BRASELTON, Ga. – Despite having only an outside chance at the GT Le Mans championship, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team can still look back at its debut IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with the new Ford GTs with fond memories.
A midseason run of three straight wins at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park propelled Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook into GTLM class championship contention with their No. 67 Ford.
But since, an issue on the final lap at Road America that cost a fourth win in five races, then finishes of fourth and ninth the last two outings at VIRginia International Raceway and Circuit of The Americas have left Briscoe and Westbrook 11 points (314-303) behind class points leaders Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R.
Meanwhile, the No. 66 Ford pairing of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller are yet to win on U.S. soil, but were two-thirds of the lineup (Sebastien Bourdais) that brought Ford and Ganassi its first targeted goal of 2016 – a dominant and authoritative GTE-Pro class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 50 years on from its first win there in 1966.
Seeing how well Ford and Ganassi have adapted to the no-holds barred GTLM class in their first year in the category (after a couple years in Prototype prior) remains an impressive feat, considering the relative lack of experience in class by contrast to the collective units from Corvette, Porsche, BMW and Risi Ferrari.
“It does seem to be the place to be at the moment, not just in IMSA but worldwide,” Westbrook told NBC Sports, as he too has come back into GT after a run in Prototypes with the Visit Florida Racing Corvette team.
“There’s lot of respect out there and a lot of competition and great drivers. We all know each other because everyone’s been around so long.
“Going into a different class compared to what I was used to, brought a new team, car, co-driver and program. But the atmosphere on the 67 and the whole team has been superb. It’s a really good working environment, and it’s been exciting to sink our teeth back into development.”
Much as Westbrook has come back to his spiritual home and class, Briscoe’s been fortunate to have a full-season opportunity after a couple odd years in 2013 and 2015 when he put together part-time programs but was more known for his versatility than one single program.
The 2013 season saw him in a Level 5 Motorsports LMP2 car and two different IndyCar teams (Ganassi and Panther Racing), while after a single year back with Ganassi in IndyCar in 2014, he spent 2015 as Corvette Racing’s endurance ace and James Hinchcliffe’s primary replacement in IndyCar.
“It’s been great and as you know it was a big reason I why jumped on this,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “Every driver sort of needs some stability!
“But obviously you still have to go out and perform and be the best you can. Going after a championship, and going on after Le Mans… having those championship goals in mind are huge. It’s a totally different mindset than race-to-race.”
Briscoe’s handoff to Westbrook at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Westbrook’s subsequent fuel saving performance to win there provided the entire organization a huge shot in the arm, and was arguably a big reason why they were as confident and motivated as they were going into Le Mans, with the combined four-car effort there.
The team winning Le Mans after a thoroughly dominant outing was then the icing on the cake, and it was likely no coincidence that Ford announced a two-year program extension through 2019 shortly thereafter.
“Le Mans was like a dream. It really was. It felt like, ‘This is why Ford’s back,’” Westbrook explained, even though he, Briscoe and Scott Dixon were third there while Hand, Mueller and Bourdais won.
“The win at Laguna gave everyone a lift. We’d struggled a bit before Laguna at Long Beach, Sebring and Daytona. But Laguna showed we could race against and come out on top.
“So going into Le Mans, confidence was high and we had a really quick car. From the past though, even having the fastest car doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t finish.
“When we won, there was a massive release of pressure after that. The valve turned open… the steam came out and we could enjoy the rest of the year. It showed in our performance the next few races. The results kept on coming… and the drive at Mosport, was just awesome. It was a weekend where we struggled a bit but we came out on top again.”
The Watkins Glen and Mosport wins that followed could not have been further apart in how they were achieved.
At Watkins Glen, Westbrook did the lion’s share of work while Briscoe tended to last-minute baby duty as wife Nicole gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Blake. Then at Mosport – or CTMP – a heavy Balance of Performance (BoP) hit cost Ford its pace, but they won on strategy anyway.
“It was a crazy weekend, and then to sort of dominate the whole event – a lot of it was down to Richard, who did every practice session and qualified, put the car on pole,” Briscoe said.
“I got in the first time in warmup and the race. The team was extra supportive of me, which says a lot about the characters, people, and the confidence to say you can miss all of practice and jump in for the race. It was super rewarding but trust me that’s not how you want to do it every weekend!”
Westbrook added, “Obviously I was really happy to cover for him. He had a lot more important issues that went on that weekend. But the weekend was never in doubt. We’d tested there, so Ryan didn’t have an issue getting up to speed. That was our only (IMSA) race we had the clear advantage on BoP… and then we got hammered.”
Heading into Petit Le Mans this weekend, the pairing – plus Dixon – come in off a good test a month or so ago looking to overcome the points deficit and secure the title. Conditions were much hotter then than they will be this weekend, and for once rain isn’t in the forecast.
As Westbrook noted, the challenge is now managing expectations, and to only have an outside shot isn’t an ideal scenario. But it’s still a good spot to be in.
“It’s funny – the better you do the greedier you get – so I’m sort of slightly disappointed it’s an outside shot, whereas it looked really good before VIR and COTA!” he said. “But we have to be so happy with how we’ve progressed this year.”
Briscoe added, “After a couple early gremlins, the team has been absolutely on point with working through those issues with a brand new car. Since then, we’ve never had any repeat issues.
“I’m honestly not surprised but always extremely impressed. Everyone here at Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing continue to impress with the development they’ve done throughout the season.”