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For Chevrolet and Ford, The Long Road to Le Mans

Ford and Chevy took the fight to France, but first, they had to get there

Ford and Chevy took the fight to France, but first, they had to get there

Le Mans.

For a car enthusiast, the formal name is unnecessary. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, held every June on the Circuit de la Sarthe on the edges of Le Mans, France, is the world’s oldest and most prestigious endurance race. It originated as a way for early automakers to showcase their cars’ reliability and soon became the ultimate decider of engineering excellence, mechanical reliability, and driver skill.

What started as a proving ground for Europe’s racing and automaking elite eventually caught the attention of post-war America. Chevrolet entered four cars in the 1960 running, one of which shocked the world by finishing eighth behind a slew of Ferrari 250 GT SWBs and a single Aston Martin DBR1. That year was the first in a six-year winning streak for Ferrari.

A few years later, the last-minute failure of a Ford takeover of Ferrari sent Henry Ford II into a rage and instigated a plan to humiliate Ferrari on the world stage by beating the dominate team at Le Mans. Thus, the legendary GT40 was born. Although the GT40 had disappointing results in the 1964 and 1965 races, everything changed the next year. With Carroll Shelby in charge and a who’s who of American racers at the helm, Ford swept the podium in 1966, the famous 1-2-3 finish. Ford won again in 1967 and 1968 before leaving the race for 48 years.

Chevrolet returned first, entering the 2000 Le Mans race with the nearly new C5.R of Pratt & Miller Engineering. Chevrolet scored its first Le Mans victory just one year later, a staggering 34 laps ahead of the second-place car. Corvette Racing has won Le Mans eight times in 16 years, more than any class competitor.

Although Ford first revived the GT nameplate in 2005, it never went racing. As the 50th anniversary of Ford’s historic win at the 1966 race approached, though, the company decided to go all-in. A new Ford GT road car and race car were simultaneously designed, led at every turn by the Le Mans rulebook. Ford unveiled the car in 2015 with an audacious plan to campaign in the 2016 season. A full assault was launched upon Le Mans. Could a team new to the series with an untested car really hope to compete against juggernauts such as Corvette, Ferrari, and Porsche on the world’s biggest stage?

Daytona

Chevrolet Corvette C7 R with Team Chevy Corvette Racing 24 Hours of Le Mans front end in motion

The long off-season is over, and the reigning champs are returning to Florida for the season-opener at Daytona. It’s a somewhat inauspicious start because the Corvettes qualify fifth and sixth in a class of 10. It’s a position the team will collectively occupy for much of the race.

It’s a clean race for the most part, with one Corvette suffering a spin in the middle of the night and the other slapped with a 60-second stop-and-go penalty in the morning. By the afternoon, they run first and third.

With 15 minutes to go, the Corvettes are running first and second, and Corvette Racing surprises everyone by giving the drivers clearance to race to the finish. Its only demand is that they keep it clean.

Antonio Garcia in the No. 3 car is all over the bumper of Oliver Gavin in the No. 4 car, and several times he attempts a pass on the banking but can’t make it stick. He finally gets Gavin braking into turn one, but overshoots the turn-in point and allows Gavin to slip back through underneath. As he comes into the final turn, Garcia is high up on the banking again and trying to make a NASCAR-style draft-and-pass. With a bit more time, he might have had it. Instead, he’s got his left front wheel inline with Gavin’s right rear as they cross the finish line. He’ll have to settle for being a part of the closest finish in Daytona 24 history: 0.034 seconds.

Over in the Ford garage, a potential Cinderella story quickly becomes a nightmare. Only 16 minutes into the race, Ryan Briscoe pits the No. 67 car with transmission issues that have to be fixed back in the garage, not in the pit. Not long after it get backs on track, a damaged rear diffuser slices open a rear tire and forces an unscheduled pit stop. Then it happens again.
Ford GT at Sahlen Six Hours of the Glen 02

Meanwhile, the No. 66 car is putting on a good show. At one point early on, it was even leading the race. During a routine tire change, though, a brake line is damaged, and the car is stuck in the pits. It’s barely back on the track before Joey Hand reports engine problems and has to pit again. Both cars were now many laps down.

On Sunday morning, the No. 67 car ended up pitting again, and this time, the transmission was replaced. The No. 66 car suffered the same fate. Ford blames a component in the transmission controller. Both cars finished the race despite the setbacks, the No. 66 car in seventh and the No. 67 car in ninth, ahead of two cars that dropped out.

Sebring

After a stunner at Daytona, the Corvette Racing team looked hot when it returned to Florida two months later for the 12 Hours of Sebring. Once again, they qualified fifth and sixth, but Ford and the rest of the competition knew the team had the strategy and pace to finish first.

Rain is forecasted and doesn’t take long to arrive. By early afternoon, the race has been red-flagged due to lightning. It won’t resume for nearly three hours, and when it does, it quickly becomes a safety car parade as cars spin off in the wet.

It’s an ugly foreshadow for Jan Magnusson in the No. 3 car. Racing the No. 911 Porsche into turn one, the two split an Audi from the lower class. The Porsche goes left towards the inside of the track, and the Corvette goes right around the outside. As they pass the Audi, the 911 appears to understeer as it brakes for the corner while the Corvette cuts sharply left towards the apex. There isn’t enough room for the Corvette to stick the pass, and the 911 plows into its driver door, sending both cars pirouetting through the runoff and hard into the tire walls. Magnussen and the No. 3 car are out of the race, but he escapes serious injury.
Chevrolet Corvette C7 R with Team Chevy Corvette Racing 24 Hours of Le Mans front three quarter in motion 02

The No. 4 car enjoys much better luck, staying clean for the rest of the race. Tommy Milner works his way through the field and, on a restart after a late yellow flag, passes the No. 100 BMW to take the lead and the win.

Ford’s race mirrors Chevy’s, more or less. The No. 66 car nails the same wall that would later take the No. 3 Corvette out of the race. Fighting for position, the car understeers straight off Turn 1. Dirk Müller is unhurt. The red flag gives the team time to put it back together, but it’s six laps down.

The No. 67 car enjoys a clean race and even leads the race at times. When it’s on the lead lap, a fourth place finish looks like a lock. With less than 10 minutes left, Richard Westbrook goes off. He recovers but not before a Ferrari has gotten past. Both GTs struggle in the wet conditions throughout the race, and the No. 67 car finishes fifth while the No. 66 car finishes eighth.

Long Beach

Two consecutive victories in two of the three most-grueling races on the circuit gave the Corvette team confident as they headed to Southern California in April. The atmosphere in the paddock was relaxed but professional. The team is a well-oiled machine, in part because it’s been doing this for 18 years. That experience has also taught them, though, that there’s no such thing as a routine race.

After qualifying mid-pack again, the Corvettes are able to overtake the BMWs and Porsches with pit strategy and clean driving, but the Porsches hve a clear acceleration advantage coming off the sharp, hairpin turns. The Fords, still suffering reliability issues, are less of a concern. In the spirit of friendly competition, the Corvette team dumped out a box of spare hoses as they tried to find one that would fix the stricken Ford.

Ford GT at Sahlen Six Hours of the Glen

Running second behind his teammate, Garcia does everything he can to hold the Porsches back, but is eventually pressured into a mistake. A small oversteer at corner exit puts the left-rear corner of the No. 3 Corvette into the wall, damaging the suspension and ending its race.

With Garcia out of the way, the Porsches hunts down Tommy Milner’s No. 4 Corvette. Milner holds them at bay until the final lap, when the No. 912 Porsche in second place rams into the right-rear corner of the Corvette in the final corner, spinning out both cars and allowing the No. 911 Porsche, which was following farther back, to pass, take the lead, and win. With a large gap over the next car back, Milner recovers and takes second place.

The mood in the pit was understandably sour. There wasn’t enough room for the No. 912 Porsche to pass Milner in the corner, which led many to believe the hit was intentional and designed to sacrifice the No. 912 car so the No. 911 car could get by. No penalty was awarded, and Porsche team denied any intentional action. The Corvette team was livid at first, but as heads quickly cooled, the hit was chalked up to payback for the less-serious hit a Corvette had applied to a Porsche back in Daytona.

Chevrolet Corvette C7 R with Team Chevy Corvette Racing 24 Hours of Le Mans front end in motion 03

Ford’s weekend is considerably more sour. The No. 66 car catches fire during a Friday practice. It’s put out quickly enough, and Westbrook escapes unharmed. The team spends the rest of the day figuring out what went wrong and trying to put the car back together. Desperate to make the race, a Ford crewmember approaches the Corvette team looking for a badly needed hose. The Corvette team dumps out a whole bin of extra hoses looking for a matching part, but can’t find one. Meanwhile, the No. 67 car fails to qualify.

Fortunately, Ford finds the parts it needs, and both cars are on the grid Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, they’re starting last and second-to-last in class. Both cars are running on pace, but are no quicker than the rest of the field, and advancement is difficult. An unlocked door, which flaps open every time it brakes, embarrasses the No. 67 car in the middle of the race.

Endurance racing, even in a short race, can be unpredictable. Mechanical failures took several competitors out of the race, and the No. 66 cars ran an otherwise clean race to finish fourth, a beautiful recovery after the fire. The loose door and other mechanical issues kept sending the No. 67 car to the pit, so it finished eighth, the last of the running cars in the class.

Load-Out

The sports car race at Long Beach ended Saturday afternoon, and the teams were packed and driving their trucks out by midnight. By Monday, the Corvette Racing team was already reconvening at Pratt and Miller Engineer in New Hudson, Michigan. There wasn’t time to lick wounds. It was mid-April and time to pack for Le Mans.

By Thursday, the team was rolling its carts, fuel rigs, tire racks, and spare car into a transporter. The following day, it was on its way to New York, where it would be put on a ship to England. A month later, a team member would fly to England and drive the truck, with police escort, to Le Mans, France. Why not ship it straight to France? England has cheaper import duties.
Chevrolet Corvette C7 R with Team Chevy Corvette Racing 24 Hours of Le Mans crew

As the truck was being stuffed with gear and can’t-find-em-in-France provisions, an equally meticulous assembly was taking place just up the road in Pontiac, Michigan. In a distant wing of the GM Global Propulsion development center, the engines that will race at Le Mans were being hand-assembled in the Performance Build Center. A team of four expert engine builders assembled all the C7.R engines, each engine requiring roughly 160 hours to build. They were backed by a team of specialists doing subassemblies and prepping the parts. The heads alone require 100 hours of machining and polishing between casting and final assembly. Actually assembling the engine happens in a day, but it’s preceded by four days of prep work from deburring and polishing the inside of the engine block to measuring and visually inspecting every single part.

Once assembled, each engine goes for a run on the engine dyno, which has been programmed with the data logs from last year’s Le Mans race. Once the build team is satisfied, the engines are crated up and shipped to France.

Laguna Seca

After a comedy of errors in Long Beach, Ford needed a solid performance at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to lift the team’s spirits. Both cars delivered.

It was a competitive race on the track, but ultimately, this one came down to strategy. Several of the teams, including Ford, went for a one-stop strategy. Gambling the time saved by staying out of the pit would offset the risk of running out of fuel. For the No. 66 car, the gamble effectively failed. It was running strong all race, but a last-minute pit stop for fuel near the end of the race dropped it to sixth, where it would finish.

The No. 67, however, rolled a seven. Stopping only once for fuel the entire race, Westbrook stretched the car’s second stint a shocking 52 laps to give the Ford GT its first-ever win and the first win for any Ford GT in nearly 50 years.

Garcia and Magnussen’s No. 3 Corvette was almost completely repaired before the team broke camp at Long Beach, and the team hoped to shake-off the disappointing results with a win a few weeks later. There, they qualified mid-pack again, but that hasn’t proved to be a problem so far this season.

Corvette gambled on a one-stop race, too. Toward the end, it looked as though Garcia in the No. 3 might pull it off, but he was forced to pit for a splash of fuel with only a few laps to go. This ultimately cost him a place on the podium; the No. 912 Porsche got by to take third. Gavin, in the No. 4 car, made a hell of a drive but was hit with a drive-through penalty late in the race, which dropped him near the back of the field.

Le Mans

To borrow a popular movie line, one does not simply race at Le Mans. Entry applications are due in January, and not all applications are selected (the total entry list is limited to 58 cars). The event officially starts two weeks before the actual race weekend, and teams arrive a week ahead of that date to handle last-minute details before they’re allowed to set up their pits. Every team must participate in a practice day two weeks before the race, as must any new driver or driver who hasn’t raced at Le Mans in five or more years. Two more days of practice are also required a week later, and every day in between is spent tuning and repairing cars and finalizing strategy. Scrutineering (inspection) happens before each practice session.

Finally, it’s the week of the race. Assuming the cars aren’t having any trouble, there’s still weighing and qualifying to prepare for. Weighing happens at random during qualifying. There’s a day between qualifying and racing, and regardless of whatever else they might be doing that day to prepare, every driver has to head to the town center for the Driver’s Parade, which snakes around the old city while thousands of fans crowding the sidewalks. Even race day itself is a thing of delayed gratification, as the 3 p.m. start time feels an age away.

None of this is new to Corvette Racing; it’s participating for its 18th time at Le Mans. Nor was carrying a target on their backs as the reigning class winner. This was to be no ordinary Le Mans, though. For the first time, some GTE-PRO cars were running turbochargers. That introduced a new challenge to the Balance of Performance regulations, which allow the organizers to alter the performance of the cars to even the playing field.

Ford, plagued with reliability issues throughout the season, unexpectedly swept qualifying with lap times as much as four seconds ahead of the Corvettes, Porsches, and Aston Martins. Only the similarly turbocharged Ferraris could match the Fords’ pace. Accusations of sandbagging flew immediately, with teams saying Ford deliberately underperformed all season to hide an advantage at Le Mans. Ford countered, suggesting the complaining teams sandbagged qualifying. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which puts on the race, made an unprecedented move on the Friday between qualifying and the race to change the Balance of Performance modifications to several cars that had been settled months prior. The Fords were forced to carry more weight, and they and the Ferraris saw their mid-range turbo boost reduced. The Porsches and Corvettes were allowed to carry more fuel, and the Corvettes were allowed to run larger restrictor plates. It was an ultimately unusable advantage because the C7.R race car runs two CNC-milled restrictor plates in the shape of a short-stemmed champagne flute, which couldn’t be reproduced in a larger size on short notice. As qualifying was already completed, the Corvettes would start 12th and 14th in class, with the No. 64 car starting dead last.
Chevrolet Corvette C7 R with Team Chevy Corvette Racing 24 Hours of Le Mans rear side in motion 02

The race weekend didn’t exactly improve from there, either. Just before the start of the race, heavy amounts of rain fell on track. Rain isn’t at all unusual at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but for the first time anyone could remember, the race started behind the safety car due to the sheer amount of standing water on the track. The green flag wouldn’t wave until 52 minutes into the race.

Once racing was underway in earnest, it quickly became clear the Balance of Performance adjustments hadn’t gone far enough. The Fords and Ferraris remained two seconds per lap ahead of the Porsches and Corvettes. Still, the mood in the Corvette garage was professional. Endurance racing isn’t just about speed, it’s about reliability, strategy, and consistency. Ford and Ferrari were running new cars that had shown teething issues throughout the season. In the Ford garage, a cautious, guarded optimism ruled the day. It didn’t hurt that Ford had stacked the deck, bringing both its U.S. and European teams, the latter of which had just finished second in Spa (with the other car crashing spectacularly in Eau Rouge), for a total of four cars.

These moods carried throughout the race, as the Fords and Ferraris pulled farther and farther ahead. All it takes is a crash or a mechanical failure or a full-course caution to change everything. Unfortunately for Corvette Racing, it was a clean race with only two full-course cautions.

Entering the final hour, four laps behind the class leader, the Corvette team’s never-say-die attitude began to give way to frustration and disappointment. Midmorning, the team had lost the No. 64 car in the Dunlop Curves. Tommy Milner missed a braking point and nailed a tire wall head-on (he was unhurt). The team had just made changes to the car’s aerodynamics with the hope of increasing its speed on the achingly long Mulsanne Straight.

The American Ford team proved to be the dominant of the two, dicing with Ferrari 488 GTEs throughout the race. In fact, the No. 82 Ferrari was leading late in the 21st hour of the race when Toni Villander spun off the track and let the No. 68 Ford by. Just over two hours later, Müller took the checkered flag, securing the win on the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT40’s first win at Le Mans. Less than two minutes behind was the Ferrari, and trailing it by less than 30 seconds was No. 69 Ford. Had the Ferrari been off the track any longer, Ford might have just pulled off a repeat of the famous 1-2-3 finish, as the first of the European GTs finished fourth, one lap down. The last GT finished 9th, 34 laps down, plagued by mechanical problems early in the race.

The Ford garage was jubilant, to say the least. Following the initial celebrations, a sort of stunned elation washed over the team. They’d been leading the past two hours of the race, and the Ferrari wasn’t going to catch them. They knew they had it in the bag as long as Müller drove clean, and there were no yellow flags. Still, no team expects to win Le Mans its first time out.

“There were a lot of anniversaries hanging over us,” Chip Ganassi, the team owner, said. “I didn’t think so much about the anniversary of ’66 as I did the challenges of ’64 and ’65, [when the Fords had terrible showings].”
Chevrolet Corvette C7 R with Team Chevy Corvette Racing 24 Hours of Le Mans side in motion

The No. 63 Corvette finished seventh in class despite running a perfect race and the retirements of two of the three Porsches and two of the three Ferraris. The frustration was on the face of every team member. “Well, that was a waste of money,” team owner Gary Pratt said. “We’ve been talking about this BoP (Balance of Performance) stuff since September, and they couldn’t figure it out.” As disappointed as the team was, the collective attention quickly turned to the future. Corvette Racing and its drivers still led the points championships, and Watkins Glen was only two weeks away. What’s more, the team had been primed to take its 100th win since scoring the 99th in Sebring (it would eventually get both that record win and its 60th 1-2 finish at Limerock in July) and was eager to finally reach the milestone. Before long, the tools were packed, the beers were open, and the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans was chalked up to that old adage: that’s racing.

Heartbreak and Frustration, Glory and Elation

Corvette Racing has endured as many losses as it has wins at Le Mans. The team hates losing as much as any, but experience has brought wisdom and maturity. There were long faces and angry comments as the checkered flag flew, but in no time at all, team members were smiling and joking again. They know full well how hard and unlikely it is to win Le Mans and how many ways there are to fail or be forced out. They ran the best race they could, and they’re already looking ahead to the next race and the next season. You don’t dominate a race such as Le Mans for two decades by giving up easily.

For the rookie Ford team, Hollywood couldn’t have written a better story. An enthusiastic underdog takes his licks but perseveres and goes on to win the biggest prize in the world. No one expected a Ford team to stand on the podium at Le Mans, much less win, after the season it had. Yet, here they were, nearly sweeping the podium again in a picture-perfect victory on the 50th anniversary of the team’s first equally shocking win. It was far more likely to all go wrong than all go right, but Ford made it happen.

For both teams, though, there’s always next year.