In 2014 Corvette will be lining up on the grid at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a brand new car, the first in nine years and only the sixth all new model to take to the Circuit de la Sarthe in the brand’s fifty-four year history at the circuit.
Starting with the Corvette C1 and continuing into the C7.R each different model of Corvette has proven its racing metal though the C4 never came to Le Mans. Two models have officially won on debut though the C2s and C3s each have an unofficial claim to the title of debut winner.
Never a brand to go for the LMP glory, Chevrolet have focussed on direct technology transfer. That means racing a car as close to the road going model as the regulations allow. It started in 1960 when four Corvette C1 Coupes made the start in the GT5.0 class.
This was a time of gentlemen racers and customer run cars. In fact forty years would pass before a fully-fledged factory run Corvette would make the trans-Atlantic journey to a usually quiet corner of France. Bringing the bowtie to Le Sarthe would fall to two titans of American racing in the mid-20th century, Briggs S. Cunningham and Camoradi USA. Neither went the whole hog and ran an exclusively Corvette effort, Camoradi brought a pair of Maserati Tipos, both Tipo 61s but one longtail and one ‘birdcage’ model. Cunningham bought into the ‘Vette to a much greater degree, running three of the coupes, numbered #1, #2 and #3 along with a D Type Jaguar.
Cunningham took the wheel in the #1 machine and fell early on as a result of an accident and resulting fire. The #2 car would later succumb to a fire after making it a heart-wrenching two thirds of the way through the race. Camoradi actually finished the 24 hours but problems during the race had left them far off the leaders pace and they failed to classify in their C1. It fell to the #3 to make history as the first Corvette to classify at Le Mans, let alone win.
Come finishing time on the Sunday the #3 of John Fitch and Bob Grossman were still running and locked into a battle with the #8 S3.0 class Aston Martin DBR1/300 entered by Major Ian B. Bailie. The fight was for nothing but honour, the result, (which favoured the Corvette in any case,) irrelevant. Corvette had come to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and claimed class victory on debut.
It was a feat to be matched for the first time forty-five years later when the Corvette C6.R arrived in the Loire Valley. Arriving as the defending GTS class champions, Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen brought a new GT1 class car, built with the new road model which had been on sale for only a matter of months
Competition was strong, with Johnny O’Connell, Max Papis and Ron Fellows in the #63 Corvette and such names as David Brabham, Darren Turner and Stephane Sarrazin in the best of the Aston Martin DBR9s. Still the trio of Gavin, Beretta and Magnussen drove a blinder and while attention was riveted on the battle at the front between the LMP1 cars of Audi and Pescarolo, the #64 quietly plugged away putting first a lap, then a second over the #63. The second car followed the inaugural GT1 class winners across the line to take the top two steps of the podium. Aston Martin were over fifteen laps back and behind two LMP1 contenders.
Oliver Gavin told Corvette Racing, “The Corvette Racing team just never, ever gives up. The team told me that we needed a certain lap time to make sure they would never catch us. We achieved the lap time we needed, and they broke. I take my hat off to Aston Martin, but nobody beats Corvette Racing.”
History hasn’t been so kind to the Supercar from the hills of Kentucky. The C2 arrived in 1967, the year the model was phased out and while it excelled as a road car its racing credentials were sketchy at best. Dana Chevrolet Inc. ran the car but couldn’t keep the action going. Problems allowed the Scuderia Fillipinetti Ferraris to take first the advantage then the class victory. Corvette finished 28th and didn’t meet the minimum distance to classify, the Corvette’s unbeaten run was stopped before it even got started.
The C3 did much better; thought it took a few years to get going. Scuderia Fillipinetti took to running Corvettes after their Ferrari win of ’67. Only two were cars entered the GT2.0 class for 1968, both Corvettes, both run by Fillipinetti and both unclassified come the end of the race. Given that there were no other cars in the class you could claim it as a win on debut, though you would be stretching.
The C3 Corvette would have many other bites of the Le Mans apple, each time suffering either accidental damage or a failure of the undeniably fast but inescapably fragile 427 cu in V8 power plant. 1969 was another dud year with the gearbox letting the car down.
1970 saw Fillipinetti pull the plug on their Corvettes and former team driver Henri Greder took on one of the cars for his Greder Racing Team. Henri’s car made it to the finish line but failed to classify due to insufficient distance. Ecurie Leopard who took on the second ‘Vette crashed out early in proceedings. ’71 looked to be more of the same as the Ecurie Leopard car retired after 188 laps due to a cylinder head joint failure and Greder’s car crashed out on lap 235. An additional C3 in the hands of John Greenwood Racing suffered an engine failure which must have terrified the North American Racing team.
They still had the fourth Corvette in the race and a pattern of unreliability was beginning to show. It was just bad luck that the year a Corvette C3 would finally make the finish and classify was a great year for the GT5.0 class at Le Mans. A trio of Ferrari 365 GTB/4s locked out the class podium. The door was open though and in 1973, at his fourth attempt, Henri Greder finally stood on the podium at Le Mans to collect a trophy for third place, the C3s first official silverware.
The C4 was the only model of Corvette never to race at Le Mans, sticking instead to domestic racing and even then as a GTP car rather than a fully-fledged GT. The C5 took silverware when it first came to Le Mans in the year 2000 but wouldn’t claim a win until 2001 when Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett and Johnny O’Connell took the #63 C5.R to victory over their Corvette stable mates the #64 and the iconic Saleen S7-R. The C5.R did sign off in style however with victory in GTS in 2004, the last year that class ran at Le Mans. It is also the first model of Corvette to take podium finishes every time it went to Le Mans.
The C6.R also took a podium finish in class every time it hit French soil in GT1 form. When the regulations were changed to introduce LM GTE Pro and Am Corvette went and did the double thanks to Larbre Competition’s Am entered C6.R claiming the lower class and Olivier Beretta, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia taking the LM GTE Pro crown. Ferrari and Aston Martin locked out the GTE Pro podium in 2012 though yet again Larbre came through for the brand and nabbed the victory in LM GTE Am.
2013 would break the run; the Corvette C6.R had finally failed to bring home silverware.
2014 will be the big year, will the Corvette curse which blighted the C2, C3 and scared the C4 into staying in America return? Will the C7.R continue a proud tradition of being there at the end no matter what is thrown at it?
There are a few things to consider. Firstly the Corvette Racing team, run by Pratt and Miller since the introduction of the C5.R, are currently on a roll. They have taken back to back race wins in the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship heading into the Le Mans break. They have a tenuous claim to a 4-2 record of taking a trophy on each model’s debut.
Finally and most crucially, every other year the Corvette has come to Le Mans it has arrived as a car unproven in the crucible of 24 hour racing. This year is different because the C7.R raced at Daytona. A different climate perhaps and most certainly a different track but the car has been there and done the distance.
This could be Corvette’s year.