Exclusive Interview: We talk Camaro ZL1 1LE with Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser!


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The 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE has made plenty of headlines over the last year thanks to spy shots, a wreck on the Nürburgring during development, and a persisting rumor it was the upcoming Z/28. Big aerodynamic surfaces helped fuel that rumor, but alas, Chevy’s top dog Camaro is supercharged – something Al Oppenheiser says isn’t in the Z/28’s bloodline.

Oppenheiser gave us an exclusive interview at the 15th annual Barrett-Jackson auction in Palm Beach, Florida. It was there the rights for the first production 2018 Camaro ZL1 1LE were auctioned. Not surprisingly, Hendricks Motorsports placed the final bid of $250,000, all of which went to the United Way. When that first ZL1 1LE will be produced is still under wraps, but Oppenheiser says it will begin production with the standard 2018 model Camaros sometime within the next quarter.

What’s more, Hendricks will witness the ZL1 1LE come to life at Chevy’s Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant in Michigan. Hendricks will also be the first to start the car, which will have the VIN of 001, and drive it off the assembly line.

And though much about the ZL1 1LE is under wraps, not everything was hush-hush in our conversation with Oppenheiser. In fact, a few nuggets of unreleased info slipped out, giving us an unprecedented glimpse at the upcoming Camaro track star.

Continue reading for more information.

Interview With Al Oppenheiser, Camaro Chief Engineer


Exclusive Interview: We talk Camaro ZL1 1LE with Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser!

The 1LE package has a long history with the Camaro brand. As Oppenheiser describes in the interview, it all started with the third-generation Camaro in 1989. Race teams kept losing due to suspension, fuel, and brake issues. Part by part, the 1LE package was created with a better-handling suspension, a baffled fuel tank, a high-flow fuel pump, and bigger brakes for better stopping. Equipped with the 1LE package, the Camaro started dominating at the track.

Exclusive Interview: We talk Camaro ZL1 1LE with Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser!
Exclusive Interview: We talk Camaro ZL1 1LE with Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser!

The 1LE package moved into the fourth-generation Camaro, too, bringing a black hood to signify the performance-minded setup. That then translated with the move into the fifth-generation, despite eight years without Camaro production. During development of the fifth-generation Camaro ZL1, Chevy engineers developed the 1LE package for the Camaro SS. It included beefier anti-roll bars and drop links, wider and stickier tires, and the high-flow Dual Mode Exhaust system for the 6.2-liter LS3 V-8. Again, the black hood returned.

Exclusive Interview: We talk Camaro ZL1 1LE with Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser!
Exclusive Interview: We talk Camaro ZL1 1LE with Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser!

As the sixth-generation took over for the 2016 model year, the 1LE package returned for the Camaro SS, but also became available for the Camaro V-6. Developing 335 horsepower, the 3.6-liter V-6 proved no slouch, only lacking 120 horsepower from the LT1-powered Camaro SS. The 1LE package gives V-6 customers the same improved handling as the Camaro SS 1LE, but without the added cost of the V-8.

However, Oppenheiser and his engineering team thought more potential was hidden in the 1LE package. That’s when the idea of developing a 1LE package to the supercharged ZL1 became a reality. Ultra-high performance Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve dampers similar to those on the fifth-generation Camaro Z/28 were added, along with ultra-high performance Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R summer tires, aggressive aerodynamics, and a 60-pound reduction of mass. The combination gives the 650-horsepower Camaro ZL1 an even more track-focused direction.

Of course, most will question why these upgrades were saved for the sixth-generation Camaro Z/28. It’s a legitimate question, but one any die-hard Camaro fan can answer. Oppenheiser summed it up by saying, “I know everybody thinks what it should have been called, but if you think about the Z/28 history, it’s always been naturally aspirated. Our LT4 V-8 is no slouch, so we decided to make this the ultimate track version [of the ZL1].”

This unconventional move would explore past the limitations of the single camshaft and two-valve-per-cylinder design that’s been a staple in GM’s V-8s since the 1950s.

Rumors persist GM is developing of a high-revving, naturally aspirated V-8 that abandons the small-block Chevy’s cam-in-block design for dual-overhead cams. This unconventional move would explore past the limitations of the single camshaft and two-valve-per-cylinder design that’s been a staple in GM’s V-8s since the 1950s. This has been done once before, though, with the fourth-generation Corvette ZR-1. That engine, dubbed the LT5, was co-developed with GM’s newly acquired Group Lotus. It featured four valves per cylinder operated by dual overhead camshafts. It produced 375 horsepower, which far exceeded the 250-horse 5.7-liter V-8 in the standard Corvette during the early 1990s.

A modern LT5 (note how perfect the LT5 nomenclature lines up with the LT1 and LT4 V-8s) would need to be more powerful than the fifth-generation’s 427 cubic-inch, 7.0-liter LS7 V-8 – it’s spiritual predecessor. The LS7 kicked out an impressive 505 horsepower at 6,100 rpm and 481 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Though less than the supercharged 6.2-liter LSA in the 2012-2015 ZL1, the Z/28 offered a more direct feel thanks to an instant throttle response and a free-revving nature. Leaked GM documents show the LT5 will displace 6.2 liters, have direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, and an aluminum engine block. There’s no reason why such an engine couldn’t make at least 550 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque. But that’s just speculation, of course.

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE

As for Chevy’s newest baby, the 2018 Camaro ZL1 1LE offers an uncompromising focus on being a track star. The spool valve dampers are upgraded over the last-generation Z/28’s. These now feature consumer-adjustable ride-height settings for dialing in the suspension for a particular circuit or driving style. A full 20 mm of adjustment at each corner gives the Zl1 1LE owner full control over the suspension’s attitude. The DSSV shocks come from the factory set at zero. From there, they can be adjusted 10 mm up and 10 mm down.

“If you check the 1LE box, make sure you understand you’re buying a track car."

What’s more, the front suspension allows for 3.7 degrees of negative camber adjustment, while the rear offers an adjustable “stab bar,” or sway bar. This allows the driver to customize how the car handles, dialing in either understeer or oversteer, based on preference and track conditions. At all four corners, the dampers are hard-mounted to the chassis. The lack of bushings adds even more sharpness to the ride. While this isn’t ideal for on-road driving, the sacrifice in ride comfort is rewarded with a 1.10-G cornering grip Oppenheiser says the ZL1 1LE will hold all day long.

“If you check the 1LE box, make sure you understand you’re buying a track car,” Oppenheiser said. “It doesn’t mean you’re saturated in the drive after a few miles, but it’s not a daily driver for everybody.”

And anybody planning on daily driving the ZL1 1LE better budget for new tires every over oil change. The Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R tires are specially formulated specifically for the ZL1 1LE and its on-track performance. Expect the tread wear rating somewhere in the very low 200s. The tires are widest factory tires ever installed on a Camaro, even the Z/28. Up front sit 305-series rubber, while 325-series tires put power to the ground out back. The Goodyears wrap special light-weight wheels sized at 19 inches. That’s down from the 20-inch wheels used on the standard ZL1. Oppenheiser says the smaller size decreases overall weight and rotational mass, along with giving more wheel well space for adjusting the suspension.

GM has said the ZL1 1LE is three seconds faster around its Milford Proving Grounds than the non-1LE version

Other changes are more visible. The ZL1 1LE comes with a more aggressive chin splitter, large dive planes, and a carbon fiber rear wing Oppenheiser says is good for 300 pounds of downforce at maximum velocity. Of course, that V-max number is still classified. GM has said the ZL1 1LE is three seconds faster around its Milford Proving Grounds than the non-1LE version. That goes to show how much difference downforce, less mass, and good tires can make. The extra downforce also helps with that 1.10-G cornering grip.

Hauling everything to a stop are Brembo brakes. Unchanged from the standard ZL1, these Brembos uses 15.35-inch, two-piece iron rotors up front and 14-inch vented iron rotors in the rear. Six-piston calipers cap the front rotors and four-piston calipers cap the rears. Helping denote the 1LE package is the red paint found exclusively on 1LE models.

Many might wonder why Chevy didn’t include carbon ceramic brakes on the ZL1 1LE, or at least offer the option. After all, Chevy spent plenty of time tuning carbon ceramic brakes for the Z/28. Oppenheiser says there are two reasons why the ZL1 1LE didn’t go with carbon ceramic brakes. For one, carbon ceramic brakes are great for stopping, but they are also used for marketing. “This car doesn’t need them,” Oppenheiser says. “We stay well under 600 degrees Celsius on the track all day long, so why punish the customer by adding cost just to say you’ve got them? These [iron brakes] are world-class and are very capable.”

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE

While carbon ceramic brakes would undoubtedly reduce unsprung mass at each corner, the tradeoff in price wouldn’t be worth the investment. Plus, the sixth-generation ZL1 weighs roughly the same as the Z/28 – a car that didn’t come with air conditioning, sound deadening, carpet in the trunk, or even a radio. Chevy even used thinner glass for the windows. It seems Oppenheiser and his team genuinely had the consumer in mind during development.

Oppenheiser says the ZL1 1LE will begin production within the next quarter when Chevy begins building the 2018 models. Unfortunately, pricing is one of those hush-hush topics, so that information remains a guarded Chevy secret. Expect the ZL1’s 1LE package to be as least as expensive as the 1LE package on the Camaro SS, which adds $6,500 to the base sticker price. Starting at $61,140, the Camaro ZL1 could see its price hit $70,000 with the 1LE option box selected.

As always, stay tuned to TopSpeed for the latest news and reviews.

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE Specifications
Enginesupercharged, 6.2-liter V-8
Horsepower650 HP
Torque650 LB-FT
Transmissionsix-speed manual*
0 to 60 mph3.4 seconds
Quarter mile11.6 seconds @ 130 mph (EST)

*10-speed automatic not available with ZL1 1LE package

Read our full review on the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE here.



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