The No. 63 Corvette Racing, Chevrolet Corvette C7.R of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Mike Rockenfeller takes practice laps at Le Mans on Wednesday.
Corvette Racing hits a remarkable birthday at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, racking up its 20th consecutive start in a race that has been a round of the reborn World Endurance Championship since 2012.
It’s not a record for a manufacturer — Porsche had works representation at Le Mans for 21 straight years until 1971 — but for a coherent program with a single machine, it is unprecedented.
As is Corvette Racing’s success. Chevrolet has an amazing eight wins across the GTS/GT1 and GT2/GTE Pro classes in its 19 races so far. And then there are a further eight runner-up finishes in those years. Quite a hit rate.
It is a remarkable journey that began long before the first Corvette Racing entries ran Le Mans in 2000. In fall 1997, then General Motors racing boss Herb Fishel conceived the program when he put a test driver and car on the racetrack. Eighteen months later in January 1999, the Chevrolet Corvette C5-R GTS class racer developed by Pratt & Miller just outside Detroit made its racing competition debut at the Daytona 24 Hours.
Corvette Racing’s first class win at Le Mans came with the No. 63 in 2001.
There are some amazing stories from the Le Mans journey that began another 18 months down the line. Everyone involved in the program has a favorite moment—or perhaps two or three.
For Ron Fellows, Corvette Racing’s first driver, that moment was the car’s first Le Mans win,
“There were a few, but I’d have to go with the first win,” says the Canadian, who was sharing his Corvette with Johnny O’Connell and Scott Pruett. “We didn’t go to Le Mans in ’99, and, quite frankly, we weren’t ready. But over time, the team grew, and we became more competitive.
“Our overall victory in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona at the beginning of 2001 had been a real shot in the arm, and then we capped it off with the class win at Le Mans, which was the goal.”
Johnny O’Connell drove the Corvette C6.R to the class win in 2009.
Fellows recalls the build up to the race began with his one and only argument with Pratt & Miller boss Gary Pratt.
“The air was damp and it was windy, and I wanted to start on intermediates,” he says. “Gary told me over the radio that everyone else was starting on slicks, and I told him I didn’t care.
“After a couple of laps, as I was tumbling down the field, I was beginning to think, ‘Whoops,’ but then I came out of Arnage Corner and could see a wall of rain in front of me.”
O’Connell remembers 2001 fondly as well, but he picks his third and final class win with Chevy in 2009 aboard the C6.R GT1 car as his magic moment.
“I was there 10 times with Corvette, and I was on the podium eight times,” he says. “Being part of the first was pretty darn special, but the one that stands out is the 2009 victory with Jan (Magnussen) and Antonio (Garcia). Jan got sick at about 10 at night, and after that, it was just Antonio and me in and out of the car to the end of the race. It was old school.”
Corvette Racing won the GTE Pro class in 2015.
No story of Chevrolet’s Le Mans success would be complete without a word or two from Doug Fehan, the fast-talking program manager who has run Corvette Racing from the beginning.
The win he remembers most keenly is the 2015 GTE Pro win with the C7.R driven by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor. Corvette Racing was down to one car after Magnussen crashed in qualifying when the throttle stuck open in the Porsche Curves during qualifying.
“That we were going to be racing with one car had everyone competing against us excited,” says Fehan. “But our guys said, ‘You know what? We’re gonna win this thing,’ rallied round, and the two car crews worked shifts so that the mechanics and engineers stayed fresh.
Corvette Racing, shown here in practice on Wednesday, would like nothing better than to ride off into the sunset with its C7.R with a win a win at Le Mans.
“Was there any particular instance where that paid dividends? I can’t say that, but I know there were fewer opportunities for mistakes in the pits or on strategy. I believe the whole team took inspiration from the way we all pulled together.”
Gavin, a constant on the team since 2002, picks his 2006 win with Magnussen and Olivier Beretta in the C6.R GT1’s second year. They completed a hat trick in the face of fierce opposition from the British Prodrive squad, first with the Ferrari 550 Maranello and then the Aston Martin DBR9. The rivalry stretched across the Atlantic into the American Le Mans Series, making it even more special.
“To come out on top and claim a third in a row with the same teammates will always mean a lot,” Gavin said.
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