On January 8, 2016, Chip Ganassi and his crew, joined by a massive collection of men and women from Ford, Multimatic, Michelin and representatives of a dozen other interested parties, jammed the pits at Daytona International Speedway for the annual Roar Before the 24, the mandatory test for teams that plan to compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Which, of course, Ford and Ga, hasnassi did. After all, this was the first open-to-the-public test of the newly minted Ford GT, which would compete in the GT Le Mans class in the 2016 Rolex 24. Important, of course, but it was all foreplay leading up to the season’s early climax, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Ford had been victorious over Ferrari 50 years earlier.
Remember? It was in all the papers. And they made a movie about it: Ford vs. Ferrari.
I had spent months shadowing the team with exclusive access behind the scenes, in the shop, at tests, in meetings. It would be incorrect to say that Ford and Ganassi arrived at the Roar cocky, but man, the testing and technology that had gone into that Ford GT: What could go wrong that they hadn’t experienced? Hadn’t tested for? Hadn’t overcome?
They were correct. Clockwork. They conquered the Roar. They were ready for the Rolex.
They thought. They hoped. They were wrong.
January 30, 2016: “Have they already won?” remarks a Chevrolet Corvette owner as he watches the massive scrum of fans surrounding the Ford GTs on the pre-race grid.
The green flag falls, and after nine laps, Ryan Briscoe rolls into the pits, gearshift stuck in sixth. The car goes to the garage. Repairs are made. The No. 67 car is 17 laps down, with 23 hours left in the race.
Then Joey Hand’s No. 66 has an electrical short. The engine restarts, but there’s a problem with a brake line.
Hand returns to the pits: The transmission is stuck in first. Then a tire explodes due to track debris and damages the rear diffuser. Back on track, the shaky diffuser cuts another tire. The transmission on the No. 67 fails and has to be replaced. An alternator dies. It’s a miserable 24 hours. The cars finished 30th and 39th.
“Testing and racing are different animals,” said Doug Fehan, then and now program manager for Corvette Racing. “We probably tested more than they did for our very first Rolex 24. But it turned out, we had never tested on a track with that much sand.”
Sand collapsed the air-filtration unit and penetrated a cylinder.
“And our first Sebring was even worse than that.”
The Ford GTs finish fifth and eighth in class at Sebring, an improvement. But were they ready for Le Mans? As you likely know, they were, and finished first, third and fourth in class.
Fast forward four years: Ford is completely out of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, retiring the Ford GT from competition, reasoning that it did its job.
But now comes an all-new Chevrolet Corvette C8, with an all-new Corvette C8.R race car. Like the production model, and like the Ford GT, it is a mid-engine vehicle. The architecture of the car is obviously new, and the vast majority of the parts are as well, including the engine and transmission.
And, like the Ford GT’s Roar in 2016, nothing much went wrong for Corvette Racing and its new C8.R in 2020’s warmup to the Rolex 24.
Corvette Racing team manager Ben Johnson said that the Roar was mostly “about finding the balance. You work through the issues as they arise, and as we anticipate them. Testing is, or course, different from racing, but we feel pretty good.
“The lessons we learned here were across the board. It’s the first time we’ve had all the drivers here and we have to get them comfortable — seats, seatbelts, gauge visibility.
“Knock on wood, the absence of problems is really good sign. But you are never confident until you get through your first 24-hour race.”
A little more than five hours into its first 24, so far, so good for the two Corvette C8.Rs. Corvette No. 3 has Nicky Catsburg behind the wheel, and is fourth in class. Marcel Fassler is driving the No. 4, and he’s in seventh. The No. 3’s best time so far is 1:43.225. The No. 4’s best time is 1:43.600.
The fastest time in the class: Catsburg’s 1:43.225 — quicker than the other Corvette, both Porsches 911s, both BMW M8 GTEs, and the lone Ferrari 488 GTE.
Still, as it was at the Roar and in qualifying, the two Porsche 911 RSR-19 are the class of the field. Yes, they are technically new cars, and much is made of the new 911 vs. the new Corvette. But that’s misleading: The new Porsche isn’t quite as dramatically different as the new Corvette, and Porsche has had more than three months of actual race development, having raced and won in the World Endurance Championship, which starts its season in September.
This is the genuine debut of the C8.R, and the early reports are good.
“I don’t think we can complain,” said Antonio Garcia, after a couple of stints in the No. 3. He had a shifting issue in the second stint, but that was rectified.
“If you’re going to make mistakes,” he said, “this is the time to do it.”
Teammate Tommy Milner, fresh from a stint driving the No. 4 car, says the mid-engined Corvette is far different from the front-engine model that dates back to 1953.
“The C8.R for sure feels different. There are lots of things about it that are better than the previous generation,” Milner said. “For example, we’re sitting more centrally located in the car so when it snaps out, you feel it, and that feedback gets back to us through the driver’s seat that little bit quicker where we can naturally react. Sometimes with the C7.R, sitting so close to that rear axle, the car is sliding all the time. You find yourself overcorrecting sometimes when it’s not necessary.”
“I’ve found with the Corvette C8.R that generally when it is sliding a little bit that my natural instinct to correct that slide always comes at the right time. You’re not second-guessing yourself at times like you could do with C7.R So in that sense, the C8.R is much nicer to drive, for sure.”
Just before 9 the night before the Rolex 24, it was dark in the garage area and the announcement has already been made on the P.A. to clear the area. Behind the two Corvette trailers, virtually every crew member, maybe 25 of them, is gathered in a tight circle around Johnson.
It’s the daily mass debrief. Like a football huddle, it suddenly breaks up, and everyone heads for the motel. The looks on their faces: Confident, but not cocky.
You not only learn from your mistakes — you learn from the mistakes of others.