DETROIT – Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan has seen it all in motorsports, and he had to rely on every element of that hard-earned experience to navigate through a tumultuous 2009 season. In the midst of a global economic storm, Fehan steered Corvette Racing to the team’s sixth win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the successful mid-year introduction of the GT2 version of the Corvette C6.R in the American Le Mans Series.
Corvette Racing’s 10th anniversary season was a year of transition. The championship-winning GT1 Compuware Corvettes secured a seventh win in the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 21, and made their farewell appearance in the ALMS in Long Beach, Calif., on April 18. The curtain fell on the GT1 era on June 13-14 with a GT1 victory in Le Mans, France, as Johnny O’Connell, Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia stood on the top step of the podium. Seven weeks later, two new-generation Corvette C6.Rs made their competition debut in the GT2 class at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.As the team conducted a five-race test program in preparation for a unified GT class in 2010, Corvette Racing posted five podium finishes and notched its first GT2 win at Mosport International Raceway on August 30. In the series’ final five rounds, Corvette Racing scored more team and manufacturer points than any other GT2 entry, and O’Connell and Magnussen tallied the most points in the GT2 drivers championship. The season ended with fireworks at Laguna Seca as Magnussen walked away from his battered race car after a high-speed crash on the final lap of the season.
Under Fehan’s leadership, Corvette Racing has become one of the world’s premier production sports car teams. An ardent advocate for the Corvette cause and an icon for legions of faithful Corvette fans; Fehan received the ALMS “From the Fans” award in 2004, 2008, and 2009. In the following Q&A, he looks back at the 2009 season and looks ahead to 2010.
Q: Looking in the rearview mirror, what stands out in 2009?
Fehan: “There were really two parts to the season – our final races in GT1 leading up to Le Mans, followed by the debut of the GT2 program. Our focus was and will always be the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When GM was going through its restructuring, our greatest concern was that some might not understand the importance and significance of that event. It was a heartening moment when we were able to get past that point.
“In spite of many uncertainties, the team focused its energy on running the first round at Sebring, which we knew would be a great test of the engineering improvements we’d made in the race cars. And then going to Long Beach, we fulfilled the second half of our mission, which is marketing the Corvette and Chevrolet brands and representing our team sponsors.”
“Everyone felt the importance of writing the final chapter of GT1 at Le Mans. They dedicated themselves to succeed, and it was absolutely amazing to see them embrace that idea. It fueled their fire because they knew the team was undergoing its most significant challenge, and concurrently they were designing, planning and building the GT2 cars. The preparation was almost as much fun as the race.”
Q: And the highlight of the GT2 portion?
Fehan: “The win at Mosport. Watching the new cars’ first laps at Mid-Ohio and knowing that we’d be competitive was certainly exciting, but the victory at Mosport was overwhelming. It happened much sooner than we expected, and it showed ALMS fans what they have to look forward to in 2010 with competition between Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, Jaguar, BMW, and Ford.”
“I think by any measure, the GT2 Corvette introduction was successful. Our objective was to focus on Corvette Racing’s core strengths: preparation, durability and reliability. We’ve learned that is what scores points – it’s not always the fastest car that wins races and championships. In five events, we had zero mechanical issues, and the cars were on pace. That was very encouraging.”
Q: Surely one of the highlights of 2009 was your stunning victory over Jan “The Flying Viking” Magnussen in the Tour de Road America Bike Ride to Fight Cancer?
Fehan: “That certainly ranks right at the top, but in a different category (laughs). We had some fun, and the race benefited a good cause, the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I challenge the pit crews to improve continuously, and the bike race demonstrated to our drivers that there is going to be continuous improvement in their level of physical preparation as well. I mean, they ought to be able to keep up with the program manager!”
Q: On a serious note, what were the lessons learned in Jan’s last-lap crash at Laguna Seca?
Fehan: “Unfortunately the hardest lessons you learn in this sport are always safety related. You never want to put your safety systems to the test, but when that moment arrives, it’s very reassuring to know that they are validated. That’s what we learned at Laguna Seca.”
“Initially we had concerns about running an aluminum chassis, and we had concerns about how the roll cage was integrated into the chassis. The force of the impact exceeded 50 g’s, and yet Jan walked away. When we analyzed the chassis after the crash, the safety systems worked just as they were designed, and the aluminum chassis did a marvelous job of absorbing the energy and protecting Jan from serious injury.”
“The extent of Jan’s injuries was a broken tailbone, which we attribute to the seat design. We have redesigned that part to prevent a reoccurrence in the future, so that is the upside of the incident. Despite the severity of the crash, the crew had the No. 3 Corvette repaired and fully operational within a couple of weeks.”
Q: What is the status of the GT-spec Corvette customer car program for 2010?
Fehan: “We currently have two customer cars under construction, but we don’t yet have confirmed buyers for them. There has been tremendous interest in the GT-spec Corvette C6.Rs, and we think with continued improvement in the global economy, the interested parties will be able to make a commitment. We’d be delighted to see more Corvettes racing in the ALMS or overseas.”
Q: While there will be a single GT class in the ALMS in 2010, GT1 will continue in the FIA series and at Le Mans. What’s your perspective on the two classes?
Fehan: “A year ago, there was general agreement regarding a unified GT class, which we will see in the ALMS in 2010. The intention at that time was to base the FIA GT1 class on GT cars, with limited modifications to the engine and aerodynamics. Since then, however, Europe has encountered the same economic issues that we have faced in the U.S., and many members of the racing community understandably wish to retain their current cars for financial reasons. Consequently some of the older GT1 cars will now be converted to the new regulations, including several privately owned Corvette C6.Rs, and the ACO has invited these cars to participate at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the economic climate improves, I hope that the decision makers will recognize the benefits of running one GT class at Le Mans and other venues.”
Q: Corvette Racing will introduce a production-based 5.5-liter small-block V-8 engine in 2010 in place of the 7.0-liter and 6.0-liter engines used previously. What’s the outlook for the engine program?
Fehan: “GM Powertrain has completed the initial dynamometer tests of the 5.5-liter small-block V8, and the race team has conducted the first track test with the new engine. We are quite satisfied with its performance level at this point. We plan to continue development and introduce the 5.5-liter engine package in competition at Sebring.”
Q: What are Corvette Racing’s goals for 2010?
Fehan: “The ALMS GT championship and victory at Le Mans.”
Corvette Racing’s next event is the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla., on March 20, 2010. The classic 12-hour endurance race will be televised live on SPEED starting at 10 a.m. ET.