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Leaner Corvettes Ready To Take On The World

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 6 2009
The future for Corvettes in road racing begins this weekend.

The future for Corvettes in road racing begins this weekend.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

There’s a lot riding on the new GT2 class entry from the factory Corvette Racing team. Veiled in secrecy for 18 months, it makes its debut in the American Le Mans Series at the Mid-Ohio circuit on Saturday.

A survivor of GM’s bankruptcy, the new Corvette C6.R is charged with carrying the company’s banner internationally while living up to the success of the now retired GT1 class Corvette, a six-time winner at Le Mans. Plus, it must compete with a leaner budget.

The only thing standing in the way are three well known major league brands: Ferrari, Porsche and BMW. This fall, Jaguar will join the fray in the category featuring production-based sports cars.

“Based on what we believe the industry is spending in motorsports, we believe we’re doing it more efficiently than any other manufacturer,” said Mark Kent, manager of GM Racing. “We believe we have the resources in place that are sufficient for us to win on the track,” he added.

In the short term, it’s wait and see. Driver Johnny O’Connell points out that Corvette Racing initially lost more races than it won against the Dodge Viper entered by the ORECA team in the program’s inaugural years of 1999-2000 before it won eight consecutive ALMS GT1 class championships.

“People forget that when Corvette Racing started there were several years of being beaten and learning,” said O’Connell. “The French (rule makers at Le Mans) just told them, ‘Build a better car,’ not giving them any breaks. That is what everybody at Corvette Racing did.”

There’s little doubt about who rules the roost in GT2. Despite the combined racing experience of BMW and Rahal Letterman Racing, for example, the new M3 introduced to the ALMS this year has struggled just to get to the podium versus the Porsches and Ferraris.

GM Racing is banking on the continuity from the GT1 program, using virtually the same line-up of program manager Doug Fehan, car builder Pratt & Miller Engineering and the driving line-up of O’Connell, Jan Magnussen, Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta.

Fehan points out that the Corvette had to switch to the production-based class for GT cars due to its own success in GT1.

“After we dispatched the Viper and Saleen and Ferrari and then finally Aston Martin, there was literally very little competition on a global basis to race in the existing GT1 category,” he said. Originally, GM also mapped out plans to step up to a Corvette LMP1 prototype that would compete at Le Mans for the over-all victory against companies like Audi and Peugeot instead of GT class victories. But that approach was scrapped under budget duress.

To beat Ferrari and Porsche, which have combined to win all but one GT2 class race since 2006, the Corvette must adapt to less efficient components that are based on production considerations. Most significant of these changes dictated by the rule book are steel brake discs instead of carbon fiber, which will make corner entries tougher. Next year’s 5.5-liter V-8 to be built from a production block is a nod toward a new maximum displacement for the class and a leaner budget. That engine will replace the hand-cast 6.0-liter V-8 being used this year.

In place of louvered fenders and modified quarterpanels, the new Corvette’s body style will more closely resemble its production counterpart, the ZR-1.

Horsepower and top speed are regulated for all entries by air restrictors. The key may turn out to be the engine location — in front for the Covette and BMW, behind the rear axle for the Porsche and just in front of the rear axle for the mid-engined Ferrari. To help the weight distribution, Pratt & Miller has built an aluminum chassis integrated with the mandatory steel roll cage.

The team won’t get any break from rival drivers, said O’Connell.

“If you look at the resumes of the drivers (in GT2), they are every bit as strong as those in the prototypes,” said O’Connell. “You have some brilliant drivers competing there and some very strong teams with a ton of experience. When I look at our effort, it’s the personnel who make the difference. This is an American team, built by American engineers and America’s best.”

Because so many manufacturers have declined to step up to the expensive LMP1 prototype category which is the headliner for endurance racing, the Corvette will have another charge beyond winning. The anticipated close battles of the American machine versus the best from Europe is anticipated to bolster the appeal of ALMS.

Currently only the Acura ARX-02a competes as a factory entry in LMP1, albeit with two separate teams. If Audi Sport does not return to the U.S. with its new R15 diesel-powered prototype after a year off, the ALMS is considering a consolidation of the prototype class to include the less powerful LMP2 entries.

The presence of the Corvette in GT2 could tip the balance toward one universal GT production-based class as well, eliminating the more powerful and sophisticated production-derived cars like the GT1 Corvette. Currently, there are no GT1 class cars in the ALMS.

“The object for us and for (competitors) is to sell cars. If you can create proper relevance, you can enthuse people to spend money,” said Fehan. “GT racing needs to have a single GT class in the American Le Mans Series. I think that’s where we’re headed, and I’m all for it. It makes a huge amount of sense. It’s a lot more fun for the spectators, a lot easier to watch the races, it makes for a better television broadcast. It’s where we need to be, and I’ve pushed for it for the last two years.”

There’s no shortage of brands in the GT2 class, which includes the Panoz Esperante, a Ford GT entry and a Viper.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 6 2009
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