Road to Le Mans Starts at Sebring for Corvette Racing
SEBRING, Fla. - The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring may be only half as long in duration as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but it's a more demanding test of teams and machines. With a notoriously punishing track surface and sultry conditions in central Florida, the season-opening round of the American Le Mans Series will test the mettle of Corvette Racing's new C6.R race cars and the people who engineer, prepare and drive them.
"The cornerstone of the Corvette Racing program is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Sebring is the first step on the long road to France," said GM Road Racing Group manager Steve Wesoloski. "The ALMS series is the proving ground that has allowed us to hone our skills and develop our technology. There are 14 entries in the GT1 class at Le Mans, so we have to keep our eyes on the prize."
In the early years of Corvette Racing, Sebring was the team's "Bermuda Triangle" as the track exacted a heavy toll on the untested cars. The breakthrough came in 2002 when Johnny O'Connell, Ron Fellows and Oliver Gavin notched Corvette Racing's first Sebring class win. O'Connell and Fellows repeated the feat in 2003 with Franck Freon and in 2004 with Max Papis. The Corvettes suffered their only loss in 2005 to Aston Martin Racing in Sebring, but took revenge over the green machines with a win in 2006 by Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen.
"Sebring has always been one of our greatest challenges," said Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. "From a durability and reliability standpoint, it's as tough a test as we face anywhere. You only need to look at the great teams and manufacturers who have struggled here in the past with new race cars to see how difficult it is to run 12 hours here. It is very harsh on people and equipment."
What's New for 2007
Chevrolet's factory road racing team is bringing two new cars and a revised driver lineup to this year's 12-hour enduro. Reigning GT1 champions Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta hope to reprise their winning run in last year's Sebring race with new teammate Max Papis sharing the No. 4 Compuware Corvette C6.R. To do that, they'll have to outrun Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen, and Ron Fellows in the No. 3 Compuware Corvette C6.R. O'Connell and Magnussen will contest the entire ALMS series, joined by Fellows for endurance events.
"Jan will be seeing more seat time over the course of the season, and Ron will be at every race to provide his guidance and technical input," said Fehan. "This is a natural transition that takes place in any program that has run continuously for as long as this program has run. We're planning on a long and promising future for Corvette Racing."
Johnny O'Connell has extra incentive to succeed in Sebring. The redhead from Georgia has a record-tying six victories at Sebring, including an overall win in 1994 and class wins in 1993, 1995, and 2002-04 - the last three with Corvette Racing. O'Connell is tied with racing legend Phil Hill for the most Sebring wins. Hill has three overall victories (1958-59 and 1961) and three class wins (1955, 1962-63). A victory on Saturday would make O'Connell the only driver with seven Sebring wins on his resume.
"It's an honor just to share the record with a legendary racer like Phil Hill," said O'Connell. "We certainly have a good shot at a win on Saturday. Our Sebring test in February went very well, with both cars extremely fast and very close in lap times. Like so many races, it will probably come down to which car catches the better breaks in traffic and pit stops."
Corvette Racing will have two new C6.R race cars, chassis Nos. 5 and 6, at this event.
"The new cars are virtually identical to last year's chassis, with some minor improvements for durability, reliability, and serviceability," said Wesoloski. "We've also worked on the engines to enhance reliability and fuel economy.
"This year we are running 10 percent ethanol under the ALMS regulations, but we've been prepared to run fuel with ethanol content for some time," he noted. "When we raced at Infineon Raceway in 2004, California regulations required ethanol as an additive, so all of the race cars' fuel lines and seals were already compatible with gasoline/ethanol fuel. The maximum fuel capacity has been reduced from 100 liters to 90 liters, but we ran several events last year with 90 liters under the performance balancing regulations, so we're well prepared for that."
Another technical innovation finds the Corvette C6.R race cars equipped with new air conditioning systems in 2007. The ACO (Le Mans) organizers recommended air conditioning in closed cars after searing heat at Le Mans in 2005.
"All the credit goes to the GM engineers who develop air conditioning systems for production vehicles," said Wesoloski. "For several years we used a purpose-built a/c unit to provide cool air for the drivers to breathe. Now we have a full production-style air conditioner with a compressor and condenser that cools not only the driver's helmet and seat but also the entire cockpit.
"Under the ACO regulations, running a full air conditioning system allows us to run slightly larger intake air restrictors to make up for the power that's used to run the system," he explained. "We're using a 31.3 mm diameter restrictors with air conditioning; the restrictor size would be 30.8 mm without it."
The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the first round of the 12-race 2007 American Le Mans Series, is scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 17, 2007. Portions of the 12-hour race will be televised live on SPEED Channel from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. and 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. ET.