Ford’s Le Mans comeback: “Winning is the only thing”

The GT’s return to motorsport – currently just a two-year commitment to the World Endurance and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championships – has been in the pipeline for a couple of years.

Ford decided to celebrate the GT40 with a new version half a century on from ’66, but only on the condition that it would showcase the best of its current innovations. Which is why the drivetrain is hooked up to – of all things – a 600bhp EcoBoost power unit.

“You can imagine at first: ‘Holy cow! In a supercar you’re going to put an EcoBoost engine?’” exclaims Ford Performance Global Director, Dave Pericak.

“We know we can push this engine to levels it has not gone before,” he continues. “We did a quick engine programme to get a 3.5-litre EcoBoost to a racing format, and we took it out on the track.”

And on the track, they learned a lot. The GT’s initial tests were so successful, Ford quickly decided it didn’t want to just build its supercar. It wanted to race it too.

That put Ford in the position where it was developing both the road car and the race car simultaneously, a situation which Pericak describes as “double the stress, double the workload”.

However, it does mean that the commercial GT will be on the road by the end of 2016, while boasting more overall power than the spec racing at Silverstone, Spa, Le Mans and the Nürburgring.

“Other than the things you have to change to race – the fixed wing and some of the other bits and pieces – the road car is the race car and the race car is the road car,” says Pericak. “So that’s one of the beauties of being able to do them at the same time.”

Yesterday, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing revealed British drivers Marino Franchitti and Andy Priaulx, Frenchman Olivier Pla and German Stefan Mücke as the four men they’d be entering into the WEC this year.

The quartet only met for the first time on Monday, although the prospect of driving such an iconic car has helped the team gel quickly.

“We were all pretty relaxed straight away, which is really nice. It’s like we’ve all been together for a while,” says Priaulx. “We’re not sleeping yet together, but maybe that’s the next stage. There’s a bit of man-hugging going on, but that’s about it.”

Group cuddling is a sure sign that morale is high, and it’s no wonder given that the team has already tasted success at the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Priaulx and Mücke are yet to get behind the wheel, although Pla and Franchitti have already racked up some miles between them.

“I’ve done quite a lot of days in the car now. It’s lovely. I drove it for the first time and I just didn’t want to get out of the car. I really connected with it instantly. It felt fantastic in that the way the aerodynamics work on the car is really nice.”

Pla agrees, having had his first experience in the GT at Daytona in November: “It felt great. By the end of the second lap in the car I had a smile on my face. It was a really good feeling to feel how the car behaves and reacts. Really, really good.”

For Priaulx and Mücke the maiden voyage awaits, although the Brit is erring on the side of caution. All of the drivers – the entire team, in fact – are well aware of the perils of overconfidence given that it will be the new GT’s first full season in the GTE Pro category.

“You could have the fastest car on the planet, and you still need to have reliability,” explains Priaulx. “The drivers have got to be faultless, and team mistakes can happen in the middle of the night. It [La Sarthe] is just one of those race tracks which puts you through it. It’s crazy.”

However, says Stefan Mücke, they also understand that Ford has given them the tools to challenge for the class in six months’ time: “The goal is clear. We want to win races, we want to win championships, we want to win Le Mans. That’s the target.”

It’s the reason Ford has teamed up with Floyd ‘Chip’ Ganassi: a man with 27 years’ experience of team ownership and a track record of success in NASCAR, IndyCar and SportsCar racing.

The 57-year-old says he has “never been one to lower” his expectations, and that he wouldn’t “put this much effort in to finish second.”

He concludes: “There’s nothing in it but winning. You don’t get anything else out of it. Winning is the only thing that’s tangible.”

Victory may be the name of the game, but anyone who knows anything about endurance racing will appreciate that luck will play a huge part, especially over the course of a 24-hour race.

But despite never having run a team at Le Mans (Ganassi did appear as a driver for Kouros Racing in 1987), the Pennsylvanian has a philosophical approach: “At the end of the day it’s four patches of rubber on the road. And whoever manages those four patches the best is going to be near the front at the end.”

‘The end’ could come sooner than hoped for GT fans, with Ford only signed up to an all too brief racing schedule across 2016 and 2017, as things stand.

“In five years, I’ll be racing still. I can tell you that,” confirms Ganassi, although he can’t say if Ford will still be partners by then. “If I’m not here in five years, I’ll be six feet under somewhere I guess.”

All the more reason to hope that Ford Chip Ganassi Racing are in it for the long haul…