Corvette Racing competed in the GTE Am Class for the first time at Le Mans in 2023. They had already won at Sebring and Portimao in the first two rounds of the FIA WEC in the GTE Am Class and finished second in the third round at Spa, giving the team and drivers Ben Keating, Nico Varrone, and Nicky Catsburg a healthy lead in both the drivers and team championships, but winning Le Mans is the most important race of the year for every driver and team — it also scores double points over a regular FIA WEC race.
The 100th anniversary Le Mans race week started with scrutineering in the Place de la Republique in the center of Le Mans and continued with the traditional Sunday Test Day. The race meeting started with Free Practice 1 on Wednesday afternoon and the session ended with a red flag after Varrone lost the back of the #33 Corvette C8.R on the curbs at Tertre Rouge and he hit the tire barriers hard with the rear of the car. The team then had less than three hours to rebuild the car before the one-hour qualifying session at 7 p.m. — no pressure there.
After the accident, the crew members had to raid the spare car (chassis C8.R-003) for parts to repair the #33 race car (chassis C8.R-006). The force of the accident meant that even the seatbelts needed replacing, which took the longest time compared with replacing suspension and brake components and many of the body panels, especially on the righthand side.
The qualifying hour was red-flagged twice due to accidents which helped the #33 Corvette, as without the extended time — the one-hour session clock stops every time there is a red flag — they would not have got out in time to complete a flying lap. As it was, Catsburg went out and set the best time of any of the GTE Am cars with a 3:52.228 lap time. Although it was subsequently beaten by two of the Ferraris, all he needed to do was finish in the top eight in class to advance to Thursday night’s Hyperpole session.
The amateur drivers get to drive the Hyperpole session meaning Keating was out in the #33 Corvette C8.R. He set a best lap time of 3:52.376 which was an excellent time when compared to the previous night’s best lap by Catsburg. It was not only good enough to take the GTE Am Hyperpole, but Keating’s lap was also 1.529 seconds faster than the best lap the second place #25 Aston Martin set in the Hyperpole session.
The midday warmup session on Saturday was run in damp conditions, so not everyone ventured out on track. The Corvette did several installation laps with a couple of the drivers, but each was just a systems check, and the car returned to the pit lane at the end of each lap.
The 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans started at the traditional time of 4 p.m. under threatening skies. The race began with a Safety Car coming onto the track during the opening lap after the #311 Cadillac Hypercar made contact with a barrier. Frustration continued into the second hour when Catsburg reported back to the pits that the car felt “strange” at the front. When he pitted the crew found the front right damper had failed and the Corvette C8.R lost two laps to the GTE Am field getting it fixed. Oddly, this is the third damper failure in the last year for the C8.R.
Keating took over the #33 C8.R Corvette from Catsburg while it was in the garage being repaired and even in the tricky track conditions was able to turn in faster lap times than other cars in the GTE Am field. Varrone did a rapid triple stint ( a stint being the amount of time a driver spends in the race car between pit stops, typically between 45 minutes and an hour in 24-hour endurance racing) and started to move back up the class as other competitors hit each other or the barriers around various parts of the circuit.
Catsburg then did a triple stint spending a little shy of four hours in the #33 Corvette C8.R. By the time he exited the car just after the 10-hour mark, the Corvette was back up to eighth place in the GTE Am class. Sadly, seven of the twenty one starters in the GTE Am class had already retired at this point including three Ferraris, two Aston Martins, and two Porsches.
Keating took over the #33 Corvette and did a triple stint during the dark of the night, spending more than three hours in the car. He maintained the #33 Corvette’s eighth position in class but inched closer to the class leader in terms of time. Varrone then did another very fast double stint closing in on the rest of the GTE Am field, moving the #33 Corvette up to seventh and just over a lap behind the class-leading Car Guys #57 Ferrari.
Catsburg followed with a double stint moving the Corvette up to second place before handing the car back to Keating. With just over seven hours remaining another three of the GTE Am class cars had retired. The casualties included two more of the Astons and another of the Porsches. Keating did his last two stints in the car and managed to keep the #33 Corvette in the top three by the time he handed it back to Varrone.
Varrone did another incredible double stint, managing to set the fastest time — a 3:50.439 on Lap 261 — of any driver in the GTE Am field for the 24 Hours. He handed the car over to Catsburg with exactly two and a half hours to go in the race.
Catsburg brought the victory home, winning by more than a lap ahead of the bright orange #25 Aston Martin and the split paint scheme #86 Porsche. Only nine of the 21 starters finished the race in the GTE Am class as actor Michael Fassbender crashed his #911 Porsche 911 and then the marker pen yellow #57 Car Guys Ferrari was retired.
As a result of the Le Mans win, the #33 Corvette now holds a 74-point lead in the FIA WEC championship with only 83 points available from the final three rounds of the season.
This victory marks the ninth win in their class at Le Mans following the longest gap in Corvette Racing’s history stretching back to 2015. They won Le Mans in 2001, 2002, and 2004 with the C5-R, 2005, 2006, and 2009 with the GT1 spec C6.R, and then in 2011 with the GT2 spec C6.R. The C7.R won in 2015, and now the C8.R has a Le Mans victory to add to Corvette’s prestige, meaning that every generation of Corvette has won at Le Mans since the Corvette Racing program started in 1999 and first competed at Le Mans in 2000.
GM Director of Motorsports Competition Engineering Mark Stielow confirmed on the Thursday before Le Mans that this season will be the last for Corvette Racing. Although there will no longer be a factory-backed Corvette team in endurance racing after the 2023 season, the 2024 Corvette Z06 GT3.R will be in the hands of private teams and will no doubt contest for championships.