Mid-engine Corvette race car hits Daytona with mixed results
Opening a new era for Corvette, the mid-engine C8.R race car powered to fourth- and seventh-place in class at its Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona debut last weekend.
Developed in tandem with the C8 street car, the racing thoroughbred hit the track ahead of its $59,995 showroom sibling after a 40-day UAW strike delayed production at Corvette’s Bowling Green, Kentucky manufacturing facility until February.
The C8 is the first Corvette in seven decades to put its engine behind the driver. That fundamental physical change was made to make the Corvette more competitive both in the marketplace and on track. Corvette’s racing program is closely intertwined with its production ambitions. Hailed as the poor man’s supercar, Chevrolet’s sports car has long competed head-to-head on the international race circuit with supercar titans like Porsche and Ferrari.
In its fourth-place finish Sunday, the top-performing No. 3 Corvette trailed Porsche’s mid-engine entries and a first-place BMW, but outpunched its mid-engine Ferrari competitor.
“I’m very happy the Corvette C8.R went across the finish line for the first time,” said veteran Corvette driver Antonia Garcia, who raced the front-engine C7.R from 2014-2019. “It wasn’t a win, but I’m sure that knowing how it reacts and how much room there is for development, this Corvette will be a winning machine before long."
The Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona is the first stop on the endurance racing circuit’s international tour with June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans the ultimate prize. Ford also made a much-ballyhooed run at Le Mans in 2016 in its new, mid-engine Ford GT, winning outright in its first attempt.
Endurance racing is not only a high-profile stage for auto brands to show off their state-of-the-art performance. It's also a crucial test-bed for technology that ultimately trickles down to production cars.
Complementing the two C8.Rs on track during the Jan. 25-26 weekend, Chevy displayed seven production C8s around the famous Daytona Speedway grounds, most of them in GM’s Chevrolet Experience center located near Victory Lane. The race car and production car share 80 parts, compared to only two or three in past generations.
For under $70,000, the Corvette C8 will hit 60 mph in just 2.8 seconds compared to 3.0 seconds for a $245,000 Ferrari 488.
On track, the No. 3 car hammered along relentlessly for 24 hours, its driver team of Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg leading the class twice and covering 785 laps for 2,795 miles – a record distance for any Corvette entry in Rolex 24 history. But the No. 4 C8.R piloted by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fässler encountered an oil leak that sidelined the car for eight hours while the crew removed the engine.
The engine is the biggest difference between the C8.R and the C8 is the race car debuted an all-new, twin-cam, flat-plane crank V-8 that will be used in a future trim, likely the Z06 performance version. The base C8 that goes on sale this quarter will feature a 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 familiar to past 'Vettes.
For all the many hours of computer simulation and on-track testing, nothing can prepare a race team for the stresses of a full-squawk 24-hour race.
"The Rolex 24 is a demanding race, so to even finish here with a brand-new car with a brand-new engine is a major accomplishment,” said Chevy Motorsports boss Mark Kent. "To have both of the new Corvette C8.Rs finish... is a tremendous reflection of the strength of this program."
Despite the No. 4 car’s issues, it paled compared to the disaster that befell the Ford GT at its Daytona 24-hour debut in 2016 when transmission issues dropped both cars out of contention just hours into the race.
While the production car goes to media tests and customers in the next month, the C8.R moves on to twin Sebring endurance races March 18-21. One of the races will help qualify the car for the 2020 season’s biggest prize: Le Mans in June.
“The team can be proud of what the car has shown. The No. 3 guys were in the hunt for the win almost all race,” said veteran driver Milner of the Daytona debut. “For us and the Corvette fans, there is obviously a bright future for this new Corvette C8.R."
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.