Corvette Racing ALMS Teleconference Transcript
Highlights from Doug Fehan and Johnny O’Connell Media Teleconference
Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing program manager, and Johnny O’Connell, driver of the No. 3 Compuware Corvette C6.R, participated in an American Le Mans Series media teleconference on March 26. They discussed the team’s transition to E85 ethanol racing fuel, the upcoming ALMS race in St. Petersburg, Fla., the current state of the GT1 category, the future of GT racing, and other subjects. Excerpts from the teleconference follow.
How does a driver prepare for 12-hour endurance race versus a sprint race on a street course like St. Petersburg?
Johnny O’Connell: The approach to both is really the same. There used to be a time in sports car racing when I first got in, if you went to a long race like the 12 Hours of Sebring, you’d back up your pace a little bit to conserve the equipment. It’s a very challenging and difficult race track, and very bumpy. These days in order to be successful you literally need to run every lap like qualifying. Our Corvettes are certainly capable of handling the abuse we give them. The mental approach between St. Petersburg and Sebring is the same. You’re going out there and you aren’t wasting any track time. From the second that you’re on the track for practice or qualifying, you’re pushing every lap as hard as you can. You’re trying to give the best feedback you can to your engineers to make the car better. So the mental aspect is the same.
In the physical aspect, a street circuit places more of an emphasis on your technique in slower corners. You don’t have fast corners like you do in Sebring, although there is a kink in the backstretch that’s very challenging. For the most part, it places an emphasis on the driver’s ability to slow the car down, bring the car as deep into the corner as we possibly can, but also maintain that momentum to get out of the corner. The biggest thing when you’re racing in St. Pete is that you’ve got to be mistake free. If you do make a mistake, it’s going to hurt. The worst thing you can do is hurt a car and make your guys stay up all night fixing it.
Corvette Racing will become the first factory program to race on E85 at St. Petersburg. How and why was this decision made, and what type of performance do you expect with the new cellulosic E85?
Doug Fehan: It’s an interesting story. For those who may not know, GM is the worldwide leader in the production of flex-fuel vehicles. We’ve produced over 2.5 million, and are the largest producer in the world. Obviously this thing has got some traction inside the company. About two years ago, as this was rising to prominence, I thought it was interesting to look at what the possibilities were to use ethanol-based fuel. We ran some very preliminary tests, just on a whim, in the dyno room. We had some very favorable results, but in my mind it was just an interesting experiment.
It began to gather momentum, and it’s my responsibility to put programs together and to continue to withdraw funds from the corporation with which to drive these programs. So you have to find things that are of interest to the corporation and are broad-based. I got talking about the possibility of racing with E85, and it struck a chord. It resonated with some of those executives, and I saw this as an opportunity to glean funds to continue the program. At the same time, unbeknownst to me, the series was working to do the same thing. The American Le Mans Series has positioned itself as a leader in this area, and they were in pursuit of a similar thing. They called and asked if I would be interested in thinking about doing that. The timing was incredible, there was this confluence of thought. I jumped at the opportunity, took it to my bosses, and they thought it was a wonderful idea.
Corvette has always tried to position itself as a leader not only within GM but in the racing community. I think we’re a leader in safety, the things that we’ve done – helmets in the pit lane, HANS devices when they weren’t required, side impact boxes we developed, side safety nets, I think we’re the only GT manufacturer to crash test a vehicle to ensure its safety. This was a chance for Corvette again to demonstrate that leadership. We knew it would come with challenges, but we felt we were best equipped from a manpower standpoint and from a technology standpoint to deal with these challenges. Somebody has to be first, we wanted to be first, and that’s what we decided to do.
It’s been a very interesting road. We’ve had some challenges, and I think we’ve met all those. From a performance standpoint and a mechanical driveline standpoint, the transition has been fairly seamless. We did run into a small problem in working with our fuel cell manufacturer to develop a fuel cell that will hold the fuel, but I think we’ve reached that goal. St. Petersburg will be our debut with cellulosic E85, and we’re quite excited about it.
Q: Is there any difference in performance using E85 ethanol fuel?
Fehan: When you’re talking about performance, I assume you’re talking about horsepower and torque. There is virtually no difference. Keep in mind that this is a mixture of ethanol and race gas. It’s primarily cellulosic ethanol. Because ethanol on a volume basis contains a little less energy than the gasoline we’re accustomed to running, when you look at a typical individual cylinder combustion process, you have to have more in there to develop the same pressure. The thing that does differ slightly is fuel mileage, but from a power and performance standpoint, it’s virtually the same.
Q: Have the fuel cells been increased in size, and was there a rule change to accommodate that?
Fehan: They have been increased in size. There are a couple of areas here that need to be comprehended. The FIA has a general rule that they don’t want any race car carrying over 110 liters. What the American Le Mans Series has done is stayed below that 110 and looking at what I just talked about, the fuel efficiency difference, we’re going to be allowed to run 105 liters and those that choose to run gasoline in our category I think are running 90 liters.
The cells stay the same; they have blocks in them, and you tailor the volume of the cell with the blocks. In other words, say an Aston Martin runs 90 liters, I’m guessing that the cell probably holds 100 liters of fuel, but they put a volumetric control block inside the fuel cell that limits it to 90 liters.
In the Corvette we actually run two cells. They’re split tanks, or saddle tanks, and they’re on either side of the car because they’re in the actual production position. Then there is a crossover between them. We’re working very hard to get to the 105 liter mark, I think we’re up to 102 liters now. I don’t know that we’ll actually be able to carry 105, but that’s what the rules will allow.
Q: What’s wrong with the GT1 class, and how frustrating is it for you to be racing against yourselves?
Fehan: What’s wrong with it is Corvette. Seriously, we’re victims of our own success. I attend about six meetings a year with the FIA and ACO in Europe. It’s made up of all the major manufacturers. I’ve had some very candid conversations with those manufacturers, and quite frankly when they look across the board at the economic investment, the commitment in time, and all the resources necessary that it would take to compete against us successfully, I think they kind of shy away from it.
Is it hard to get funding from GM without much competition?
Fehan: It certainly is a challenge, but the fact that we’re out there again this year in essentially the same position as last year speaks to the value of the program. The Corvette customer really does believe that when he buys a car, a couple of bucks out of the cost of the car are going to be dedicated to racing. We believe as long as we’re building them, we should be racing them. It’s in Corvette’s DNA, you’ve heard me say that before. For example, last year in Corvette merchandise sales, which is no small ticket because it adds to the bottom line of the corporation, we raced against no one last and our merchandise sales were up 187 percent. That’s millions of dollars. When you look at Corvette Corral participation, when you look at autograph lines, it’s almost like going to the circus. The Corvette fans love to come out, they love to see the cars, hear them, smell them. The American Le Mans Series does a wonderful job with its ‘for the fans’ approach. They’re down in the paddock area, they’re mingling with the drivers and team, it’s an event for them. The race is pretty much the frosting on the cake, and quite frankly, competition is the sprinkles on the frosting.
I would love to have more competition, everyone on the team would love to have more competition, and certainly our fans want more competition. But it’s not a necessary, fundamental component for us to successfully market the car using racing. A testament to that is the fact that we’re back again this year doing it.
Q: Tell me about your supplier since cellulosic ethanol is not commercially available.
Fehan: It will, I think, shortly become more commercially available. The cellulosic approach only makes sense. As any new energy source gets developed, its composition, its manufacturing, its supply, all that changes and is always in flux. I want to preface any remarks I make here by making this clear: There is no one here who thinks that ethanol is the answer; ethanol is a part of the overall solution. That’s why we chose to go in this direction.
Cellulosic ethanol doesn’t take food out of the food chain. It’s stuff off the forest floor, it can be orange rinds, essentially garbage. All the things that people look at in the cost or carbon footprint of a fuel, how much water is required in the production of it, how much water does it take to grow and irrigate and fertilize it, this is a huge science question that can be debated until the end of the world. The reality of it is that cellulosic, because it’s made from scrap and garbage, is ultimately cheaper to produce. Cost plays a huge role in the use of ethanol because its energy content per volume is a little less.
We’re very happy to have cellulosic ethanol. KL Design is the producer, and I think several other plants are coming on line shortly to produce cellulosic. In chemical composition, it’s indistinguishable whether it’s corn based or cellulosic based.
Q: Johnny, do you anticipate any difference in performance?
O’Connell: Performance-wise, the program is always moving forward. There has been no loss in performance at all. We have run the E85, and the performance is as amazing as it’s always been. One slight challenge that Doug brought up is that we need to carry a little more fuel, so there might be more tire wear. Normally a race car goes fastest when it’s light at the end of its fuel run, so being a little heavier at the start of the stint we might be a little slower than we’d like, but we’ll make that up on the other side. With us being on Michelins, tire wear is never an issue and we know we have their backing as we go forward with this program. For us, the very cool aspect is that all want to be as green as we possibly can and recognize that we do need to change things in order to keep racing in our culture. Chevrolet has always been an industry leader, not just in safety, so it’s appropriate for us to showcase this. ALMS is broadcast in some 80 countries, so the attention that the series gets and Corvette Racing gets around the world is significant. It’s neat to be part of a program that is moving things in a positive direction.
Q: Is the message of green racing getting through to Corvette owners and are they making connection between the Corvette they drive and the environmentally friendly version on the track?
Fehan: That’s a very good point. We’re not limiting this to just Corvette. Myself and the corporation view Corvette as the technological spear of the entire GM lineup. We look at Corvette as the quintessential performance vehicle. So consequently Corvette was the very logical choice with which to demonstrate for an unknowing public, for the most part, what E85 is all about. Any sort of lack of knowledge breeds fear and apprehension, and quite frankly we want to use this program to blaze a trail and let all people know, not just GM customers and Corvette customers, but a wide range of people who follow the series that there is no stigma attached to E85. There are no performance issues; you can put it in your car and it will run just as well as what you are currently using. That is the message we’re taking forward. Do we hope it resonates with the Corvette customer? Yes, and we know it will because they follow this more closely than most. But we also hope it resonates not only to GM customers but also to all people. If we can send this message to everyone in North America, that’s a great step forward. Obviously it looks good for GM that we’re doing this sort of thing.
Q: Is there a significant increase in heat with E85?
Fehan: No, there’s not. At the end of the day, most energy converts itself to heat. Horsepower is essentially another measurement of heat. For anyone who’s spent time in a physics class, there is thermal aspect to horsepower. So to answer your question, no there is not, because a horsepower is the same amount of heat no matter how it’s produced. Secondarily, I can tell you that the ethanol does burn a little cooler than gasoline, there are some cooling properties to it, but overall it’s pretty much a seamless transition.
Q: Is there any difference in ethanol versus racing fuel in the event of a fire?
Fehan: Another good question because this involves not only ourselves as car owners but also the American Le Mans Series and its safety crews. Unlike the methanol that was used in Indy cars, you couldn’t see that burn, all you could see was the thermal convection waves. This (ethanol) actually has some color to it when it burns, so there is a visual aspect to it that helps the safety crews. However, the formulation of the safety fire equipment and extinguishing material is different. I’m tuned into the fact that ALMS has added that to their fire arsenal and we have changed the composition of our onboard fire suppression as well. So it is a little different than gasoline but was easily comprehended and handled.
Q: Why did you choose not to run E85 at Sebring, and have there been any technical challenges that have slowed down the program for you?
Fehan: The reason we did not is that we tested for three days at Sebring about three weeks before the event. From a performance standpoint, it’s beautiful stuff and worked extremely well. When we got home, we tore down the cars and noticed there was a degradation in the adhesive that’s used inside the fuel cell. For those who may not know, a fuel cell is, for lack of a better term, a fabric and rubber-impregnated bladder that has some degree of flexibility and some degree of impenetrability for safety. Inside the cell itself there are small structures that hold things like submersible pumps, fuel pickups, internal auxiliary reserve tanks, and that’s all glued together. It’s done with flanges and flaps and adhesives. The formulation we were running had some ill effects on that adhesive and the inside of those structures started to become disconnected from the fuel bladder itself. Obviously that is unacceptable, so to err on the side of caution, we opted not to run it and to continue our research along with the fuel cell manufacturer and the series to put together a package that we knew would be safe. Just like a production car, you wouldn’t expect to buy a car from General Motors that didn’t have a fuel tank that was fully tested. That’s the way we proceed. Was it possible we could have raced? I’m sure we could have. But it wasn’t 100 percent, and until it’s 100 percent we weren’t going to debut it. We’re at a point now where we have a high degree of reliability and that’s what’s caused to go ahead and debut it.
Q: Do you see your program moving to GT2 in the future?
Fehan: You guys have great questions today. The landscape of road racing on a global basis is going to be making a fairly dynamic change in 2010. There are new rules underway now in the FIA and ACO that will change the landscape of GT racing, and I believe it will come down to a single class. I don’t know what the nomenclature will be, but let’s call it GT racing. I think it will more closely resemble GT2 cars than they do GT1 cars. So at the beginning of the next decade we’re going to need a new car GT if in fact we continue on in GT racing. The landscape for the LMP cars is going to have some changes as well. When we looked at GT2, we knew that this change was underway, so to spend a couple of years and the economic and technical resources to develop a GT2 car that was only going to be around for a year or two didn’t make much sense. We opted to continue on in GT1. We’ll wait for those final rules to come out, we’ll evaluate them, and then we’ll make a determination as to where we are going to go ahead for 2010 and beyond.
Q: Did you learn anything from the two cars that ran E85 in Sebring?
Fehan: We had learned all we needed to learn. I did get a report from one of the teams that they noticed after the Sebring event that they had experienced what we experienced, so they are making the same changes we’re making. I’m fairly certain that by the time we get to St. Pete, everybody will be on line and we’ll be moving forward without any issues.
Q: There is a belief that it takes more energy to make a gallon of ethanol than it takes to make a gallon of gasoline. Can you address that?
Fehan: I’m not a scientist, but I did major in science. I can tell you that on any side of an argument, scientists can put together whatever data they want to come up with whatever they want to say. Is there global warning, or is there no global warning? You read something different every day. It all gets back to my original statement: Nobody thinks ethanol is the answer; we think right now it is part of the solution. It is certainly worthy of exploration. It’s not my position to support science one way or the other depending on which side of the argument they come up with. I will tell you that ethanol is a renewable resource, and that is unquestioned.
Q: Will the change to E85 have any impact on your pit strategy?
Fehan: No, quite frankly, it won’t. The way we have the fuel balanced between the cars, the cars should be within a lap or two of what they’ve always been. There is some balancing the sanctioning body has gone to, which is basically some math-based changes. Johnny talked about it briefly when he talked about the weight of the car. Because we’ll be carrying more fuel, our car will weigh more, so the cars that are carrying less fuel will be ballasted to the same weight. What some people may not think about is the ability to fuel and how quickly you can do that in a pit stop. We’d be taking on theoretically 105 liters and they’d be taking on 90, so the orifice size has been mathematically changed so that the fueling times are the same. All in all, strategy – no change; pit stops – no change. To the spectators, there should be no discernible difference whether we’re running ethanol-based fuel or gasoline.
Q: What kinds of things did you have to do get the durability of the E85 engine where you wanted it?
Fehan: I can tell you this, and this is no BS, absolutely nothing. It was as seamless a transition as you can possibly imagine. I’ll tell you the two areas we looked at. One, it takes a laptop computer to recalibrate the fuel delivery to deal with the volumetric issues I mentioned. And the other thing is you have to pay particular attention to some piping and fittings because the ethanol is a very drying material, it doesn’t have the same lubricating qualities as gasoline. The years in the Indy 500 and the IRL and all of the things we did the Oldsmobile IRL engine all came into play, so the book was written on that. I wish I could tell you we spent hours burning the candle at both ends and what an amazing achievement it is, but it was pretty seamless.
Q: Beside the cellulosic aspect, are there any major differences between the E85 that consumers buy and the racing E85?
Fehan: Not really. Understand that E85 is a classification of fuel, not necessarily indicating that every time you go to a pump and buy E85 you’re getting 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. In northern climates, ethanol does not have a good cold-start quality, so there is additional gasoline added in what the call a winter blend that allows your car to start. In broad terms, it ranges from 70 percent to about 85 percent ethanol. In Michigan right now, E85 is different from E85 you would buy in Florida, but it falls into that narrow range.
Q: Would the problems you had with the fuel cell give a consumer cause for concern about their own vehicles?
Fehan: No, it wouldn’t. In fuel systems and fuel tanks in today’s world, there is nothing that is glued together. They are blow molded or vacuum formed materials that are impervious. They don’t have to be assembled the way these fuel cells have to be assembled. From a passenger car standpoint, that simply wouldn’t exist.
Q: Is the formulation you will be using in St. Pete the same formulation that was used by the independent teams in Sebring?
Fehan: I’m going to go out on a limb here. There were two different formulations used in Sebring. We actually tested with a third formulation in trying to find the proper balance. There is some underlying information here that everyone should understand. The fuel cell manufacturers do a wonderful job of building super-safe cells. To date, though, the cells have been built for either the exclusive use of ethanol/methanol, or the exclusive use of gasoline. This is the first time that in these concentrations the two materials have been mixed together, and that is the challenge that we anticipated. We wanted to be perfectly sure as we moved forward that we would come up with a proper formulation for the fuel and a cell that could handle it. We’re there.
The goal of the ALMS is to have a single formulation, used by everyone. The formulation we have just finished testing is that formulation and that will be the fuel that everyone will be using as we go forward.
Release Date: March 26, 2008