Corvette embraces new technology for help at Le Mans
With race cars approaching from behind 40 mph faster than their Chevrolet Corvette, Oliver Gavin and his teammates turned to electronics for help at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
A unique device that combines cameras and radar lets Corvette drivers know where approaching traffic is located without forcing them to look away from the road. It's not new technology — camera and radar devices are readily available in production cars, primarily for help while the car is in reverse — but the technology has been updated for the 82nd running of the prestigious sports car race that begins Saturday in Le Mans, France.
Meet the Collision Avoidance System, which combines sensory technology with graphic elements like multi-colored arrows on a screen placed in the drivers' peripheral vision. In the slower GTE Pro class at Le Mans, Corvette Racing's two cars and six drivers are expected to benefit from the electronic assist to prevent collisions with prototype cars approaching quickly from behind.
"You've got to spend a lot of time looking behind you; that's part of the skill of competing in the GT classes," Gavin said. "Now we've got an extra set of eyes behind us. You have to consider that the GT drivers have a harder job than the guys in the (faster) prototype classes. We're constantly looking behind while trying to pay attention to what's ahead of us."
The idea emerged after a bad rear-end crash in 2010 at Le Mans with a faster Peugeot. Corvette Racing teamed with engineers from Pratt & Miller Engineering and Bosch Motorsport North America to develop a system that identifies approaching cars. It debuted in 2013 at the 12 Hours of Sebring and received the motorsport technology of the year award at the Professional Motorsport World Expo in November.
This year's upgraded, lighter version of the CAS adds graphics — arrows that grow and change color as the faster car approaches — that make it easier for drivers to keep their eyes on the road and not on the screen.
"The screen is placed to the side of us, just on our peripheral vision," Gavin said. "You can pick up the graphics without taking your eyes off the track. You have to train yourself a little to use it, but it's very effective."
Pratt & Miller and Bosch are preparing the device for distribution to other race teams. One of its most significant selling points is its effectiveness in the dark.
"It's really useful in the dark or the rain when cars aren't readily visible," said Doug Louth, Corvette Racing's engineering director. "When the faster cars come up from behind with their LED headlights, its very hard to see what's happening behind you. This helps drivers know where the other cars are, how fast they're going and which side they're passing on."
Because of its low-slung design, the Corvette presents rear-view issues for drivers. The car features a small rear window and large rear wing that make it difficult to see approaching traffic through a traditional rearview mirror. Side mirrors leave natural blind spots that the CAS resolves.
"Without it, you're always looking in your mirrors," driver Tommy Milner said. "You get used to that in some ways, but it's better if you can know exactly where everything is without looking away from what's in front of you. They've utilized a camera for a number of years to be able to see behind, but the radar is new. We feel like we're more aware of what's behind us and able to pay better attention to what's ahead of us."
Corvette Racing, which has won its class in seven of the last 13 years at Le Mans, will start second and fourth Saturday in the GTE Pro class — 30th and 32nd overall. Milner, Gavin and Richard Westbrook will share the driving duties in the No. 74 Corvette C7.R, while Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Jordan Taylor share the No. 73 Corvette.
Written by Jeff Olson, Special for USA TODAY Sports 3:25 p.m. EDT June 13, 2014
Photo by: Richard Prince, Corvette Racing)