Payne: Mid-engine Corvette race car roars at Daytona debut
The world got its first look at a final-spec, mid-engine Corvette at full chat last weekend. But it was a race car, not a street-legal production car.
The Corvette C8.R impressed at its Daytona debut weekend, lapping within tenths of a second its Ferrari and Porsche rivals at the Roar Before the 24 — the full dress rehearsal for the IMSA Weathertech series’ Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance race coming later this month.
Like carefully choreographed Chevy product rollouts of the past, the race car should have followed the production C8’s production launch in December. The last-generation C7.R race car, for example, broke cover at Daytona in January, 2014 — four months after the production model rolled off the assembly line.
But a bitter, 40-day UAW strike has delayed production at Corvette’s Bowling Green, Kentucky, plant until February. Though some journalists have had a taste of pre-production cars, media test drives of the final product won’t happen until mid-February in Las Vegas — and paying customers won’t get their sweaty palms on the C8 until March.
So the racing debut of the Corvette C8.R (developed in parallel with the production car) at the Roar test trials took on even more significance. And the mid-engine missile put on a strong display around the 3.56-mile road course.
“I had heard a lot already about how good the Corvette C8.R is to drive, so I was very much looking forward to getting in it for the first time,” said Marcel Fassler, 2016 Daytona winner and three-time Le Mans champ. “The car is amazing to drive. There hasn't been a lot of time to get used to the car, but you can see the potential. The car is very agile.”
Fassler’s teammate, Tommy Milner, topped the time charts for much of the three-day test weekend with a lap of 1.42.7 seconds — pushing 170 mph on Daytona’s steeply-banked oval turns for an average lap speed of nearly 125 mph. Eventually a Ferrari 488 and Porsche 911 pipped the ‘Vette for best time of weekend by a tenth of second.
Corvette is entering two cars, #3 shared by Antonio Garcia/Jordan Taylor/Nicky Catsburg and the #4 of Fassler/Milner/Oliver Gavin.
Like the last, front-engine C7 before it, the racing version of the mid-engine C8 was developed from the ground up alongside the production car. The C8 program got the green light six years ago as the first Corvette in 60 years to put the engine behind the driver. The C8 and C8.R share more parts than any generation production/race ‘Vette that has come before.
“It was important for us to develop the new race car alongside the production car, so that each product could properly take advantage of the new architecture,” said Corvette’s chief engineer, Ed Piatek. “The benefits of this mid-engine supercar, including its incredible balance, will be obvious on the street and the track.”
Their obvious similarities aside, the race car diverges in important ways from the $59,995 production steed — especially in the drivetrain, where the C8.R introduces Corvette’s first overhead-cam V-8: a 5.5-liter, high-revving, flat-plane crank mill (the production car debuts with an updated version of Chevy’s tried-and-true push-rod, 6.2-liter V-8).
Despite the race car’s revolutionary engine — flat-plane crank V-8s are rare outside exotics like Ferrari and the Mustang GT350 — Chevy has been understandably shy to discuss its details given that the engine will be reserved for a later model trim in C8’s life cycle — likely the Corvette Z06.
Racing the 5.5-liter 8-holer, however, gives Corvette precious experience at the ragged edge of endurance. The engine is mated to a new, more-compact six-speed sequential gearbox — different from the dual-clutch 8-speed automatic in the production model.
“The drive-train was a big challenge,” said a Chevy spokesperson. “We’ve been working on it quite a while.”
For all of its newness, the Corvette will still face the same ol’ IMSA Balance of Performance limitations in order to ensure it doesn’t run away from other cars in the GTLM class. The mid-engine Corvette must exist alongside, for example, a BMW M8 — a heavier, less-capable production coupe.
As a result, the Corvette — like the retired, mid-engine Ford GT before it — must achieve a minimum weight of 2,777 pounds, with power limited to 500 hp and 480 pound-feet of torque at 7,400 RPM.
Contrast that to the production version, which reportedly will make in excess of 650 horsepower at 8,600 RPM. Stripped of interior finery, sound deadening, and infotainment systems, however, the race car still tips the scales well below the 3,647-pound, production C8.
The C8.R has undergone extensive track testing around the world with its chassis 01 test mule. But the Roar Before the 24 debuted C8.R’s race-ready chassis 02 and 03. The two entries logged a combined 341 laps with no major issues.
“We’ve been very pleased with our time here simply because we haven’t had any durability issues. All in all, I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress that we’ve made,” veteran GM race program director Doug Fehan told Sportscar365.com. Corvette’s Pratt & Miller racet team builds the race car in Lyon Township.
The ultimate test will come when the green flag waves Saturday, Jan. 25, and the cars race a grueling 24 hours at full squawk.
The C8.R’s front-engine predecessor is already a legend, having won the Rolex 24 twice in 2015 and 2016. Notably, the C8.R is already 2.5 seconds a lap quicker than when that car debuted, hinting at its potential.
“We don't have the knowledge base that we have had in the past,” said driver Milner. “So it's been trying a lot of different things we've never tried before. It was fun to have that qualifying session . . . and see how we good we could do. Third is pretty good.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.