When it comes to flying the American flag at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, many look to Corvette Racing and the success it has achieved through the years.
The factory Pratt & Miller-run squad not only holds the record for the most consecutive starts with the same manufacturer, but also has the hardware to back it up, having scored eight class victories out of 16 attempts.
Corvette Racing heads into this year’s French endurance classic as defending GTE-Pro race winners, as undoubtedly the most experienced U.S.-based team to make the trip across the Atlantic.
According to program manager Doug Fehan, having the level of past experience in one of the toughest endurance races the world pays dividends each year when the Michigan-based team begins the preparation process.
“It’s a distinct advantage,” Fehan told Sportscar365. “It would never appear to be an advantage unless you’ve tried to do it.
“We start planning and doing Le Mans immediately upon return from our last visit. When we get back from the event, we’ve already made a list, while we’re there, of all the areas that we think we can improve on.”
Each February, the process begins in earnest, with shipping containers — made specifically for Le Mans — brought out of a warehouse and into the shop to begin packing.
Fehan said that the spare parts for its Corvette C7.R are separated for use in either the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship or at Le Mans, with a dedicated transporter packed with equipment also being loaded simultaneously to be sea-freighted to England in late April.
Three weeks later, the cars, along with 20 tons of additional equipment will be flown to France, following its annual Le Mans shakedown and aero validation test at Road America in early May.
“Having been there so many times before, all the things you need to do, all of the checklists you need to put together, make you far more efficient than most everybody else who may be going over for the first time,” Fehan said.
“We’re like a well-drilled Le Mans unit. There will be no surprises. We have everything figured out and have developed a long list of strategic partners to be able to do this.”
IMSA vs. Le Mans
While the car is built to the same set of regulations, there’s some subtle differences in both the appearance of the Corvette C7.R and the rules and regulations the team must comply to at Le Mans, compared to their normal environment in the WeatherTech Championship.
The biggest visual change is the use of the Le Mans-specific low-drag bodywork. The installation of the ACO’s mandatory data logger system is also another element, as well as any adhering to any Balance of Performance changes from the FIA.
One previous change that is no more for 2016 is the type of fuel, as Corvette Racing has switched from E85 to E20 in the WeatherTech Championship, the same type of fuel that is utilized at Le Mans.
From the sporting regulations standpoint, the biggest adjustment comes in the pit stops, as fueling and tire changes have to be performed separately, unlike IMSA. Additionally, only one air gun is allowed to be used at the same time, compared to two in IMSA.
As a result of the different pit stop regulations, tire durability plays a larger role at Le Mans, and for Corvette Racing’s longtime technical partner Michelin, it has proven to be one of the best in the business in offering longer-lasting tires.
Each year, Michelin designs specific new tires for Le Mans with the objective of achieving double and sometimes triple stints for the GT classes.
“We work year around to ensure optimum grip, handling, and endurance,” said Lee Willard, Michelin senior engineer for Corvette Racing, who is also directly embedded with the team at Le Mans.
“The first examples of Le Mans race tires become available in the fall of the previous year. Michelin and our partners make many evaluations on new tires and include everything from rolling résistance, to lateral and radial spring rates, and very sophisticated flat track measurements.”
Willard said that its technical partner teams, such as Corvette Racing, are able to make their tire selection for Le Mans by early spring of each year, typically offering hard, medium and soft variants prior to mass production in May.
“The key is to be quick and to maintain that consistency through multiple stints,” Willard added.
With such a strong track record at Le Mans, Corvette Racing’s expectations for Le Mans are always high. According to Fehan, it’s their single most-important race each year.
“You can see that everybody steps it up that little bit more to that next level when we go to Le Mans,” said driver Oliver Gavin. “It’s where everybody wants to bring their A game.
“It’s the one race where everybody turns up with their very best kit, with everything prepared to within an inch of it’s life. It really is the event of the season where the team goes over en mass for three weeks.
“It does have a huge impact on your whole year and how well you do at Le Mans. The whole thing is a vital part of our whole season.”
This June, Gavin and co-drivers Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor will be seeking back-to-back class victories, with the sister entry of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Ricky Taylor also set to be in the fight after the No. 63 car was forced out last year in a qualifying accident.
“Having won last year is just that, old news,” Fehan said. “And quite frankly, none of your competitors really care who won last year. All they care about is how they’re going to do this year and that’s the same way we look at it.
“It’s so difficult of an event to win and it comes down to the formula that I’ve taken forward for so long. It’s 25 percent great car, 25 percent great team and 50 percent good fortune. You can control the first two to some degree. That third element you can’t control.
“And with that, you need a huge dose of good fortune.”