Wednesday
Mar102010

Corvette Racing - and the Corvette - continue on, but where to next?

© Richard PrinceI spent an enjoyable session out at Pratt&Miller Engineering last week listening to a Corvette Racing presentation about the transfer of technology between the Corvette Racing program and the production Corvette, and vice versa. As most of you are well aware, Pratt&Miller is the engineering firm that designs, builds, prepares and races the Corvette for GM Racing, and they not only have an incredible winning record - six victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, just to name one highlight - they are considered to be one of the premier companies involved in the racing business in the world today. So anytime I’m able to get a tour and get an up close look at the Corvette C6.Rs being prepared for the upcoming racing season, it’s a treat.

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.You’ve heard me rail about “relevance” in racing for years now. I believe that racing should be involved in advancing the development of technologies that eventually end up in the cars and trucks we use and enjoy every day. Which is why I abhor “spec” racing. We don’t learn anything by racing in a vacuum or by “detuning” racing cars every year in order to keep speeds down. We need to push the envelope, investigate new frontiers and keep moving the ball forward so that the cars and trucks of the future benefit from the new technological discoveries that racing can provide.

Which is exactly why the Corvette Racing program is so admirable. Chevrolet actually began listening to racers when the first Corvettes were prepared for competition in the late 50s. Zora Arkus-Duntov understood racing and racers, and he knew that by having driver/owners competing in Corvettes that ultimately Chevrolet would benefit, and the production Corvette would only get better. Corvette made its first appearance at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1956 and its first appearance at Le Mans in 1960. Arkus-Duntov leveraged the racing program to improve the production Corvette, as evidenced by the development of heavy-duty and high-performance components and the introduction of the race-bred Z06 option on the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. This continued throughout the 60s and 70s as Corvettes were raced in SCCA and endurance events like Sebring, Daytona and Le Mans. And that philosophy has continued on - for the most part - ever since. Oh, there have been “dark” periods when no Corvettes of substance competed on the world’s race tracks, but since 1999 - when the idea of a factory-supported Corvette racing program came to fruition - the production Corvette has been improved year-in and year-out by its ultra-successful racing program.

Don’t forget, too, that the Corvette Racing program that operates today represents basically the first time that GM has openly supported a racing program in its history. Yes, there has been factory involvement before, but even during the heyday of the fabulous Grand Sport Corvettes you have to understand that they were never officially entered by the factory in those years. The cars were always entered by people like John Mecum, Jim Hall and Roger Penske, so that there was no direct connection to the factory. Which is why the current Corvette Racing program is so significant.

Today, there is direct - and constant - communication on both sides of the ball between the Corvette Racing program and Corvette engineering.

This year Corvette Racing’s second-generation C6.R will be powered by a new 5.5L production-based V-8 to compete in the new unified GT class in the 2010 American Le Mans Series as well as the GT2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The updated C6.R - and the Corvette ZR1 on which it’s based - represent the strongest link yet between a production Corvette and the latest Corvette Racing team cars.  More than a  decade later, the racing team and production Corvette engineers work hand-in-hand to ensure that the production Corvette directly benefits from the racing program. “Simply put, without Corvette Racing, there would not be a Corvette Z06, much less the ZR1. And, without the foundation of the Corvette C6, Z06 and ZR1, the Corvette Racing team would not be the dominant presence in production-based racing,” said Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter.

Interesting little tidbit on how the production Corvette engineering team helps the racing team? The ACO (the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans) requires air conditioning to be installed in all the cars because of the intense heat that can sometimes be a factor during the classic endurance race. Corvette Racing went to the production guys for help and they came up with an elegant solution in a system that worked perfectly. This year, they’ve delivered a smaller and lighter package that’s 40 percent more efficient. And lessons learned through that exercise are certainly going to be employed in the next Corvette to save weight.

So, what’s next for Corvette?

All of this technological transfer discussion is well and good, but with GM design chief Ed Welburn in the midst of sorting through design concepts from GM design centers all over the world for the next-generation C7, there is much conjecture and hand-wringing going on right now as to what configuration that car should take. I can safely say that the next-gen car will be at least 300-400 pounds lighter and be slightly more compact in exterior dimensions. The front engine rear-wheel-drive configuration will be retained for the mainstream Corvette, although the idea of a extremely limited production mid-engine supercar successor to the ZR1 to go up against the Ferrari 458 Italia, Porsche 918, etc., is still being considered. I have faith in Ed Welburn and his talented group of designers and I am certain we will be gifted with a jaw-droppingly stunning Corvette when it appears three years from now.

I also have faith in the engineers involved with the program and I’m certain we’ll have a new Corvette that bristles with advanced technology, while delivering high performance and high efficiency to boot.

But what about the Corvette Racing program?

It’s clear to me that the production-based category of international racing is only going to grow in importance. With cars like the aforementioned Ferrari gaining even more performance, it’s not hard to imagine that the prototype classes and production-based GT classes may in fact meet in the middle at some point, and we’ll see production-based, or at least production influenced cars from major manufacturers going for the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It’s also clear to me that Corvette Racing has to be taken to the next level. The Corvette Racing program should function as the technological tip of the spear for the corporation (it already it is, but too many at the RenCen are incapable of seeing it or are utterly clueless as to how to use it), and that means that its global reach has to be enhanced and magnified.

And to me, that means that the Corvette has to go for the overall win at Le Mans.

That would be a fitting next chapter after a glorious decade of success.

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