While the Corvette’s factory-backed involvement in road racing dates back more than six decades to the C1’s competitive debut at the 1956 12 Hours of Sebring, it’s the modern era of endurance road racing that’s seen the Corvette’s legacy solidified in the annuls of motorsport history.
Not long after the horrific accident at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans race, which saw a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR hurled into the stands and burst into flames, killing dozens of spectators in the process, the Automobile Manufacturers Association penned a gentlemen’s agreement that banned factory-backed racing efforts across the industry. Though it was loosely adhered to at best, Chevrolet’s brass stuck to the script for the most part, perhaps to divert more attention to GM’s performance-focused Pontiac brand at the time.
Regardless of rationale, the Chevrolet’s racing efforts with the Corvette were significantly hampered, and Caroll Shelby’s Cobra, Daytona Coupe, and GT40 were pulling in the lion’s share of attention to American race engineering on the international stage throughout the 1960s anyway.
By the 1970s the pro-level Corvette racing was largely left to privateer efforts like the Greenwood team, but with the debut of the all-new C4 in 1984, Chevrolet rekindled its interest in road racing with the Corvette GTP. However, the GTP was designed by Lola Cars and built to compete in the IMSA GT Championship, and it shared virtually nothing with its production C4 counterpart as a result.
But as the 1990s started to take shape it became clear that potent performance was returning showrooms both domestically and abroad, and with the new Dodge Viper capturing attention from enthusiasts on the street and at the race track, GM knew they needed to respond. By the latter part of the decade Chevrolet was eager to showcase the capability of their new C5 chassis and bring the heat to Chrysler – as well as the best that Europe had to offer – out on the race track once again.
To do so, Chevrolet formed a partnership with Pratt and Miller, a Michigan-based engineering and fabrication firm, to develop racing versions of the C5 production car and form a proper factory endurance racing team, the latter of which would become known as Corvette Racing.
“Endurance racing enables us to test new technologies that transfer from race car to road car,” said Mark Kent, director of racing for Chevrolet, during an interview in 2014. “The lessons we have learned from the Corvette Racing program are immeasurable. Not only does Chevrolet race the products we sell, we do it against our chief showroom competitors.”
Chevrolet Returns To International Racing
GM was keen to get their new and improved C5 chassis out on the race track, and the efforts to develop the C5-R began long before the first road-going C5 Corvettes showed up on dealer lots. Debuting in 1999 at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the C5-R would have initial teething issues, as is often the case with a brand new race car and team, and would lag behind the long-established Viper and Porsche teams most of the first two seasons.
But by 2001, things started to change. At that year’s IMSA opener at Daytona, the C5-R would not only best its GT class competitors but the Prototype racers as well, earning the Corvette Racing team an overall victory. Now confident in their car, the team would run a full season of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) series with the C5-R that year as well, racking up six victories throughout the season before heading to heading to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and subsequently securing their first class victory at the legendary race, finishing eighth overall and 34 laps in front of their next closest class competitor.
In the years since, Corvette Racing has amassed a motorsport record that’s made them a force to be reckoned with in endurance racing, with over 100 wins, dozens of ALMS titles and over 50 1-2 podium finishes.
IMSA GT Championship regulations at the time of the C5-R’s development called for quite a bit of commonality between the race cars and their road-going counterparts, which led Pratt and Miller to use heavily modified versions of the production C5 Corvette as test mules for C5-R’s initial development, though they would later be replaced by purpose-built race chassis that would only share key structural elements with the road-going Corvettes.
The first C5-R racers packed a 366ci V8 based on the LS1, though the team would step up to a 427ci V8 mid-way through the 1999 season, and that 7.0-liter motor would become the C5-R’s power plant for the rest of its factory-backed career. Katech would oversee the development of the engine, beginning a partnership between Corvette Racing and Katech that remains in place to this day.
Along with aggressive front and rear aero that included a large air diffuser and wing, externally the C5-R differed from the production cars due to its fixed headlight setup, which replaced the pop-up design used in the production cars.
Eleven C5-R chassis were built by Pratt and Miller between 1998 and 2004, ten of which would be used by Corvette Racing and another that was commissioned for construction by a privateer team.
By the time the C5.R was ready to be succeeded by the C6.R 2005 race season, Corvette Racing and Pratt and Miller had honed the design into a proven world-class GT race car, capturing an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona, three class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and no less than 31 class victories in the American Le Mans Series. So in the interest of not screwing up a good thing, development of the C6.R proved to be more of an evolution of the C5.R chassis rather than a clean-sheet redesign.
This time around the C6.R was developed directly alongside the C6 Z06 road car, with design direction of the production car taking direct influence from suggestions provided by the racing team. Engineers working on the road-going C6 Corvette reached out to the racers, asking for a list of design elements to consider while developing the new generation of the Corvette.
“The design staff came to us and asked what they could do to make a better racecar.” C6.R racing program manager Doug Fehan recalled during an interview with Racecar Engineering. Fehan’s team had some simple, straight-forward requests: A single air intake at the front of the car rather than the split intakes on the C5, replace of the pop-up headlight design with fixed units, and add additional downforce to the car by slightly altering the Corvette’s profile.
Armed with improved downforce as well as aerodynamic drag as well as a 590 horsepower 7.0-liter LS7.R V8, the C6.R would prove to be a worthy replacement to the C5-R, racking up 39 wins in the GT1 class, multiple championships from 2005-2008, 12 straight wins from 2005 to 2006, and 25 consecutive wins from 2007-2009.
2010 would see the development of a GT2 class C6.R racer, which brought displacement down to 5.5-liters per class regulations. After some initial tweaks the GT2 C6.R cars would become every bit as dominant as the GT1 cars though, securing a GTE-Pro class victory at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans and numerous other wins.
The C6.R would find racing success yet again during its final year as a factory effort, winning the 2013 ALMS GT championships with five GT victories before making way for the C7.R.
Debuting for the 2014 race season, like the C6.R before it, the C7.R would benefit from Chevrolet’s decision to develop both the C7 road car and C7.R race car alongside one another.
The C7.R current competes in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, and although it is not nearly as dominant as the C6.R was when Corvette Racing was campaigning it, the C7.R has secured a number of victories since its debut, including the 24 Hours of Daytona in both 2015 and 2016, as well as the GTLM class championship in 2016.
The Current Team And The Road Ahead
As of the 2017 season, Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner serve as the pilots of Corvette Racing’s two C7.R race cars during both the IMSA season and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This marks the sixth consecutive year that the lineup had featured these four drivers, and their combined Corvette Racing history includes 105 race wins and 10 Driver’s Championships in IMSA competition.
“Consistency is a key component in a successful endurance racing program,” explained Mark Kent, Chevrolet Director of Motorsports Competition during an interview late last year. “Retaining our core driver lineup for a sixth straight season gives us the best opportunity to repeat the phenomenal results from 2016.”
It also helps to have really talented drivers, as it turns out. Antonio Garcia has 16 victories to his name, including Le Mans 2009 and 2011, Daytona in 2015, and Sebring in both 2009 and 2015.
Oliver Gavin boasted no less than 48 victories going into the 2017 season, including five ALMS/IMSA Driver’s Championships, five Le Mans wins, five victories at Sebring and a win at Daytona in 2016.
Jan Magnussen currently has 35 victories on his resume, including four wins at Le Mans, four at Sebring, and a win at Daytona in 2015.
Tommy Milner is no strange to the podium either, as he had 12 victories going into the 2017 season that include two victories at Le Mans, another two at Sebring, and a win at Daytona 2016 while co-driving with Gavin.
The Corvette Racing had a rough bit of luck at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The #64 C7.R driven by Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fassler would suffer significant damage mid-way through the race, and although the team would eventually get back on the course, the time lost would result in an 8th place finish in the class.
The #63 C7.R was fairing much better and poised for a class win in the final laps of the race. Piloted by Garcia, Magnussen and Jordan Taylor, the car would end up falling back to third during the last moments of the race while Taylor was at the helm attempting to fend off Jonny Adam in the No. 97 Aston Martin Vantage.
While frustrating, the #63 C7.R car of Garcia and Magnussen continued to be a force this season in the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where the pair successfully defended the team’s Manufacturer, Driver and Team titles with four victories in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. Garcia and Magnussen recorded three of those victories on the way to their second championship together – the first coming in the 2013 American Le Mans Series.
“Sebring, I think, was a race that made us think that winning a championship was possible,” Garcia said in a statement from Corvette Racing. “That came after Daytona where for the third year in a row, we had a clean race with no mistakes. We led twice in the last hour and still didn’t win the race… that was a shock for us. We thought it would be a very hard season after that. Sebring showed us we could turn things around, and it opened our eyes a little bit to give us confidence.”
Magnussen pointed out that, rather than one specific standout moment that made this season possible, it was a hard-fought battle that required a collective effort, as successful racing seasons often do. “We sure didn’t win the championship because of just one thing that happened,” he explained. “We won it by overachieving on weekends where things didn’t look so great. It was largely because of our strategy and execution. One weekend that we did get more out of it than we thought might have been possible was at COTA. We were the only car that didn’t get in any sort of trouble at any time in the race. I don’t know if we could have won it otherwise. Everyone else had contact, penalties or something else. I’d say that was a lucky one, but it came right after Long Beach where we finished fifth but should have won because of something that happened on track. Those two balanced each other out.”
Can Corvette Racing translate their IMSA success over to Le Mans next year? How the 2018 season will pan out is still anyone’s guess, but there’s little doubt that this team will remain a serious contender for the those titles in 2018.