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Night Time Not Right Time For Corvettes

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 17 2012

Corvettes had a tough time after the sun went down at Le Mans. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

While Audi Sport Team Joest appeared headed to victory with one of its ground-pounding R-18 E-tron Quattro Hybrid Prototypes, Corvette Racing was forced to rally through a long night and difficult morning in the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Through 18 hours, the No. 73 and No. 74 Compuware Corvette C6.Rs were fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Le Mans GTE Pro class led by a pair of Ferrari 458 Italia coupes. Corvette Racing began the world’s greatest endurance race having scored seven class victories since 2007 in a combined 22 starts (two cars), with 17 podiums and only five DNFs.

But after 12 hours, a recurring problem with the steering rack in the No. 73 Corvette required a lengthy pit stop to install a new unit. On the other side of the garage, the No.74 Corvette was virtually rebuilt as the drivetrain, uprights, diffuser and floor were disassembled and repaired. In the 17th hour, the No. 74 suffered right-side body damage in an encounter with the leading No. 1 Audi Prototype followed by a spin in the Porsche Curves that damaged the rear bodywork, dry sump tank, air-conditioning system and suspension cradle.

“Two big wrecks there,” said American Tommy Milner, driver of the No. 74 C6.R. “The first one, I tried to keep out of the Audi’s door; he (Marcel Fassler) was going quick and I pinched the car down more than I wanted to and lost control. The second one, I really don’t know what happened _ basically cold tires and I may have gotten on the curb. I wasn’t pushing, but I was a little nervous about the LMP cars. I feel bad for the guys.”

A pile of battered yellow-and-black Chevrolet bodywork grew in the garage as crews from both teams worked to rebuild the No. 74. “This is a difficult one to sum-up,” said Oliver Gavin, co-driver of the No. 74. “I’m sure that everyone on the team is feeling disappointment. It’s almost like the race is unreal; you’re in a sort of trance at this point. When you’re at the front you are running on adrenaline, and when this sort of thing happens you start questioning things.

“The problem that we had with the car, Richard (Westbrook) and I both thought it was a transmission problem, but it was part of the floor and diffuser. I feel sorry for the guys who had to rebuild the car around me. They’ve had a really tough night and it’s been a tough race for everybody at Corvette Racing. When the No. 74 Corvette had a problem, the guys from No. 73 came over and helped out and when No. 73 had an issue, the No. 74 crew was helping. It’s been all hands on deck, and that’s what is so marvelous about Corvette Racing. I’m proud to be part of this team.”

Meanwhile, Antonio Garcia hauled the No. 73 Corvette up from seventh to fifth by sunrise, while American Jordan Taylor ran sub-4-minute lap times with regularity during his triple stint at dawn. As attrition claimed more cars in the GTE Pro class, the No. 73 was within sight of a podium finish with six hours remaining.

Earlier, the Corvettes were in control of GTE Pro – running first and third after 10 hours – when the class-leading No. 74 C6.R suffered a sudden reversal of fortune. The No. 74 had taken the lead in the fifth hour, but lost its left-rear tire after a routine pit stop and driver change. Westbrook nursed the car back to the pits after a slow lap around the famed 8.469-mile circuit, and crews from both cars descended on the damaged machine. Ten minutes later it was back on-track, having fallen from first to sixth.

But the misfortune continued when Westbrook had to take evasive action in the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight to avoid a car and eased into a tire barrier, damaging the nose and requiring another extended stay in the garage.

“Driving around with the left-rear wheel missing damaged the diffuser, so that was the major repair,” said Gary Pratt, team manager. “We also changed the brakes, since that was scheduled to be done soon. We don’t know why the wheel came off – obviously, the nut wasn’t tightened completely, but we don’t yet understand why that happened.

“Then as Richard came up on a car in the first chicane, the other driver checked-up and Richard had to swerve to miss him and ended up in the tire barrier. We changed the nose and then saw that the previous incident had damaged the gearbox, so we changed that as well.”

The No. 73 C6.R moved up from fifth to third as Jan Magnussen, Garcia, and Taylor cycled through their stints. When the first safety car period ended at the 6:14 mark, both Corvettes came to the pits for fuel, tires and driver changes. Garcia went into the No. 73 Corvette and Gavin took over in the No. 74. Gavin retained the lead over the No. 51 Ferrari while Garcia emerged in fifth. In the next hour, Garcia moved up to third, while Gavin continued to lead. Shortly after eight hours of racing, Garcia committed to a third stint, pitting for fuel only.

“That was long – three hours!” Garacia said. “But it was a lot of fun as I was on the track together with Olly (Gavin) for most of the time. By also triple-stinting the tires we managed to gain some 16 seconds at each pit stop, while I only lost three seconds or so over an entire stint against the guys who’d put on new ones.”

Gavin pitted after his double-stint and handed over the No. 74 to Milner, who extended the gap to the No. 51 Ferrari in second place to more than 50 seconds before the fateful pit stop.

“I was out in the car at a good time, with the sun going down and the track cooling down a bit,” Gavin said. “The Michelin tires were working well and I had a great battle with (Jamie) Melo in the Ferrari and also Antonio in our sister car. It was hard racing, hairy at times, measuring the risk versus reward trying to put them a lap down. After Melo got by me the second time, I decided to follow him and try to push him into making a mistake. We managed to get by him on the pit stop and then pull away on the second stint.”

Taylor, making his Le Mans debut, admitted he was having to learn on the fly. “It was tough out there,” said Taylor, 21. “The first couple of laps of my second stint I had to adapt to the full tank again. I followed a couple of quicker guys around the track so I could learn more myself. The car is quick, but I don’t think we need all the speed it has just now as there are guys going off everywhere.”

While the Nissan DeltaWing failed to make it to darkness in its debut at the Circuit de la Sarthe, the revolutionary car and driver Satoshi Motoyama provided one of the day’s compelling moments.

Six hours and 15 minutes into the event, the DeltaWing with Motoyama behind the wheel was pushed off-track by the Toyota Prototype driven by Kazuki Nakajima. The DeltaWing hit the wall on the exit of the Porsche Curves and lost power.

In a scene reminiscent of Le Mans races from 50 years ago, Motoyama worked for more than 90 minutes in a bid to repair the car and get it back to the pits. But damage to both the right rear and front of the bodywork was too severe. While the DeltaWing crew offered advice through a chain-link fence as fans gathered and looked on, only the driver was permitted to work on the car out on the course.

The subsequent retirement was a disappointing end for a unique car that was fighting its way back through the field after an early gearbox actuator issue. Michael Krumm started the race aboard a machine that features half the weight, horsepower and aerodynamic drag of a typical Le Mans prototype. The German spent nearly three and-a-half hours behind the wheel before handing over to Motoyama.

“When we went green I was trying to let the leaders by and not interfere with their race, but the Toyota swung across and hit me very hard,” Motoyama said. “Once I was on the grass there was nothing I could do. The Nissan DeltaWing was in the wall very hard but I was very determined to try to get the car back to the pits.

“I had two great stints and was really enjoying my time in the car. We had a really long safety car period and I was looking forward to finishing off my last stint. But we have really shown what the future of sports car racing could look like – ultra-efficient. I really hope I can get the opportunity to drive the car again, because we really do have unfinished business. I am certain the car would have run for a long time if not for the contact.”

Unfortunately, the first man signed for the program and the driver tasked with developing the Nissan DeltaWing – Marino Franchitti – did not get to drive the car during the race.

“I am just devastated for everyone involved in the whole Nissan DeltaWing program,” Franchitti said. “Of all the things to force us out of the race, being taken out by somebody else is very tough to swallow.

“For me personally, having done all the testing of the car and then to not get to drive in the race is particularly hard, but I am very proud of the job the whole team has done. The heart Satoshi showed in trying to repair the car and get it back to the pits was amazing.

“I’m now looking to future, and I hope there is one because there is so much potential in this car and so much love for it that it would be a shame if this was the end of the story.”

Despite its early demise, the Nissan DeltaWing clearly captivated the fan base in France throughout the week leading to the race.

The DeltaWing was completing 11-lap stints at LMP2 pace despite only having a 40-liter fuel tank and 300 horsepower. The DeltaWing project features an all-star combination of partners including concept originator Ben Bowlby; Don Panoz, American Le Mans Series founder; Dan Gurney, Le Mans co-winner in 1967 for Ford and All-American Racers founder; Duncan Dayton, two-time ALMS championship-winning team-owner; Chip Ganassi, concept patron and multiple Indy 500 and IndyCar championship-winning team-owner; Michelin, the world’s leading tire manufacturer and innovative auto manufacturer Nissan.

“First of all, the concept is proven,” Bowlby said. “At the end of the day, the little Nissan DeltaWing weighing only 500 kilo, powered by the 300 horsepower Nissan DIG-T engine and using Michelin tires was able to run basically with half the fuel and tire consumption and yet show all of the speed of a typical Le Mans prototype.

“For all the fans who either loved it, or hated it, the journalists who wrote about and everyone who came to see it over the course of this weekend – we really appreciate everyone’s interest in the car.

“It has been a very emotional year and a very emotional end to the race. But it really has been a huge success. These things happen in racing and nobody got hurt. We showed an extraordinary and unbelievable concept on the track at Le Mans and the ACO provided us with a perfect setting to showcase the car’s capabilities. Hats off to them for inviting us.

“It has been an incredible opportunity to showcase a car that is truly an innovative experiment. In the future let’s hope we can bring it back as a race car, and not just an experimental vehicle. We’d love to see a future for cars of this type which are all about high-efficiency, low drag and low consumption.”

Panoz said he knew that getting the DeltaWing to the finish would be a “very big task” out of the box. “But the Nissan DeltaWing was starting to run exceptionally well and it’s just unfortunate that something like this could happen,” Panoz said. “Nobody wanted to give in – the guys fought hard to the finish. What has been achieved in a very short space of time by everyone involved in the US, the UK and Japan really is quite remarkable.

“This is not the finish line, but just the start for DeltaWing Racing Cars. We’re looking forward to opportunities to further demonstrate what the future of highly efficient motorsport could look like.”

Darren Cox, general manager of Nissan in Europe, said the entire crew will exit Le Mans with a sense of pride. “There have been so many people involved in this astonishing project and, without each one of them, it would not have been possible,” Cox said. “Everyone should celebrate the success that Nissan DeltaWing has been and feel pride in the impact it will have as a test bed for future innovations both on the road and track.

“We came here and a lot of people were not sure that this car would work but we have proven them wrong. The support for this campaign has been astounding and, from Nissan, we thank everyone who got behind us.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 17 2012
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