Corvette Racing at Le Mans 2022
STING IN THE TAIL
In the 2022 Le Mans 24-Hours, Corvette Racing was looking good with six hours to go, but the class-leading car was punted into the barriers by a rival at 150mph. I drove the latest Corvette C8 Stingray from the UK to Le Mans sample the action.
“Are you free next weekend,” asked PR pal Nick Bailey. “Ah-ha…” “Would you drive a Corvette to Le Mans?” Is the Pope Catholic? A couple of days later, I set the flight controls for La Sarthe and eased the Red Corvette C8 onto the Surrey blacktop, bound for 2022’s edition of the Le Mans 24-Hours. I’d picked it up from Cadillac-Chevrolet’s solo UK Corvette dealer, Ian Allan Motors, the UK base for right-hookers – the C8 being the first of the line to be thus configured. Flight control is no exaggeration: not only is the latest Corvette Stingray cabin reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise, there are several modes that can be activated at the press of a switch. Most crucial is cruise control, which, given our standout wheels and the likelihood of Les Flics being deployed in force on their annual turkey shoot, was a blessing on the Autoroute: slipping between 110kph and 130kph as appropriate with the flick of a roller, its eight-speed dual-clutch auto transmission responding accordingly. Paddle shifts allied to electronic shifter enable more direct control, with switches on the centre console for normal shifting. You can moderate your performance progressively with Weather, Tour, Sport, Track, “MyMode” and the ultimate Z-mode. But there’s the rub; though there are roundabouts and swings where the Corvette hints at prodigious (0-60mph in 3.5sec) performance from its mid-mounted 6.2-litre LT2 V8, the run from Surrey to Le Mans is pretty much a straight line, though a future whirl around the Nordschleife is promised when it should really come alive. The C8 is based on a central aluminium core with lightweight carbon-fibre and fibreglass front and rear sections with coil-over dampers at each corner. Being mid-engined, handling is some way better than the trad front-engined Corvettes, a fleet of which joined us at the Le Mans Hippodrome horse-racing track.
Head of Cadillac PR, René Kreis and his colleague Patrick Herrmann were our genial hosts at the Corvette Village and in the pit-garage hospitality suite. My photographer colleague Alex Denham and I were capably assisted by the rest of the support team, including photographer Lena Willgalis, Borre Zimmerman, Sebastian Becker and Alok Paleri from Oliver Gavin’s Driving Academy, and we all had a super time at the evening barbecue sessions in our horse-racing paddock enclave at Les Hunaudiéres Hippodrome stadium, half-a-mile from the car race circuit.
Former Corvette racer Oliver Gavin and his wife Helen were the perfect hosts. Oliver has more of less retired now – his last outing was 2019 - but he won the class at Le Mans five times, and knows very much whereof he speaks. I chatted with him regularly throughout the 24 hours, and he joined the ubiquitous shuttles out to Mulsanne, Arnage and Indianapolis corners, giving chapter and verse along the way. More on that later; first a resume of runners and riders.
There are four main categories racing at Le Mans, and the entry is headed by Hypercar LMH and LM Dh, with just five cars from Toyota, Glickenhaus and Alpine. LMH can be hybrid prototypes, while LM Dh prototypes can be hybrids built on one of four chassis from manufacturers Dallara, Multimatic, Ligier or Oreca. LMP2, the largest number of cars in the entry - 27 - calls for one of four chassis, Oreca, Onroak Automotive, Dallara, Ligier or Riley-Multilmatic, powered by a single engine the 4.2-litre V8 Gibson. As it was, all were Oreca-based with a single Ligier, and the sonorous homogeneity of their engine note enabled me to nod off briefly in the small hours of Sunday morning. With maximum engine capacity of 5.5-litres, LM GTE-Pro encompasses six manufacturers and seven cars, including Corvette Racing, with arch rivals Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin with the AMR Vantage Ford, and BMW with the M8. This year, LM GTE-AM drew 23 cars, including Porsches, Ferraris and Aston Martin Vantages, with manufacturers and privateers including professional and amateur drivers locking horns with each other. On the pre-race grid walk I spotted a number of top-name drivers, some of whom I’ve interviewed over the years, including Brendon Hartley for Toyota, Richard Westbrook for Glickenhaus, Robert Kubica, Matt Bell and Alex Brundle in LMP2 cars, and Giancarlo Fisichella in a Ferrari 488 GTO; interestingly his associated all-woman team, Iron Dames in their pink Ferrari, started 18th and finished 8th overall. The 1st and 2nd-place Toyotas covered 380 laps. The speed differential is quite marked: for example, the (winning) Toyota clocked 342kph (212mph), the quicker of the two Corvettes (#64) was timed at 310kph (192.6mph).
Oliver Gavin is a veteran of 19 Le Mans 24-Hours, and knows better than most how the race can unfold. He describes the preamble: “There’s going to be certain adjustments to the programme - the way they have the week laid out - but there’s always a definite cadence to it: a specific test day, scrutineering, and then media work. You seem like you’re always rushing to get somewhere, and then you spend a lot of time waiting, because they want to coral you, and then much like the driver parade in Le Mans, you’re mostly waiting around. It’s a theme of the way the event is run and the town operates, and that’s the whole build up through the week.”
The race team has been present at the circuit for ten days before the start of the race, setting up, preparing for test day and scrutineering, and then testing the car. The closer they get to the race, the stress levels climb, and there’s a test day on the Wednesday before the race, and a qualifying session, and they run all the way through till midnight on the Wednesday. Then there’s a similar process again on the Thursday, and what’s called Hyperpole, which sets the top six cars in each class, and then there’s another two hours of practice, which finishes at midnight on Thursday. So, on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the crew and the drivers are not actually going to sleep before 1.00am or 2.00am. Then, on the Friday, they come to the track early, and it’s a full day of preparing the cars. And then on race morning, the crew are in the garages at 6.30am, even though the race doesn’t start until 4.00pm. There’s a practice session at 10.30am, just for 15 minutes, and then they’re getting everything in order to start the race at 4.00pm. The build-up starts early too. The cars are wheeled out and positioned in echelon along the pit wall, with the grid girls and their parasols and signs identifying race numbers. Then there’s the sprawling grid walk at 2.00pm, lasting 45 minutes or so, and then it’s cleared ahead of the warm up for the rolling start.
At 4.00pm, the lights turn green and there’s the yowling cacophony of 62 race engines as the class-split packs dash for the Dunlop Bridge, headed by the Hypercar Toyotas. Drivers are at the wheel for two-hour stints, as Oliver explains. “In the modern era where it is very structured, there are three drivers per car, and that’s mandated within the sporting regulations.” So, in Corvette Racing, the driver who starts the race will do the first two stints, which is nearly two hours, and then the second driver will be on new tyres, and he’ll stay in the car for two stints, but he’ll keep the same set of tyres throughout those two stints. And then the third driver will do the next two stints, and that cadence continues all the way into the night. And round about midnight, they’ll be looking to see whether they can extend the drivers for three stints in the car, so they’re trying to get three stints out of one set of tyres. This is because the Le Mans track surface is not particularly hard on tyres; Michelin – whose engineers are regularly monitoring the track temperature - have developed a tyre that delivers performance and is durable, and the drivers understand how to use it to get peak performance out of it over a long period. So, if a team can get their driver into the right rhythm and feeling, then three stints is achievable, and that means that at each pit stop they are only fuelling the car, which takes roughly 35 seconds, whereas, if it has to change tyres, that’s another 16 or 17 seconds with the car stationary before it is released back out on the track.
The pit-stop drill is extraordinarily well coordinated. When the car comes in for a fuel stop they immediately plug the fuel probe in, and they’re allowed to change drivers, but no-one else is allowed to touch the car. As soon as the fuel probe is disconnected, four mechanics are allowed to touch the car – like, clean the windscreen or tear off one of the layers of film. It’s quite choreographed, how and where one mechanic runs and how quickly he (or she – Corvette Racing employs a female mechanic) runs, and what he’s carrying and how he goes about his work, because they’ve drilled it enough that they know very well the timings for a stop. The mechanic runs to a corner with the air-gun and gets the wheel off, and the next mechanic runs around and places the wheel on the hub, and immediately the first mechanic guns the wheel on. The objective is to change four tyres in a 16 or 17 second period, with just four mechanics and two air guns. Clearly, Corvette Racing are very good at it, but so are Porsche and Ferrari, who are their main rivals and are monitored accordingly.
By driving three stints through the night in one go, nearly three hours of driving, it gives the other drivers a good rest. Then the next driver will see if he can also do three hours, by which time they are nearly through the night as it’s only dark from 10.30pm until about 4.00am. At the time of year Le Mans is run, it’s light for a lot of it, whereas other 24-hour races like Daytona or Spa 24 hours, the nights are appreciably longer.
Fundamentally, Le Mans is a different race to any other 24-hour event on the calendar, being mainly a public road circuit. So, obviously, the cars are set up quite differently to a dedicated circuit like Spa-Francorchamps. As Oliver Gavin puts it, “the way the car runs around Le Mans is pretty unique, and it’s quite a challenging place to test them. All the years I was driving for Corvette Racing we were striving to find the right place to replicate the conditions you get here in Le Mans, and we never really found it. Being a US-based team, you’re looking for a venue in the United States to test, and at the right time of year, and of all the tracks that we were running on in America the best one was Road America at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin, because of the layout of the racetrack, the long straight, and also the surface is quite good, so repeatability is decent, and you can run the Le Mans aero kit there without it being too frightening. You run very low downforce here at Le Mans because the straights are so long and the grip level on the tarmac is very high. but at Road America it’s a very narrow window when you can have good weather because it’s quite a long way north, so even in May we’ve had snow, hail and rain, and cold weather so that was always a challenge. We looked at coming over to France to test at Paul Ricard but timings and budgets were just too restrictive so we stuck with our testing programme at Road America.”
The drivers too have their own strategies. For instance, if he’s not the first guy in the car, he’s listening very intently to what the first driver is saying on the radio because he’s trying to get an impression of whether the team has made the right choices with the aero, the springs and the dampers, and the tyres chosen in consort with Michelin.
It’s a long process to get the car to the point where it’s Le Mans ready, because it’s a unique race track. This year, particularly, the second year with the mid-engined CR8, the car is a huge step forward, and all six drivers are happy with the car. This, says Oliver, is really unusual, “because everybody has a different style of driving a car, and you get different cues when you’re driving it. Some people rely more on the feeling they’re getting through their backside or their hands or their feet, or visually, or what they’re feeling in the motion of the car. Everybody is built differently, and feel things in different ways, and so to have six drivers all saying, ‘yeah, we’re happy, we don’t want to change anything on the car,’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen the engineers so happy, because usually they are frowning and deep in thought.”
Corvette Racing first came to Le Mans in 2000 with the front-engined C5R, placing 5th in class. After scoring a Le Mans podium on the rear-engined C8.R’s début at Le Mans last year, two cars were entered for 2022, #63 and #64. As the race evolved, Corvette Racing ran 1-2 in GTE-Pro at quarter-distance, with the #63 C8.R leading most of the first six hours. Antonio Garcia was in the early part of his second rotation in the race-leading Corvette after he, Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg each did a double-stint each into the twilight. Garcia began 2nd, but took the lead from Nick Tandy in the #64 Corvette in the opening 90 minutes. Tandy, Milner and Alexander Sims caught the wrong end of a safety-car slow zone to fall off the pace of the sister car in the third hour. Tandy got back in the #64 C8.R near the six-hour mark in second place, and ran about 40 seconds behind Garcia as the race moved toward the halfway point. I got the chance to talk briefly to the drivers in the pits garages. Antonio Garcia’s take on the opening laps was thoughtful: “It was my first time in the car being this hot, and it was a bit of an unknown as to how the car would behave. I was happy with the setup, and we were pulling away from the Porsches, especially in the first stint where I tried to stay in contact with Nick. During the second stint, traffic was a key factor, but I was still working to pull away from the rest and I could see Nick up ahead until he had his issue into Mulsanne.”
Nicky Catsburg in #63 was upbeat: “It went well. On the opening stint you always have to get in the rhythm. The car did what it was supposed to do. We didn’t have any incidents. We maintained our gap. What more could you ask for you know? It was a little bit of an up-and-down when judging the pace, and what to do with the car in some places. No incidents so far… no damage no touches no punctures no failures no mistakes. That’s what we need.” Sadly, though, it wasn’t to last. Tommy Milner commented on tyre strategies: “You saw there were a lot of different tyre strategies in play there. Some guys took new ones on the first stop and some of us not. I lost a little bit at the end of my stint trying to get the front tyres to work after the slow zones. It was frustrating. The first half of my first stint… I don’t think I had a clear lap until my 10th or 11th lap. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You try not to make mistakes in those situations.”
Here's Nick Tandy’s take on helming #64: “It’s far and away hotter in the air, and especially on the track, than we’ve seen in practice. Everyone is learning. You see some different strategies with cars doing single stints on tyres and some on double stints. For us, it was going quite well. I had an issue on downshifting due to some brake locking at Mulsanne and had to bail out and go around the roundabout. It’s also very difficult out there with traffic, because everyone is finding this strange situation with the grip of the track. There’s a lot of aggression because people aren’t feeling the car the same way as during practice, which is tough for us to deal with. I’m looking forward to getting back in when the track is cooler.”
Corvette Racing’s #64 C8.R made it back into podium position at the halfway mark after an up-and-down ride in the second quarter of the race. Nick Tandy was running 2nd in GTE Pro after a couple of early-race setbacks, including an unscheduled stop to change front brakes just shy of the seventh hour. Alexander Sims, driving with Tandy and Tommy Milner, set the class’s fastest race lap in his second stint through the rotation. Four cars were on the lead lap in the class, though unfortunately #63 C8.R wasn’t one of them, following a lengthy spell in the garage to repair a broken left-rear suspension. Just past the halfway mark, Nicky Catsburg switched over to Antonio Garcia who was at the wheel when the Corvette suffered its major issue. We were not immediately aware of this, having been shuttled out to the Hunaudiéres tavern as twilight fell, where we watched the cars from close-up as they downshifted in rapid succession and braked dramatically to sweep around the Mulsanne chicane. The frisson was palpable. In the dark, Alex and I headed over to Indianapolis, the slightly banked left-hander ahead of Arnage’s sharp right, mesmerized by the spine-tingling engine noise as the headlights defined the curve. And, of course, the blare was incessant, punctuated by the rise and fall of revs and gear shifts, thwarting any realistic chance of sleep.
At breakfast-time on Sunday morning in the Corvette camp, it was not good news. The team’s GTE-Pro run had just ended with the retirements of both C8.Rs. Alexander Sims in #64 was fighting to regain the class lead just before the 18-hour mark when a class rival moved into him on the Mulsanne Straight. Contact on the left-front pitched the Corvette hard-left and nose-first into the guardrail. It was a big impact, and the front of the car was a mess. Thankfully, Sims exited the car unassisted, and was fine on his return to the paddock. He had, earlier on, set the fastest GTE-Pro lap of the race. Only moments earlier, Corvette Racing had retired the #63 Corvette due to significant mechanical damage, seen and unseen, at the rear of the car. It was unclear if this was a consequence of an earlier suspension issue in the race’s first six hours. Every effort was made to get the car back into the race, but due to safety concerns for the team’s drivers as well as fellow competitors, the decision was made to retire it.
I joined Oliver Gavin for a debrief, just after the lead Corvette had been knocked out. Everyone in the team was pretty gutted, looking like the stuffing had been knocked out of them. “Yeah, this race can do that to you,” he said. “For as beautiful as the race can be, and the elation you get, it can rip your heart out too. The emotion of the guys committed to this race, it’s extraordinary to see them working on this for months and months, and they’re obviously devastated.” He explained what had happened: “The two prototype LMP2 cars that were running out of that first chicane were both being driven by ‘bronze’ drivers, the least experienced and least capable guys in the race, and the one that was over to the right was going slowly, and he’d been passed by the Oreca as he went through the chicane. Alexander was passing that slower car as it came off the chicane, but there was a gap between the car on the righthand side and Alexander on the left-hand side. Now, the car that was behind the other LMP2 car was trying to come through the middle, and there was just enough room, but as that prototype was coming through the middle, the one on the right started to fade into the centre of the road, and it spooked the other driver, and he tried to sneak his Oreca over to miss the guy on his right, and he just drove into Alexander - and at that point you are doing 150mph - and Alexander had no chance.” It all happened in an instant. The culprit, François Perrodo in the AF Corse #83 Oreca 07-Gibson received a 3-minute stop-go penalty. “It’s cruel luck, and this race can be so devastating,” reflected Oliver. “We’d looked so strong for so long, and it was looking very good. The team would have been strategizing about the rotation to get the fastest guy in the car for the finish, the tyre selection, predicting where the track temp was going to go, managing the car all the way to the end and looking to get the most performance from it. But that gets taken away literally in a split second. It’s so tough for all of the Corvette Racing group.”
Meanwhile, the #63 car had two issues: a left rear suspension failure, and then a puncture. The tyre failed because it started rubbing on the suspension, and they got the car back to the pits garage, but there was so much damage because of that failure, and although they eventually got it fixed and out and running again, they had an engine issue, which became terminal. “It’s a two-car deal,” said Oliver, “and there’s an American analogy: you’ve got two bullets in the gun, and they recognise that the #63 had its issues today, but they still had the #64, and it was that second bullet they were relying on, and for them to be taken out by some erratic piece of driving is just unbelievably cruel.” Should rookie drivers be competing with professionals? Part of the WEC and Le Mans 24-Hours is to allow the less experienced amateur drivers, the gentleman drivers that want to come and compete in this race, they bring funding and they bring sponsorship, and they bring the ability for cars to be racing here. “You see it time and again, where drivers with less experience and less ability have a big effect on other people’s races, and that’s super frustrating for the Pro team like Corvette Racing where they’ve got involved with somebody else’s accident. I understand why there are Am drivers in the race, and the bronze, silver, gold and platinum rankings, and I understand why those drivers need to be in the race, but it’s endurance racing, it’s four classes competing on track at the same time and we all know that this is part of racing, and the system by and large works.” Oliver is philosophical: “Paradoxically, you lean more lessons from a failure than a success.” The season continues, and Corvette Racing will be back at La Sarthe in 2023, keen to secure a podium.
Since 2021, the Corvette Racing division has been headed by Laura Klauser, who‘s enjoyed significant success as Cadillac Racing’s Programme Manager, Stateside, in IMSA. I spoke with her in the Corvette Racing lounge, ironically just after the leading Corvette had been cruelly punted off. “This isn’t how we wanted our Le Mans race to end,’ she said. “We’re all proud of the dedication of everyone on the Corvette Racing team who gave us the best chance for our ninth class victory. We’re glad Alexander is okay, and that the C8.R kept him safe. Our focus now is on our two full-season efforts in the WEC and also the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. We are always learning when we participate in the WEC races. The sporting regulations are just different enough from IMSA that we will find something we hadn’t considered or perhaps didn’t completely understand. We are excited to do a full season with the WEC in 2022, plus we will be racing at tracks we’ve never been to before, so there will be a lot of opportunities to see how our car performs in new scenarios. Also, the Cadillac Hypercar programme is our opportunity to take Cadillac into the next level of endurance racing technology. Cadillac is GM’s technology-leading brand and the Hypercar platform gives us the ability to showcase the brand’s commitment to electric propulsion as we take the next step into this area in racing with the hybrid system. The Corvette GT3 programme is the exciting next step for Corvette Racing. Corvette uses racing to create a better production car and prove the capability of the brand. Racing the cars we sell has been and will continue to be a key component of the Corvette Racing programme.”
The prototype class in 2023 will have so many different OEs competing and the GT switch to the GT3 platform also opens up the classes to more OEs. “Big, healthy fields are exciting, and shows the commitment of the auto industry to the sport. All the competition will make the job of winning harder, but if we are able to make it to the checker first it will be incredible!” Having witnessed the team’s commitment, the enthusiasm, the professionalism and the action, I was delighted when they actually pulled it off in 2023.