No American Le Mans Series title. No Le Mans 24 Hours victory. Corvette Racing missed its twin targets in 2010, the first year it has failed to hit either since 2001. There was a solitary win in the ALMS and five more series podiums in its first full season in the GT class (formerly, GT2 class), results that for most teams would have added up to a decent season. But as Mark Kent, General Motors racing director, says: “Corvette Racing isn't a normal team.”
The man under whose purview the Chevrolet Corvette program falls is keen to remind that the GT-class 'Vettes “were on the podium consistently and regularly challenged for victories.” But he admits that's not enough for an operation that has notched up seven ALMS drivers' titles, eight manufacturers' crowns and five class victories at Le Mans in the GT1 class (and its forerunner, GTS).
That's why, he explains, “Every element of the program, from top to bottom, came under review during this off-season. There's been no silver bullet, just a series of tiny improvements aimed at putting the Corvette back where it's accustomed.”
There are a number of theories to explain Chevrolet's worst season since it started winning in the ALMS back in 2000. But it is important to understand that the Pratt & Miller-run team was facing its stiffest challenge ever after swapping over to the GT2 class, as it was still known in the ALMS when Chevrolet made its debut in the category at Mid-Ohio in 2009.
Arguably, there was and remains no sterner challenge in sports car racing around the world.
The GT1 Chevys never truly had more than one opponent capable of depriving them of victory in the ALMS: first there were the ORECA Dodge Viper GTS-Rs; then the Konrad squad's Saleen S7R; occasionally the Prodrive-run Ferrari 550 Maranellos; and, for a little over a year, the factory Aston Martin DBR9s. In stark contrast, last season the all-new GT2 Corvette C6.R (which confusingly retained the nomenclature of its GT1 sibling) came up against factory or factory-backed opposition from Ferrari, Porsche and BMW, all at the same time. Ferrari and Porsche are stalwarts of a class in which they have largely shared the silverware since it was established back in 1999. BMW was a returnee with a big-buck factory program masterminded on the ground by the Rahal Letterman Racing team. They were all formidable opponents.
Chevrolet probably achieved too much too soon in its new arena during '09. It was on the podium first time out and won at the third time of asking at Mosport. Whether or not the dispensation it received to run a GT1-based engine (complete with direct injection) played a major part in those results isn't clear, but some were still predicting that Corvette would make the renamed GT class its own in 2010.
In fact, it was Chevrolet's rivals which, according to one of the team's stalwart drivers, Oliver Gavin (LEFT), “ratcheted it up a notch.” The Ferrari 430 GT – the GT2 class winner at Le Mans in 2008-'09 and the fastest car in class in the ALMS over that period – took a giant step forward. Ferrari had experimented with running the 430 at the higher 1245kg [2745lbs] (rather than 1125kg [2480lbs]) weight limit allowed in GT2 at the end of the 2009 FIA GT Championship. This allowed Ferrari a larger-diameter air restrictor and thus more engine power, as well as wider wheels and tires. Ferrari, whose ALMS charge was again led by Risi Competizione, picked up something in outright pace and, more significantly, tire durability.
“There were times when they absolutely nailed us, and everyone else,” recalls Gavin. “At Long Beach, the Ferrari was half a second clear in qualifying. We went to Mosport, and it was the same. To put it simply, we didn't have enough speed in the car.”Ferrari had the fastest car last year, but didn't turn it into championship success. That honor, yet again, went to Porsche and the Flying Lizard squad. The latest version of the German manufacturer's 911 GT3-RSR wasn't the fastest GT last year, but the Lizards made up for it as a team. Drivers Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long barely made a mistake all year, and the Lizards' legendary teamwork did the rest. (Read about their first foray into Daytona Prototypes here.)
In the past, Corvette Racing, too, showed great speed in the pits and strategic acumen, yet its golden touch deserted it in 2010.
“We made a lot of small mistakes that had a big effect,” says Jan Magnussen, who joined Chevrolet back in 2004. “There were lots of races where we were in with a shot, but we threw it away.”
The 2010 season started badly for Corvette Racing. Its two cars collided in pit lane early in the Sebring 12 Hours, and, unfortunately, that turned out to be a tone-setting incident. There were collisions with GT rivals, incidents with prototypes and drive-through penalties for mistakes in pit lane.
There's a theory that the two years Corvette Racing essentially competed against itself in the ALMS blunted its competitive edge. Some involved in the project dismiss that idea, others give it some credence. Magnussen is very much in the first camp.
“We were always allowed to race each other,” he says. “The drivers raced each other on the track and the crews raced each other in the pits. Everyone was pushing hard even though we didn't have any real opposition.”
Gary Pratt of Pratt & Miller, isn't so sure. “You think two years of not really racing anyone [2007 and '08] isn't going to affect you,” he muses. “But going into a class of six or more cars that can win, you find you've lost something.”
Pratt also concedes that its efforts for the Le Mans 24 Hours blunted the ALMS campaign. “Our main goal was Le Mans, and we focused on that,” he says. “That left us a little off in terms of our sprint package for the ALMS.”
True enough. As usual, the Corvettes flew at the Circuit de la Sarthe in France. “Our trimmed-out package was strong,” says Gavin. “We could run the top speed and get through the Porsche Curves quickly. The homework we did for Le Mans paid off.”
At least in terms of outright speed. Reliability issues with its 5.5-liter V8, developed in-house at GM rather than the Katech company behind the GT1 powerplants, almost certainly deprived Corvette Racing victory at Le Mans. An oiling problem resulted in engine failures on both Chevys. The reasons for the Chevrolet's pace at Le Mans also explain its lack of pace in the rough and tumble of the ALMS. The GT2-spec C6.R was short on downforce, at least in comparison with the Ferraris and BMWs. Kent won't let that happen again, stating clearly that “Corvette Racing's efforts in North America will not be compromised in the name of performance at Le Mans.”
Thus, attention has been paid to the aerodynamics of the car over the winter, according to Kent, and he adds that the “engine has come under scrutiny as have our procedures in the pits.” But ask him what has been the main criteria for Corvette Racing's winter program, and he's admirably blunt: “That we learn from our mistakes.”
Time will tell just how much progress the team has made both with the car and with its operation. Sebring, next month, will provide at least some of the answers.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.