The first practice laps around the 5.9km Sebring International Raceway mark the end of a busy winter off-track for Corvette Racing spent building and developing a new car for the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) GT class.

“It’s been pedal-to-the-metal all winter long,” said team manager Gary Pratt. “The base chassis is identical to the design we’ve raced previously, but we’ve worked on all aspects of the cars, from aerodynamic refinements to driver safety and comfort.”

The work undertaken has been all about taking advantage of the changing regulations and putting into practice the lessons learnt from 2010. Program manager Doug Fehan explains; “the team learned a tremendous amount about the production-based LS5.5R engine package, the aero package, and the chassis setups – all of which were brand new to us. The winter was spent distilling that information, running it through various matrixes, and coming up with what we think are going to be very competitive race cars in 2011.”

Elsewhere many of the changes are centered around the driver. The work over the off-season has seen Corvette adopt the paddle shift gearbox now allowed under the regulations. Almost in turn, as Pratt explains, changes have rippled through the cockpit and electrics.

“The paddle shift system is new technology for us, and our engineers have worked very hard on the communication system that links the new engine management system and the shift system. We’ve also adopted a new power control system that automatically performs many of the functions that used to be done manually, such as turning on the reserve fuel pump and switching the batteries during pit stops.”

“We also installed new driver displays and new steering wheels with all of the controls on the wheel. The steering wheel system is more user friendly, and drivers of various sizes can reach the switches more easily.”

“The paddle shift is a big plus, particularly in the braking zones,” assesses driver Oliver Gavin. “You can get hard on the brakes, then downshift really quickly. Going up through the gears, the shifts are smooth and solid. In terms of consistency and reliability, the system is a really good step forward.”

Gavin will share the no.04 car with Jan Magnussen and Richard Westbrook at Sebring, Tommy Milner, Olivier Beretta and Antonio Garcia in the no.03 car.

Among the enormously competitive GTE class field the two Corvettes will face is another Corvette, French team Larbre Competition fielding the chassis which ran under the works banner as no.3 last season.

There are also five Porsches, a fleet of new Ferrari 458s, two BMW M3s and a pair of Ford GTs among the 19 car field.

“The competition is going to be intense,” said Fehan. “We’ll face powerful new Ferraris, redesigned BMWs that won last year’s manufacturer championship, and the defending driver champions in a Porsche. I can tell you this, nobody is going to go 9-0 this season!”