For an American team contesting the world’s most famous race, Corvette Racing has won Le Mans on its centennial celebration.
One hundred years ago, when the small southern-French agricultural town of Le Mans hosted its first running of the fabled 24, it’s fairly certain the organizers had no idea what a behemoth it would become.
Beyond the dream of so many drivers and manufacturers to claim victory at Circuit de la Sarthe, a combination of public roads and purpose-built race track today, to do it on the 100th anniversary of the arduous endurance race is a dream come true.
For Corvette Racing, it was a bittersweet victory for the team and fans as the iconic General Motors brand will not contest the GTE Am class moving forward — after nine victories since 2000 in the 24.
Drivers Nicky Catsburg, Ben Keating, and Nico Varrone drove the No. 33 Mobil 1/SiriusXM Chevrolet Corvette C8.R to Corvette Racing’s ninth class victory at Le Mans and a first for the mid-engine Corvette sports car. Noted, the last victory in class for Corvette at Le Mans was with a C7.R in 2015.
As seen by the incredible response from Corvette fans worldwide, Old Glory is waving high today with a “W” right square in the middle. Then consider the overall victory going to Ferrari for the first time in more than 50 years, since Edsel Ford tapped Carroll Shelby to “Spank” the red cars from Maranello after a snub from il Commendatore. The Prancing Horse never recovered — until 2023.
Fortunately, Corvette, with a long history at the race, beginning in 1960 with the Briggs Cunningham C1; setting speed records in the C3 Greenwood Corvette — laden with flares — that still make red-blooded Americans’ hearts swell with pride; and in the modern age with C5-C8 models bringing the top spot back to the Yanks; showed its grit in a significant comeback after a tough start to the race.
The skill by the drivers, the strategic decisions by the engineers, and the execution of the Corvette Racing pit crew all came together for this GTE Am victory in the final race at Le Mans for the Corvette C8.R. Congratulations to everyone at Corvette Racing! – Mark Stielow, Chevrolet Director, Motorsports Competition Engineering.
Things were off to an excellent start with Ben Keating capturing the pole position in Thursday’s qualifying. However, disaster struck for the lone C8.R, shortly into the 24 after Nicky Catsburg, who started the race, radioed the team that something “didn’t feel right.” It turned out to be the right-front damper.
The Corvette crew was quick to change the faulty suspension part, but it still put them down two laps. Class pole-winner Keating – who got in the Corvette while the damper was still being fixed – put on a driving clinic to catch the GTE Am field as the rains came.
The pirouetting of so many cars as raindrops deluged the circuit was spectacular, but also disheartening for so many teams from all classes who were left to repair damaged cars — and in some cases, sadly, just packed up and went home.
Like the great equalizer that rain can be, Keating drove on through the storms, and Corvette engineers called him to pit for rain tires. The race’s second safety car would come out in short order. This allowed the team an opportunity to gain back a full lap as the C8.R would be ahead of the class leader in the order behind one of the three safety cars.
In “typical” FIA fashion, a group of cars – including the Aston Martin GTE Am class leader – were allowed to exit pit lane before the three safety cars came, creating even more of a challenge for Corvette to catch the GTE Am group.
Keating at this stage of the game was really frustrated. “After the first hour when we had to replace the right-front damper, I thought there was no chance. Even when I went to sleep at midnight angry because we didn’t get our lap back because race control messed up, I thought it was over and I was so mad.”
Nico Varrone drove a triple stint which saw him make up more than a half-lap on the field with times between four and seven seconds quicker than the rest of the GTE Am class. He commented, ”I thought it was OK and it’s a long race and we would maybe have a chance. But it was really optimistic to think it would be like this. We are in this position and have to try to manage it and get to the end.”
Keating took over again from Varrone at 2:00 am to also drive a triple stint in the darkness. The American continued to keep his foot down towards an extraordinary comeback.
Add to that, the quick decisions by the engineering team and lightning-quick pit stops by the Corvette Racing crew, which mainly changed just fuel and tires. Amazingly, at no point did the C8.R have to go into the garage.
As the sun came up in the French countryside, Corvette had eroded the gap down to one lap, then two minutes, then less than 60 seconds as the drivers, crew, and engineers worked their magic. In the end, the C8.R had gained a full pit-stop advantage over the other GTE Am contenders inside the final hours to give Corvette Racing a lead they held to the checkered flag.
In the hands of Nicky Catsburg, the Corvette brought it home. “This was awesome. I’ve never taken the finish here. I didn’t know it was so super-crazy on the in-lap, so that was nice. That it’s the 100th anniversary makes it special. That it’s the last year of GTE makes it extra special,” Catsburg said. “That it’s the last year of the C8.R makes it extra special. I’m so happy for the whole team because I feel like we should have already won it in the years before. So it’s sweet for this to happen this year.”