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What's it like to ride in the new Corvette ZR1?

We hitch a ride in a ZR1 prototype for some laps of Willow Springs. It's quick...

What is this?

We are at Willow Springs Raceway, an hour north of the LA motor show where we first got sight of the new Corvette ZR1, to have the first look at the furious beast in action from the pit lane – and in the passenger seat.  

In the driver’s seat is the head of the ZR1’s development drivers, Alex MacDonald. It’s 23degC, the sun is shining, the track is empty and the ZR1, still wearing its development camo, has just been shod with a brand new set of Michelin Cup 2s.

Time to see what the hugely bewinged 755bhp car can do. This is going to be fast…

How fast?

Well, the top speed of the coupe is quoted by the company as 212mph (the convertible is a tad slower at a wig-losing 208mph). The downforce has been measured at 430kg at that top speed, thanks to the huge (optional) rear wing and a new front splitter arrangement.

Both are included in the ZTK pack, along with a set of Michelin’s finest performance tyres. And today, there’s no other traffic to get in the way. So on this track, already renowned as being one of the quickest in the US, it’s going to be very fast indeed.

Let’s go…

There’s going to be no warming up here. Alex hits the throttle hard and we wheelspin our way down the pit road, allegedly to take the top surface off the new tyres and get to the grippy bit.

Then it’s onto the circuit and into the tight left of turn one. The car, in Track mode, is moving around a lot under braking and during the violent bouts of acceleration out of the corners as the tyres come up to temp.

But as we get out of turn six and set up for the long run down to seven and the fearsome turns eight and nine, the ZR1’s aero settles the car on the track. The car we are in has the optional ZTK pack, which generates 340kg more downforce than the regular ZR1 at max speed with its lower – but still frame-mounted – spoiler. And we need every last kilo of that now.

Entry speed to turn eight, a sweeping right hander, is north of 140mph. But once the car is set up, Alex is accelerating again to hit turn nine and run onto the back straight. Speed at the end of that? 159mph before dropping the huge, double heat-treated carbon anchors.

You going for another lap?

Of course we are. Now that the whole car is up to temp there’s no reason not to. All of the Z06 Vette’s heat management problems appear to have have been addressed and banished on the ZR1.

The new 755bhp supercharged V8 is dubbed LT5 – the second time this engine designation as been used, the first time being on the Gen 4 ZR1 back in 1990. That engine was worked on extensively by Lotus, which was then owned by GM. But this latest LT5 is the new king of the small blocks. And it has lots of new numbers to offer the world.

Such as?

The LT5’s 2560 supercharger – it’s called that because it flows 2.65cubic metres of air every time the engine completes one rotation – shifts 52 per cent more air than the Z06’s LT4’s compressor. Its intercooler also has twice the capacity. The drawback? The supercharger draws a huge 110bhp from the engine to power itself. The LT4’s 94bhp.

Where is it making all the extra power and torque?

Across the range, but especially above 4,000rpm, whereupon the ZR1’s power curve shoots north on the graph like a scalded squirrel. A fact that Alex is demonstrating amply as we dive into the second lap.

The ZR1, which Corvette Project Chief, Tadge Juechter, calls ‘the Corvette from Hell’, has settled down now and is only getting out of shape when Alex loads up the front or rear on purpose. Willow Springs is a wide, flowing circuit, but in these first laps out of captivity, the ZR1’s warp speed is making it feel like a narrow kart track.

Does it seem like it’s hard to control?

No, more that it now has more control so that you can get it out of shape more readily. The Z06 can get a little wayward when you switch off all the chassis nannies, and we only got to witness the ZR1 in Track – the least intrusive – drive mode. But, while it was a very animated drive, it never seemed out of control from where we were sitting.

What about that shaker bonnet? Is that just for show?

No, it is a necessity to keep the sight lines as low as possible. One of the great things about the small block Chevy is its absurdly compact dimensions. This keeps bonnet lines low which improves vision and optimizes weight balance.

Because the ZR1 has a much bigger, taller supercharger on top of it, rather than shape the bonnet over the top of it, Chevy cut a hole in it and made a feature of it. So that big slab of book-matched carbon fibre you see there? That’s bolted directly to the top of the engine.

So what do we think so far?

After just four laps in the passenger seat, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions other than the new ZR1 is much faster than the already rapid Z06.

How much faster? We’ll have to wait a few months to get behind the wheel of a production ZR1 to find out. However, expectations are now high and we have little doubt, based on this first ride, that even those high hopes could be shredded.

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