Corvette Racing had a successful start to its full-season participation in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) with a convincing win at the 1,000 Miles of Sebring. The unique demands of that track with its bumpy surface were perhaps the most difficult challenge they faced. A clean, trouble-free run with flawless pit stop execution was the key ingredient that handed them the championship lead at Sebring.
Coming into the second race of the season, the Six Hours of Portimão, the expectations were more reserved for the No. 33 GTE-Am spec Corvette C8.R. While the win in Sebring was much celebrated, along with that win came an additional burden of 30 kilograms (66+ lbs.) of success weight. This was something new that the Corvette and crew had to endure. The long game for the season is to win the championship. However, these races are also being used as preparation for the crown jewel, known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The expectation coming into Portimão was that the car would be a mid-pack runner. The warm weather in southern Portugal, combined with a much smoother track surface, gave the drivers a number of tire options for both qualifying and the race. Unlike its Corvette C8.R IMSA counterpart that runs on a spec Michelin tire, the WEC cars all run Michelin tires that have been developed specifically for each team.
During the 15-minute qualifying session on Saturday, Ben Keating, the reigning GTE-Am champion, went out on Michelin’s soft-hot GTE-Am compound and negated the 30-kilogram disadvantage with a clean lap that handed the Corvette squad pole position. Corvette earned the position over the Iron Dames Porsche RSR-19 team which had opted for the harder-medium tire compound – a choice made by most of the other teams.
Keating noted after the qualifying session, “Track position is so important here, so our decision was to go with the softer tires.” That tire choice for qualifying did create an additional challenge because each team is only allotted a fixed number of tires for each event. Tire wear management was slightly compromised by using up a set of softer tires. A big part of the tire decision was also the penalties for track limits. During a driver’s stint, they will be penalized for any excursions outside the racing line. Those infractions are then adjusted over the course of a driver’s entire race time. Being on the pole gave Keating the upper hand in managing those track limits.
At the drop of the green flag on Sunday, Keating started on-pole but slowly began to slide down into Third position during his first stint due to running on a set of worn, soft tires. When he came in for his scheduled tire stop, the Corvette crew once again rose to the task and got him out in Second place. At the two-hour mark, he had slid down to the fifth spot and handed the car over to Nico Varrone.
The cycling of faster drivers into the cars amplified the battles within the class and in that mix, Varrone was able to move up to Third. By the three-hour mark, he had managed to move up to the second spot, and as with the previous stop, when he came in for a fresh set of tires, the Corvette guys pulled off another flawless stop and handed him good track position, which eventually put him back in the lead. At the four-hour mark, Varrone came in and handed the Corvette over to Nicky Catsburg, who would take it to the checkered flag.
The final two hours saw an intense battle brew between Catsburg in the Corvette and Alessio Rovera in the No. 83 Richard Mille AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo. It was a battle that was separated by less than a second and was further complicated when a safety-car period took place, which bunched up the field. Shortly after that safety caution, Catsburg dove into the pits for the final scheduled stop. As in previous stops, the team was able to give him some additional breathing room. In the final laps, the Ferrari was visibly quicker, but Nicky was able to stay ahead to the checkered flag by a mere 0.26 seconds.
The win for Corvette Racing further solidifies the points lead going into the third round in the championship as they head to the Six Hours of Spa that takes place this weekend, April 27-29, 2023. Between the C8.Rs competing in both WEC and IMSA racing, this year will prove to be full of exciting races all around the globe. Stay tuned as we bring you more up-close action and insights you won’t get anywhere else!