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Monday, January 21, 2019

Corvette Racing 2018: IMSA Three-Peat

Before the new 2019 Corvette Racing IMSA season starts, I wanted to reflect on the past three seasons, focusing on the success of Corvette Racing.

IMSA racing consists of Teams, Drivers, and Manufacturers.  Each Manufacturer will field one or two cars (or more if they want), and each car is designated as a Team.  Each Team has at least three drivers, two for most races, and an additional driver for the endurance races (the 24, 12, and 10 hour races).  So, each  year there are three "champions" in IMSA racing:  Team, Driver and Manufacturer.

In the 2016 IMSA season there were 11 events.  A Corvette, either the #3 Team or the #4 Team, finished in 1st place 5 times, 2nd place 3 times, and 3rd place twice.  The #4 Corvette Team, with its drivers Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner,  won both the Team and Driver championships for the season with 345 points, followed by the #67 Ford-GT with 328 points, and in third place was the #3 Corvette with 319 points.  The Manufacturers title went to Chevrolet, followed by Ford, Porsche, BMW,and Ferrari.  It was a good year for Corvette, monopolizing the podium and sweeping the championships, especially given the preseason chatter about the return of Ford-GT to this form of racing.

Here is a podium shot from 2016 showing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place Teams and Drivers (Photo courtesy of Charley Robertson).  I love seeing all those Corvette Driver suits on the podium and the yellow C7R at the base!



In 2017 the results were similar, but the competition was much closer.  The season again consisted of 11 events.  A Corvette Team finished in 1st place 4 times, 2nd place once, and 3rd place 3 times.  This year it was the #3 Corvette Team's turn to shine to the delight of drivers Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia.  They finished with 334 points, followed by the #25 BMW with 317 points, and the two Ford entries tied for 3rd place with 306 points each.  The Ford Teams did not significantly improve, even though it was expected that they would have in their second season.  The #4 Corvette Team had a really rough year finishing in 8th place.  So 2017 was another "sweep" with Corvette Racing winning all three titles.

This is a podium shot from 2017 showing Jan, Antonio, and their third driver, Mike Rockenfeller (Photo courtesy of Charley Robertson, again!).




2018 was a new year, with some big changes.  It was also Corvette Racing's 20th Year of competition, prompting a new logo.

 

For 2018 BMW would be fielding a pair of new BMW M8 GTLM cars for the first time.  The #24 Team would be led by John Edwards, paired with Jesse Krohn, who had a very good year in GTD for BMW.  The #25 Team, who finished in 2nd place in 2017  would bring back Alexander Sims (three-time winner in 2017) and Bill Auberlen, and a new driver, Conner De Phillippi.  The M8 is a front engine design with a transaxle (similar to the C7 Corvette configuration).

In 2017 Porsche debuted a pair of new, factory-sponsored cars -- the mid-engined 911 RSR.  In 2017 they won at Lime Rock for the first victory anywhere for the new model. Their teams are appropriately numbered #911 and #912.  All their drivers were returning professionals experienced in GTLM and the new car.

For 2018 Ford was returning its #66 and #67 Teams and all four drivers from 2017.

The Ferrari entry, sponsored by Risi Competizioni, would be fielding the Ferrari 488 GTE, designated as the #62 Team.  In 2017 they competed in only 7 of the 11 events.  As it turned out in 2018, they competed in even fewer events and were not a factor in the championship competition.  I personally feel this is very sad, as the Ferrari Team always added excitement to the GTLM program.

Corvette Racing returned the same cars and drivers as the prior year, and was now racing with an older platform than all their competitors.  The much-rumored mid-engine Corvette (if there *IS* one, right Tadge Juechter?) was no where to be seen at IMSA events in 2018.

For 2018 Don, Shirley, Nan and I were able to attend three races: Sebring; Watkins Glen, and Laguna Seca.  The year started out miserably at the first race, the 24 hours of Daytona, in which the Fords finished 1 - 2 completely out-running the rest of the field.  Apparently they had received favorable balance of performance (BOP) adjustments  based on the prior years' showing.  Jan and Antonio managed to finish on the podium (3rd place) at Daytona, a small consolation.

The second race, a 12 hour event at Sebring, which we attended, was even more depressing with the Corvettes finishing last (9th place) and 7th. The BOP was adjusted before the race to correct the obviously unbalanced Daytona experience. The adjustments worked for both Porsche and BMW who finished strong in 1st and 2nd places respectively, but not so well for Corvette Racing. 


At the Corvette Corral in Sebring, when we complained about the start of the 2018 season, an individual closely connected to Corvette Racing (the program manager), but who shall remain unnamed, confided a secret truth to all of us, "They aren't going to let us win this year.  I'm sorry, but that's the way it is!"  It turns out he was (mostly, but not completely) right!


Races followed at Long Beach and Mid Ohio and by the time the IMSA teams arrived at Watkins Glen, the #67 Ford GT had a very solid lead of 121 points,  10 more than the two Corvettes, who were tied at 111 points each.  We needed a small miracle at Watkins Glen, and in a sense we got one.  Although one of the Ford-GTs finished in 1st place, it was the #66 Team.  The #67 Ford-GT Team, that had led all competitors up to that point, finished in 6th place, effectively losing 10 points to both Corvettes.  The #3 Corvette finished in 2nd place and was now only 4 points behind the leader.

All season long I keep meticulous statistics on all the IMSA GTLM Teams.  I remember going to an Italian restaurant the evening after the Watkins Glen event and seeing Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing Program Manager, sitting alone.  He and I knowingly laughed when I said, "Doug, don't worry about finishing in 2nd place, the wrong Ford won!"  He knew the significance of the day's result.

Four more races ensued during the summer and by the time the IMSA program showed up at Laguna Seca in September it was clear that the championship was going to be between the #67 Ford-GT and the #3 Corvette.  Jan and Antonio had finished 2nd at Canadian Mosport, 2nd at Lime Rock, 3rd at Road America, and  2nd at Virginia International to move from 4 points behind to 4 points ahead of the #67 Team (and everyone else).  The #67 Team had been inconsistent with finishes of 1st, 6th, 1st, and 7th at those same tracks.  However, at Lime Rock the #66 Team finished 1st place to make up for the poor showing of the #67 Team.  For this reason, Ford held an insurmountable 12 point lead in Manufacturer standings over Chevrolet heading into Laguna Seca.  But the Team and Driver championships were still up for grabs!

Our depression at Sebring had turned to hope at Laguna Seca.  With only two races to go, and a thin points lead, the guys in the yellow cars needed to do well.  And they did.  On Saturday they finished qualifying in 1st (the #4 Corvette with Oliver Gavin driving the fastest lap of the day in GTLM) and 3rd (the #3 Corvette driven by Jan Magnussen, only 0.122 MPH slower than Ollie) positions.  Those results were way better than the races we attended earlier in the year at Sebring and Watkins Glen.  We were happy.

 Sunday was race day. Chaos ensued from the very beginning with a big pile-up even before the first turn.  The #67 Ford-GT got caught up in the carnage and had to be towed to the pits for repairs, which eliminated that Team from any significant points for this event.  They ended up in 6th place with 25 points. Fortunately both Corvettes made it through the rubble unharmed.  The Corvettes led for pretty much the entire caution-light plagued race, trading the 1st and 2nd place positions a few times.

With just a few laps to go, Team Chevy decided to pit both Corvettes for a splash of fuel, expecting the other GTLM competitors to follow suit.  The #25 BMW M8 and the #912 Porsche 911 RSR gambled that they could go the distance without refueling (which they did) and they finished 1- 2.  But the Corvettes finished 3 - 4, extending the point lead for the #3 Corvette to nine with a single race to go in the season.  We were bummed that they missed the chance for a Podium sweep, but happy with the results leading into the final event for 2018. 

The 2018 season finale, "Petit Le Mans" was run at Road Atlanta. "All" the #3 Team had to do to win the Team and Driver Championship was to finish not more than three places behind the #67 Ford-GT Team.  Easy, right?  Well, it seems nothing is ever "easy" in IMSA Racing.  

I can't describe the final race any better than the IMSA staff writer -- here is his rendition of the final race:




The 10-hour race was won in class by the No. 911 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR and co-drivers Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Frederic Makowiecki, but it was the No. 3 Corvette C7.R team and co-drivers Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen, joined at Road Atlanta by Marcel Fassler, who defended their title from one year ago with an eighth-place finish.

In what was an ultimate display of teamwork, the No. 3 team – who entered the race needing to finish fourth or better to clinch the championship – was forced to cheer on its sister car, the No. 4 Corvette C7.R of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Fassler, as it held off the No. 67 Ford GT in the final hour to secure a second consecutive championship for the No. 3.

With a little over two-and-a-half hours remaining and their car in contention for a race victory, Garcia spun exiting pit road and made contact with the inside wall, forcing him to go behind the wall to make repairs. He returned to the track in ninth, three laps down, setting up a scenario where all the No. 67 had to do was finish second or better to win the championship.

While in position to just that, Briscoe pit the No. 67 from second with 48 minutes to go, but was beat back out on track by the No. 4, who ended up holding on to the second position while the No. 67 fell to fifth.

“It probably went from one of my best races of my career to the most embarrassing moment of my career,” said Garcia. “Thank you to the (No.) 4 car for keeping the pressure up on the (No.) 67 car, which had to go for the win for the (championship) result. That's part of this championship, the 4 car keeping the pressure up at the end. I'm very happy. It will take me a little bit to forget that mistake, but I'm very happy for the whole team."

"The way it turned out, the way the 4 car went in there and really put pressure on changed things around,” added Magnussen. “Such a massive team effort to make this happen. I'm so proud to be a part of this. I think what really did it was the 4 car got sent super aggressively and changed the balance of things. Obviously the 4 car went for the win, but they knew why they were doing it. It turned things in our favor.”

It was the 13th team championship and 12th driver title for Corvette Racing in its 20-year history. The championship-winning No. 3 team managed to win the championship without scoring a win, riding remarkable consistency that included eight podium finishes in 11 starts. That was the first time since 2005 a team had won a championship with(out) winning a race during the season. The runner-up effort for the No. 4 team, meanwhile, moved them up to third in the year-end standings.

“Congratulations to Antonio, Jan and the No. 3 Corvette C7.R team on clinching the GTLM Driver Championship,” said Mark Reuss, GM Executive Vice President and President Global Product Group and Cadillac. “This team never gave up all season to deliver our 12th Driver title for Corvette Racing over 20 seasons of competition. And congratulations to Corvette Racing and Pratt & Miller on their 13th Team Championship. They prepared a race car that delivered consistent performance and that great combination of power, durability and efficiency.”




The season scoring grid is below; 1st place points are 35, 2nd are 32, 3rd are 30, etc.) 



The graphic below demonstrates how the season went for each team.  As described above, the Ford teams (blue lines) started well and throughout the season one or the other (see the alternating blue peaks) would finish first -- giving them the edge in the Manufacturer Championship.  But the solid yellow line, the #3 Corvette Team, shows how they consistently finished near the top in almost all the races assuring them the Team and Driver Championships!



So the three year results were:
  • 2016 - #4 Corvette: Manufacturer, Team and Driver Championships; #3 Corvette 3rd place 
  • 2017 - #3 Corvette: Manufacturer, Team and Driver Championships
  • 2018 - #3 Corvette: Team and Driver Championships; #4 Corvette 3rd place 

What will happen in 2019?  Time will tell.  But this year the yellow cars will be sporting the "Three-Peat" logo on the rear bumper for the competition to see!






Best of luck to Corvette Racing in 2019!


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