Corvette may have been kept off the top spot by Ferrari in the first qualifying session at Le Mans, but the team remains sanguine about its pace around the Circuit de la Sarthe, not least because it does not use qualifying tires.
Johnny O'Connell has been on the Corvette squad since 2001 and shares the No. 63 entry with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia. He told AUTOSPORT about preparing the new GT2 C6 ZR1 for Le Mans, how it stacks up against its competitors, and the lost art of mechanical sympathy.
Q. You've got a new car and engine package but [Corvette program manager] Doug Fehan says you're as prepared as you're ever going to be. What does it actually take to be properly prepared for a race like this?
Johnny O'Connell: The best preparation is to have done one before. After Sebring we went back and completed 24 hours of running on our package without an issue. But it was not consecutive. We'd come in, get gas and tires and then go, so we got in the full 24 hours, but obviously there was an overnight wait and then we had the Sunday off after the 12-hour race, so there was a gap before we did the next 12 hours of running.
So, are we prepared? Yeah. But of course, when you get in the race you never know what's gonna break. We had a power steering failure on the No. 3 car at Sebring that really ruined our race – we could have won.
Q. How satisfied are you with your pace so far?
JOC: We don't run a qualifying setup so we were pretty pleased with how things went last night. We're going to run what will be a hard, competitive pace. I think that all of us drivers are way more apprehensive about our pace than the engineers were. The engineers – they can be pretty confident. Normally when we come here we're not happy on the first day. It's not until the late session on Thursday that you start feeling good.
But we rolled off pretty good. We're pretty close on setup. We've got a little more work to do to understand how the different Michelin compounds are going to work for us, but we've found some things that the car likes.
Q. There's a great variety of machinery in the GT2 class. Do you find that there is a spread of abilities between the different cars?
JOC: I haven't been around the Porsches or Ferraris much, but I've been around the BMWs. Certain areas they have us, certain areas we have them. It's difficult to tell because they're running Dunlops – I don't know how those tires are going to perform for them here, or what setups they were running yesterday.
We're not going to really know what everyone else has until we're out there in the race with them. Quite often, if I'm running and I've got a car in front of me, and he's going to show me what he's going to do – OK, then I'll learn. If I see a competitor behind me in a practice session, I'll let them go because I don't want them to know what I'm capable of doing.
Q. You've got John Fitch [co-driver of one of the first group of Corvettes to race at Le Mans in 1960] here this weekend and he's talked about the perils of racing in production-based machinery. How glad are you that modern GTs are more robust?
JOC: A lot! One of the cool things about sports car racing has been the way it's evolved. When I started, if you could lap Le Mans in 4m00s, you'd race at 4m05s or even a bit slower to preserve the machinery. Nowadays, since I've been racing with the Corvettes, every lap is as hard as you can go.
It's a great way to approach things, but it certainly gives you a lot of respect for the people who went before. In the old days you'd hear a lot about mechanical sympathy - guys who weren't just good at being fast, they were good at looking after their equipment. It's still a useful skill, but we don't need it in the large doses they used to have.