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Corvette celebrates Chevrolet 100th anniversary with win at 2011 Le Mans

Official Corvette Racing Team photo.
Official Corvette Racing Team photo.
Marshall Pruett

Corvette C6Rs of Corvette Racing and Larbre Competition put the icing on Chevrolet’s 100th birthday cake by winning both the Grand Touring Endurance – Pro (GTE-Pro) and Grand Touring Endurance – Amateur (GTE-Am) classes at this years’ 24 Heures du Mans.

Remarkable Winning Record
The seventh win in the past 12 years is confirmation of the tenacity of the entire Corvette Racing team. In endurance racing competition, the victory does not always go to the swiftest, but to those who relentlessly keep going, overcoming whatever obstacles come their way. The Corvettes were not the fastest cars at Le Mans, as the # 74 car qualified in fourth behind 2 BMW M3 GTs and a Ferrari 458 Italia and the # 73 Corvette took sixth position behind another Ferrari 458 Italia.

Number 74 at speed
Marshall Pruett photo

#74 driven by Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen and Richard Westbrook moved into the lead in the first hour of the race and through adept driving and a few breaks, maintained the lead throughout Saturday night and into Sunday morning. #73, with Olivier Beretta, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia at the helm, kept up a steady pace and ran between second and fifth positions as the cars cycled through their pit stops.

Crunch Time
As Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan is fond of saying, "Doing well at Le Mans is, 25% having a great car, 25% having a great team and 50% having good luck”. After leading for 17 hours, the good luck of #74 ran out early Sunday morning when Jan Magnussen had a coming together with a Porsche, the contact knocking out both cars.

The Corvette was in sight of the pits and if it could have gotten there, it might have been repaired. Under Le Mans rules however, only the driver can work on the car outside of the pit area and the car must be able to move under its own power. It was no dice for #74. In addition to the body damage, there were driveline problems. The car would not move under its own power and there was nothing Jan could do to fix it by himself. It was retired on the spot.

Relentless Pursuit and No Mistakes
With about six hours remaining, #73 was in second place, but a lap down to the leading Ferrari. To add to the challenge, driver Olivier Beretta was taken sick on Saturday evening. Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia drove extra stints throughout Saturday night to keep the car in second place. In typically unflappable fashion, team manager Gary Pratt told the team, “The car’s a lap down, but we can make that up”.

With Olivier Beretta back to help out on Sunday morning, the team began their relentless pursuit of the class leading Ferrari. With flawless work by the crew and unwavering concentration by the drivers, #73 cut the margin to the Ferrari by seconds every lap. With only 2 hours and ten minutes left, Tommy Milner made the pass on the Ferrari and took the lead. #73 gradually pulled away, but the lead was never large enough for the team to feel confident.

When the checkered flag fell at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, after 24 hours of racing, Corvette #73 had a winning margin of 2 minutes and 29 seconds.

Le Mans Test Day
The hurdles for Corvette Racing started well before the race. For the first time in several years, the Le Mans governing body scheduled an official test day, this year on April 24. Being at the test day was extremely important to Corvette Racing. As Doug Fehan notes, “It’s impossible to test there outside of the race environment because the course uses several miles of public highway. When you have even one day to gather information it’s extremely beneficial, especially when your competition is going to be there”.

The only problem was that it would have been extremely difficult and expensive, if not outright impossible, to move all of the cars and equipment to France after the American Le Mans Series race at Long Beach, Calif. on April 16, 2011.

Larbre Competition
Fortunately for the Corvette team, a cooperative Pratt & Miller customer, Larbre Competition, who races a Corvette C6R in Europe that has the same specifications as the team cars, came to the rescue. Larbre agreed to let the Corvette Team drivers use their car to gather data during the test day and the data would be shared by both teams.

Corvette Racing competes in the GTE-Pro class and Larbre competes in the GTE-Am class with amateur drivers Patrick Bornhauser, Julien Canal and Gabriele Gardel so there was no conflict in sharing data. Don’t confuse “amateur” drivers with “amateurish” drivers. “Amateur” refers to the fact that these drivers do not make their living driving racing cars, it does not refer to their driving skills.

Great Birthday Present for Chevrolet
The cooperation paid off big for everyone. Larbre took the win in GTE-Am, Corvette Racing won in GTE-Pro, and Chevrolet received a double win in the world’s toughest race. What better 100th birthday present could you ask for?

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