control the field under full-course yellow flag situations hindered Corvette’s task of catching the leaders. Safety car situations effectively gave the class-winning Porsche 911 RSR a two-minute advantage, which the Corvette couldn’t make up because it lacked the overall pace of the leader thanks to balance of performance restrictions.
Antonio Garcia said after the race, “The safety car periods didn’t help us, and that makes the race even more full-attack. It makes things very intense and hard. Once you fall behind and get into slow zones, it’s difficult to compensate to make up time. Plus with new pit stop and stint-length rules, there are very limited strategies.” Jan Magnussen echoed those thoughts: “It would have been a different race for us, of course, had the safety car situations panned out differently, but that’s how it is and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Corvette #63 crossed the finish line in fifth place, but was officially moved up to fourth place after the Ford GT finishing in fourth was assessed a time penalty following the race. Fourth place is not what you race for, but if it comes your way gift-wrapped, you take it.
Lady Luck Abandons Number 64 C7.R
While Corvette #63 was fighting other cars to stay near the front of the field, the drivers and crew of C7.R #64 were fighting a series of mechanical issues that kept cropping up. Starting in fourteenth place, Ollie Gavin driving the first stint initially fell back into fifteenth, but managed to move up to twelfth before experiencing trouble with the right front suspension. The problem was not unmanageable so after reporting the trouble to the pit crew, Gavin finished his double stint, handing the driving duties over to Tommy Milner.
Shortly after leaving the pits, Milner reported severe handling issues. Milner returned to the pits and the stricken Corvette was immediately taken back to the garage. The crew diagnosed and fixed the problem and Milner rejoined the race in seventeenth place after losing four laps. Milner then had an issue with the “engine floor” which was resolved back in the garage after losing another lap to the leader. The gremlins then took a respite until the third quarter of the race when #64 began to overheat, a problem that became terminal. The car was retired after completing 259 laps and was not classified as finishing the race.
Ollie expressed the disappointment for the whole crew: ““As soon as we had the problem with the suspension, any chance of winning had gone. You don’t have the speed advantage to make up the time and get the laps back, and the way the pacecars work, there’s no way to work the strategy, it’s very fixed. So that’s frustrating but that’s the race, that’s the way it runs.”
Analyzing the class balance of performance, Gavin felt the C7.R was on par with most of his rivals, but didn’t have enough speed to get to the front. “I felt we were relatively equal with BMW and we could race some of the Fords, but Porsche did seem to have that little bit extra. And the ‘Pink Pig’ [winning #92 Porsche 911 RSR] got that bit of luck. They got the safety car in between themselves and everyone, and capitalized on that. It would have been great to have been fighting there at the end with the Porsche and Ford guys but it wasn’t meant to be so we’ll come back and have another crack next year.”
Corvette Racing’s Future Le Mans Plans
Everyone who is a Corvette Racing fan knows that no one on the entire team, from Program Manager Doug Fehan on down, is about to spill the beans about anything in Corvette Racing’s future, so don’t expect a big announcement here. But there are a couple of upcoming changes in Corvette and the Le Mans regulations that may impact the shape of Corvette Racing’s future.
First, the current C7.R is now the oldest car in the LMGTE Pro field and is coming towards the end of its life cycle. Will this car still be competing next year? Doug Fehan told Racer magazine that, “I don’t think we’d be able to homologate anything next year; we’ll be running what we’re running now. As far as new cars go, eventually there will be an eighth-generation Corvette; right now I don’t know when that’s going to be [rumor has it that the C8 will be here in 2020], but I can assure everyone that when it comes out we will be racing it.”
The second change to consider is the new rules and regulations for the top Le Mans competition class, currently the Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP 1), coming in 2020 and 2024, which will require the top class competitors to look more like street hypercars to give manufacturers the opportunity to participate with prototype cars that have some resemblance to their street cars, enhancing their return-on-investment. Racer asked Doug Fehan: “Will those rules give Corvette Racing the impetus to move up into the top class?”
Said Fehan: “Sometimes it makes sense to move to something else, sometimes it makes sense to continue on the road you’re going down. We’re not ruling anything out; an overall win at Le Mans is a unique situation. This move, to the credit of the sanctioning bodies, is to find something that’s more affordable and technologically representative of where you want to go, with proper brand identification, so it would stand a better chance of attracting manufacturers.”
The question remains: Will Corvette Racing move up to the top prototype class seeking an overall Le Mans win with a new LMP 1 car based on the rumored mid-engined C8 Corvette? Doug’s final comment was, “I can guarantee you that we’ll go away and evaluate it, and see if it fits our plans. You can never rule anything in, or out.”
To us, that sounds like a definite maybe. Stay tuned for further developments.
Pratt & Miller News – http://prattmiller.com/news/article/519