So close and yet so far – is one way in which you might describe Corvette Racing’s result in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hour race. After 24 hours of thrilling, nail-biting racing, the top three cars were separated at the chequered flag by just 96 seconds, and the crowds loved it. During the race, the top cars in the GTE Pro class swapped places regularly as the pit stop sequences played out, but in the closing laps of the race, you could have thrown a blanket over the top three – until the final lap that is!
The starting grid saw the class-winning Aston Martin (#97 Darren Turner/Jonny Adam/Daniel Serra) on pole with the #63 Corvette C7.R (Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Jordan Taylor) back in sixth place. In tenth place on the grid was the #64 car of Oliver Gavin/Tommy Milner and Marcel Fässler.
Over the years Le Mans has dished up some quite memorable weather: stormy, cool and hot, but this year topped the lot with high temperatures. Depending on who you asked, the temperature varied from 32-36° C each day from the first day of scrutineering on Sunday through until the end of the race the following Sunday. Matching these high temperatures was extremely high humidity, which meant that you walked around in a state of perpetual perspiration, day or night. While this might be nice for those who want to lie around on the beach catching a tan, wearing a two or three-layer fire protective suit in these temperatures is no fun. This is of course what the drivers would be doing while behind the wheel of their car, but for the pit crew, this was their apparel all day, every day. For those photographers working in the pit lane, fire proof race suits are also mandatory, so this year was a bit of a challenge.
Back to the racing. This writer is no fan of Balance of Performance (BoP), as it introduces a subjective element into the mix, minimising the hard work put in by the engineers to produce the best car for the race. This can also affect the outcome for the drivers, who over their competitive racing life, strive to build a good CV of top results to ensure continued work in their field. With this in mind, it must be said that the authorities got their calculations almost right this year, as the finish of the race was extremely tight which is what the fans had come to see.
Following scrutineering on Sunday/Monday, Tuesday is a quiet day used by the teams to get cars ready and for some teams to do their team photos on the start/finish straight. The track action got underway on Wednesday with the first four-hour Free Practice (FP1) session from 16h00 to 20h00. This was followed by a 30-minute FP session for the Road to Le Mans competitors which resulted in a car going off that required quite extensive repairs to the barriers. This meant that the first Qualifying (Q1) session from 22h00 to 24h00 for the Le Mans cars was delayed by half an hour. When they did eventually get going at around 22h30, it was Antonio Garcia who set the fastest time amongst the Corvette drivers.
Thursday saw two qualifying sessions, Q2 from 19h00 to 21h00 and Q3 from 22h00 to 24h00. It was during these two sessions that the times really started to tumble, and this placed the #63 car in sixth place and the #64 car in tenth. Just 1.18 seconds covered the top ten cars in class, which gives an idea of how close they all were. Because of the length of the race, many teams forego giving it everything in practice and qualifying to simply be placed a little ahead of a competitor on the grid. Instead, race and car prep is usually the name of the game during these pre-race sessions.
Friday saw no track action, as the teams made final preparations for the big race on Saturday. The start got underway amid the usual scuffles for position, but Garcia in the #63 car was forced to pit early and out of sequence for a slow puncture. Oliver Gavin too, in the #64 car, was the victim of some rough driving by a Ford GT who made himself unnecessarily big in an early corner. The other drivers did not report any problems during the first quarter of the race, which saw the two Corvettes up to 5th and 6th in class, with the top eight cars all having completed the same number of pit stops.
The second quarter of the race, from 21h00 through to the halfway mark at 03h00 on Sunday morning, is seldom a quiet time at Le Mans. At around 22h00, Milner lost his left rear wheel and upon impact with the wall, he lost his rear wing and sustained damage to the rear of the #64 car. Remarkably, Milner only lost four laps in the whole unfortunate incident: half a lap spinning and crashing in Porsche Curves and getting back to the pit lane; one and a half being stuck in the gravel trap at the pit entry (when Tommy went straight since he couldn’t steer on three wheels). Just two laps were lost during the actual repair which included a new rear end, new rear wing, new diffuser, check wheels, brakes and suspension. Between 01h00 and 02h00 in the morning, the #63 car took advantage of a safety car period to change all four brakes, a task that took just 75 seconds to complete.
After hours of fighting back from an early race puncture, the Garcia/Magnussen/Taylor trio in the #63 car clawed its way back and led twice during the third quarter of the race. As dawn broke on Sunday morning, the #63 car was locked in a three-way tussle for the class lead. The progress of the #64 car was clearly influenced by the off-course incident earlier in the evening, because up until that moment and after their return to the fray following the repairs, the car ran faultlessly. Jan Magnussen had this to say, “We are back now in the mix, and we still have a good car. Hopefully we can fight for the win at the end. But there is still some way to go. We have to stay out of trouble and stay with the lead pack. Right now, things are looking good and we’re in it with a shot for sure. That’s all you can ask for.”
As the race moved into the last quarter, things were poised for a thrilling finale. Spectators, media personnel, crews and drivers were all feeling the effects of the heat, but on the track the competition was getting even hotter. Corvette was chasing its ninth class victory at Le Mans, so they had everything to play for.
The heat though had taken its toll on Antonio Garcia, as well as Jan Magnussen, and so the last driver sequence was: Antonio (single stint), Jan (single), Jordan (one and a half), instead of Antonio and Jan doing a double stint each to the finish. The team discovered during the race that the tyres were pretty shot by their third stint, and so the team was faced with a choice, to change the tyres at the last stop and lose 16 seconds to the Aston Martin which had pitted simultaneously, or take a risk on the tyres. They decided to take their chances on the tyres lasting.
Two laps from the end, while approaching the second chicane, Jordan briefly locked up but instead of trying to make the turn and possibly beach the car in the gravel trap, he dropped a gear and floored it across the gravel trap. Going through the gravel he picked up a slow puncture at the right rear and this made the car difficult to drive, as he immediately informed the team over the radio. With this slow puncture, overall shot tyres and fading brakes, he lost the lead going into the last lap. But going into the Dunlop chicane on that last lap he clipped the kerb and blew the left front tyre which immediately halted his efforts – game over, as they say.
The gasps of astonishment, non-belief and willing the Corvette on – that came from the crowd as the final few corners unfolded on the big screens, could be heard around the circuit. As Taylor reeled off the final few corners, he just drove straight, taking the kerbs and bumps in his stride as steering must have been far from easy. In the excitement of the final two laps, the #97 Aston Martin took the chequered flag followed by the #67 Ford GT with the #63 Corvette in third place. The Corvette crossed the line just 1:36.349 minute behind the class winner, and just 3.734 seconds behind the Ford. There was hardly a spectator still seated at this point – who said 24-hour racing is boring?
For more photos of this exciting race, please check out our website.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney