After 24 hours of nail-biting turns and crashes at the 2016 Rolex 24-hour race, it came down to just 0.034 seconds on Sunday. Corvette Racing pretty much owned this year’s 54th annual event, as the team’s duo of yellow C7.R race cars took first and second place podium wins in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Marcel Fässler all took turns piloting the winning No. 4 Corvette C7.R, with Gavin trumping teammate Antonio Garcia and his team in the No. 3 car in a crescendo that set a new record for closest 1-2 finish in Rolex 24 history. By the time a full rotation of the earth was complete, each of the Corvettes had covered 722 laps, or the equivalent of 2,570.32 miles, with the side-by-side checkered flag finish being determined by just a few inches.
“We thought this was going to be a great weekend because we had a couple of additional competitors in the series this year,” says Mark Reuss, General Motors’s executive vice president for global product development. “I’ll tell you, this is the second year in row we placed both Corvette C7.Rs on the podium. I couldn’t be prouder of the team because they all worked so hard. They know how to win because it is a great team, and it is a great car. Honestly, that is what it is all about. It was an outstanding weekend.”
This marks the second time Corvette Racing has finished 1-2 in its class at the Rolex 24, with the first dating way back to 2001 when a pair of Corvette C5-Rs placed first and fourth overall. This time around, things were a little different as the No. 4 Corvette C7.R also took an early lead in the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup’s GTLM standings, a competition that includes a four-race series folded into a chain of long-distance events, where points for segment winners go toward an end-of-season championship.
On the other end of the spectrum, the No. 3 Corvette C7.R won the DEKRA Green Award for having the “best performance combined with fuel efficiency” in the GTLM class, and both Corvettes showed unrelenting reliability and performance prowess throughout the race. The final three hours were a real nail-biter too; the No. 4 Corvette bounced back from an untimely pitlane penalty with a team strategy that allowed Gavin to drive the final leg on just one pit stop. He made the winning pass with 35 minutes left and had to contend late with Garcia, whose No. 3 Corvette had caught up thanks to a different fuel strategy and serious concentration from its driver.
The No. 3 car stopped three times in the final few hours, and with a tank of E20 on board and fresh set of Michelin tires beneath him, Garcia re-entered the race in third place. With just 26 minutes left, Garcia had moved into second place, steadily closing in on Gavin as the two Corvettes cruised bumper-to-bumper within the remaining 10 minutes. For a brief moment, Garcia took the lead with a pass around Turn 1, but Gavin retook first place after outmaneuvering his teammate in the exit, going on to win the race by just a nose.
Meanwhile, Ford was struggling to get itself situated in the new GT’s official racing debut as both Chip Ganassi Racing GT cars were plagued with gearbox issues that set them far back in the pack. On the bright side, things weren’t nearly as bad for the EcoBoost-powered Prototype team, at least all the way up until the No. 02 Target/Claritin Riley car was sidelined twice with brake problems during the overnight hours. Then, with just 2 hours, 40 minutes to go, a third brake issue reared its ugly head, putting the No. 02 car deep into the tire wall with Kyle Larson behind the wheel.
The No. 01 Claritin/Target Ford EcoBoost Riley was Ford’s “winner” for the day, finishing fifth overall, a full 11 laps behind the winning ESM Honda HPD Ligier. The No. 66 Ford GT finished 31st overall, ear-marking it as seventh in its class, a full 32 laps behind the aforementioned Corvette C7.R winner, while the No. 67 Ford GT came in 40th, a staggering 162 laps behind the Corvette.
“We certainly had our share of reliability issues, and that is not uncommon in a brand new car’s debut,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president for global product development and chief technical officer for Ford. “As we have said, the first time these two particular cars hit the road was literally at the Roar (Before the Rolex 24) test here a couple weeks ago. Aspects of our total testing program had gone very well, so I think we’re a little surprised at some of the reliability issues we have had. Those kinds of things you aren’t going to find except in a race environment.”
“Overall, this is racing and this is what can happen in racing. If we don’t win every race, we are disappointed, but at the same time we know how to fix our issues and we’ll be better the next time we come out,” he added.
There is no better place to test a car’s limits than on a race track… for 24 consecutive hours. Sure, Ford probably isn’t happy with its overall position at the end of the day, but the patience and diligence of its crew made a huge difference in how problems were approached and fixed, which speaks volumes about the team itself.
Remember, R&D work isn’t just something where a bunch of guys in white lab coats put every component of a car under the microscope. Putting cars through the most extreme scenarios imaginable remains one of the best ways to see what works and what fails, and while both C7.R Corvettes performed flawlessly, maybe they’ll get benched early on at Sebring in March to give Ford’s GTs their turn to steal the show. Unforeseen issues lurk at every apex, and for those of us in the grandstands or on the comfort of our couch at home, watching a revered automaker better themselves when the heat is on is one of the greatest automotive joys imaginable.