Things returned to normal for the reigning P2 champions today at Lime Rock as Level 5 Motorsports scored a 1-2 in qualifying. The same was true for reigning GT champions Corvette Racing, placing its pair of C6.Rs inside the top 5 for Saturday's Northeast Grand Prix.
That sense of normalcy was a welcome change after the two teams returned from a surprisingly uncompetitive outing two weeks ago at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For Level 5, its twin-turbo HPD ARX-03bs had been fast this season, taking the class win at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, but with limited competition in the P2 category at home, it took until race week at Le Mans to get a proper feel for how the chassis and engine combo would fare against a diverse and thriving P2 class at La Sarthe.
A win by the Starworks Motorsports at Le Mans in 2012 using the ARX-03b, along with its 2012 World Endurance Championship P2 title with the car, led to Balance of Performance changes this year, and from the start of official practice, it was clear the Level 5 team would be playing from behind.
Compared to the naturally-aspirated P2 cars, horsepower was in short supply. And with so many long straights to deal with on the 8.5-mile circuit, reaching the podium looked like nothing more than a longshot.
“In terms of Balance of Performance, over here we're only running against other [HPD ARX-03bs], so it really doesn't stand out,” Level 5 team manager David Stone told RACER. “Over there, you're running against the Nissans, which I believe their advantage was more about engine performance than chassis performance.”
The power disparity was an unpleasant surprise for Level 5, and according to Stone, there are limited options are to make sure such a thing doesn't happen again.
“Well, my perspective would be not to return to Le Mans without knowing we had a more competitive package, because it's too big of a commitment to go up against that kind of competition and think that you're going to make it to the podium even in that large of a field,” he says.
“It's not realistic and think you're just going to outlast everybody and everybody that's faster than you is going to fall out because that's not going to happen. The other brands have gotten more and more reliable and there's too many of them to realistically think you're going to achieve a podium finish just staying out of the garage anymore because these have just become 24-hour sprint races. Doing all of the prep work we do and committing the finances we do to show up and find out you don't stand a chance is tough to swallow.”
Level 5's race ended prematurely when Honda's new direct-injected powerplant suffered its first failure — a spike in pressure — which capped a frustrating trip across the Atlantic.
Corvette Racing took fourth and fifth in the GTE Pro class at Le Mans which, based on the team's rich history at the event, felt more like a pair of losses than two top-5s. Like Level 5's ARX-03b, the team's C6.Rs were off the pace the entire time.
Powerless to respond to the Aston Martins and Porsches that streaked off into the distance, Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan says the team's performance deficit has been boiled down to two key areas.
“First, we have to look at performance balancing,” he told RACER. “People tend to look at qualifying as a benchmark. And that's understandable. The reality of it was when we looked at last year's qualifying lap – and this is data we subsequently reviewed with the sanctioning body, by the way – they found that our really quick lap last year was formulated by receiving tows down the four main straight sections of the racetrack. That couldn't happen again if we raced there for 100 years.
“But on that qualifying lap in 2012 it did. So that lap time, from a qualifying standpoint, was really kind of an outlier, but it was used to balance our cars for this year at Le Mans. If you look ahead, we have to kind of discard that as a real effective measuring tool for what went on this year.”
The other item which limited the Corvette team was its lack of familiarity with the Euro-spec Michelin rubber.
“The other situation that we can't dismiss was the fact that this was the first time we were on the new Michelin tire,” adds Fehan. “Unfortunately for us, that was the actual first event in which we had that tire. All the other competitors had raced a 24-hour race on the tire a couple weeks before Le Mans. So they had gotten an opportunity to really learn about the tire, get the car set up for that tire, and that's a big advantage. We were fully aware of that.”
A wet test day and numerous session-stopping crashes during practice and qualifying meant the Corvette Racing team was under even more duress as its GTE Pro rivals needed very little time to find the speed and longevity needed with the same tires.
“Michelin had done a marvelous job of developing a tire that we were convinced we could double stint in all likelihood and we did on occasion triple stint the tire, which is heretofore unheard of in GT at Le Mans,” Fehan explains. “But what we thought was going to be three full days of testing to get our arms around the deal and get it figured out, well, that plan never really materialized based on the weather and all the shortened sessions. So we struggled with learning about that tire. But for the race itself, and obviously for qualifying, we were chasing it because we didn't have the time to maximize the car's potential on the tire. We missed that.”
With its new C7.R due to make its Le Mans debut next year, Corvette Racing will be in a rather intensive learning mode, but if it's possible, look for the team to do all it can to make sure it learns any new tire compounds well before the event. As for the performance balancing…it tends to have at least one manufacturer in the ACO's crosshairs every June. If the Corvette team is lucky, someone else will get a turn to carry that burden.