20 years on, Corvette continues to write Le Mans history
You can’t get a true impression of just how much the Le Mans 24 Hours means to Corvette Racing until you sit down and talk to some of the key people involved.
Factory programs come and go, very rarely staying for very long, in any area of motorsport. But Chevrolet and Corvette Racing keep coming back every June, year after year, to race GT cars and compete for wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
This year is Corvette’s 20th at ‘The World’s Greatest Motor Race’, and the program is showing no signs of stopping. While there have been a handful of low notes, there has been many more highs in some memorable races over the years, through the C5.R, C6.R and C7.R eras.
Since 2000, Corvette has competed at Le Mans every year, won its class eight times, and in the process, completed 95,221.25 miles of racing at the circuit. This year, in what is expected to be the C7.R’s final trip to France as a factory car, it’s looking for win number nine.
For program leader Doug Fehan it’s been an incredible ride; seeing his team grow, winning races, creating traditions and winning over the locals.
“I think I speak for everyone on the team that from the minute you pull into this race track, it’s like flipping a switch,” he told RACER.
“You realize you’re at the holy grail of racing, and we’re writing a piece of history for Corvette Racing that people will remember long after we’re gone. That sense of importance drives us.
“It’s an honor to compete here; you have to be invited. It’s the best sporting event in the world, and the performance level required to get a podium here motivates us. And we can’t truly see the forest for the trees when it comes to a legacy.
“We researched this before we started coming. The reputation of Corvettes was pimps and prostitutes, that’s who owned Corvettes. We knew we had to overcome that.
“We made the decision early on to work hard, and play to this country, which has gorgeous history, architecture and pride. The key element was the people of this town, that’s what drives the race, the people of Le Mans own this. They live for this. It’s a pretty blue-collar place, but it’s the place where history is written. And we have to work so, so, hard to earn results.”
No driver knows about the way this program operates quite like Oliver Gavin, who is the only man in its factory stable to have taken Le Mans class win in each of its three cars.
The British racer’s first Le Mans with the team came in 2002. Since then, he has been taken in as part of the GM family, and been picked to come back time and time again.
“That first year was crazy,” he reflected. “I’d seen how the big yellow juggernaut had operated, steamrollering people while I was driving a Saleen. Ultimately Corvette had performance and victories before I came along. Doug called me, and wanted me to drive for him, and I couldn’t say no.
Oliver Gavin became a permanent fixture at Corvette after helping to win on his debut in 2002. Image by Rose/LAT
“We didn’t know then that this would last so long. I remember coming in 2002 with wide eyes. We had issues with the car, but the team worked hard to straighten it out. I remember Jonny O’Connell and I did the whole night, as Ron (Fellows) was unwell and couldn’t drive at night. So we did it together, and managed the performance and ourselves.
“Then in the morning, Ron was well enough to get back in, and he finished it up. Walking out onto the podium after that one was amazing after such a wild ride. The noise of that car, the vibration will stay with me, because it really rumbled and it was really aggressive on drivers. After a double-stint you knew had fought the car.”
He’s driven through three distinct eras: the GTS era with the C5.R, the GT1 era with the C6.R and the GTE era with the C7.R. They all had their own qualities and memorable moments. For him though, 2005 and 2006 were the years he remembers most fondly, due to the heated rivalry with Aston Martin Racing and its DBR9.
“It’s hard to choose a car, or a year as the one that is the most special because each one has had character, whether it’s the GTS days with supreme power, seven-liter motor, to the C6.R with carbon brakes and big aero and battles with Aston. We’ve been part of setting the bar for competition in GT racing. Now you have the C7.R, which seen such development. It’s been such a journey.
“But Aston vs Corvette was a titanic battle. We were literally staring each other out. We were watching each other’s stops. All sorts. I think there was so much respect, we’d always shake hands before and after the race, whoever won. There was a great spirit about it. The GTE Pro class has grown from that.
“The C6.R GT1 stands out as a car to me too; it had the power, the torque, the carbon brakes, and great downforce. You could be really aggressive with the car, load it up into corners… it suited my style. Very special times.”
Tommy Milner, meanwhile, looks back on the 2011 race as the landmark moment in his career. The 33-year-old American who, like Gavin, won Le Mans on his debut with the team, and says he’s still surprised he won it to this day.
“There was a lot of drama that year,” he said. “Jan (Magnussen) had an accident in the sister car, so we were alone in the race, but our car then got quicker throughout. With our teammates out and other cars having issues, we made up positions.
“Then the weather came. It was raining on one lap, then dry on another towards the end. I passed a Ferrari on my final stint for the lead in the crazy conditions, and we went onto win. It was special, it was my first win, and my dad was here for that one. Then I went and got a second win in 2015, and that kind of validated the first one!”
Then there’s Magnussen, who says his first win back in 2004 with the C5.R, back when sportscar racing was more about survival than speed, is what he remembers the most from his time with the team.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to win four times here with Corvette,” he told RACER. “2004 stands out as the most special. The way we won, after so many issues and problems, really was amazing. The whole GTS category had issues. The cars were quite durable and strong, but we were taken out from the lead at around midnight that year, and had to rebuild the car. We lost six laps and fought our way back.
“In the morning the Prodrive Ferraris had issues, so we climbed back onto the lead lap and fought for it. We went through all our spare parts and a bunch of parts from our show car. Out the back of the garage was a race car graveyard. There were bits everywhere!”
Corvette has sustained success through its time, and even during years when it hasn’t won, it has come close.
“We come here year after year, knowing everybody and their strengths and weaknesses because there’s so much continuity,” said Magnussen. “That’s why we’re almost always in the fight. It’s also why the years that we didn’t win stand out almost more than the years we did.
“There have been crashes, failures. We’ve had heartbreaks but we head home with our heads held high.”
For Corvette, 20 years at Le Mans is not the end of this story. Fehan told RACER that Corvette is happy where it is. He won’t be surprised if the team is still racing at Le Mans after 40 years.
“When we started this journey on our first trip here, it was important for me to instilll pride in our guys,” he explained. “There was a strong history of Corvette. It was sporadic, but it was history. As we look back to the 50s and what was accomplished, we’re writing the history now.
“We’re proud of ourselves, the brand. We have a ‘never give up’ attitude. Remember 2017? We had victory within reach, but we lost right at the end with a puncture to Aston. The image etched in my mind is of the Corvette coming across the pit straight, all torn up, wheels broken, sideways, smoking, chugging across the finish line, with fans cheering. That’s what Corvette is about.
“Could I see another 20 years? Sure. There are dynamics outside of our control. These cars are powered by internal combustion engines, and maybe in 10 years there won’t be more of those. Who knows what racing will look like? But the form we’re in now will carry on for the most part. As long as the brand continues to exist, I don’t see any changes. We will keep coming back.”
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