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Four Ford GTs determined to rise to top of GTLM crop at Rolex 24

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Since winning its first Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2006, Chip Ganassi Racing has never been absent more than two consecutive years from victory lane in the 11 years since. Overall wins have followed in 2007, 2008, and then again in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

This being an odd-numbered year, and with the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team expanding back to four Ford GTs as it did at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last summer, hopes are high within the Ganassi camp that it will now add the Rolex 24 with the Ford GT to its win list.

After last year, the new car debuted with a litany of mechanical errors, few of which were forecast after a thorough and comprehensive testing program in the buildup. It was a brutal start to the program but one which was quickly eradicated.

But the car obviously improved from a reliability standpoint and just a few months after its debut in Daytona, had achieved its first win at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca before dominating at Le Mans.

The Ford Ganassi crew is leaving no doubt of its desire to topple the rest of the GT Le Mans field at this year’s Rolex 24. With the four-car entry – two Multimatic-run, Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK entries from the FIA World Endurance Championship joining the two full-season IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship entries – the team and manufacturer has double the number of cars of any other manufacturer within the 11-car class.

As such, with only two Corvette C7.Rs, two BMW M6 GTLMs, two of the new debuting Porsche 911 RSRs and a single Ferrari 488 GTE, the odds are firmly in Ganassi’s favor. The car was also top of the heap at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

A Ford GT win too would also accomplish the feat of ending Corvette Racing’s two-year run, and stopping the manufacturer from a three-peat with its incredibly well-oiled machine.

“Having all four cars here in Daytona is really great, as some might say safety in numbers, but truthfully it’s a huge advantage to be able to test a range of different set ups,” explained Richard Westbrook, who shares the No. 67 Ford with Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.

Joey Hand, whose eventual career shift from BMW to Ford and Ganassi saw the seeds planted when he was part of Ganassi’s 2011 overall victory, added the sheer volume of capacity from Ganassi is something to behold.

“Well, it feels like Le Mans now, it’s the first time we have had all of the cars competing together since the win at Le Mans,” said Hand, who won Le Mans with Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais; the trio will share the No. 66 Ford. “Obviously having four cars really ups the odds for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing to have a win here at Daytona.”

The wild cards for Ganassi on U.S. soil among the quartet of GTs are the two European-based entries, all of whom are high on outright talent but not as high on formal Daytona experience. Stefan Muecke, Olivier Pla, Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell have a handful of Rolex starts between them and surprisingly, this marks Tincknell’s Daytona debut.

“It’s going to be amazing. Obviously at (the back-to-back IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship/FIA World Endurance Championship races at) COTA, it was great to hook up and use the IMSA guys to give us information because their race was before ours, which helped us a lot,” Priaulx, who shares the No. 69 Ford with Tincknell and Tony Kanaan, explained.

“Now having four cars working toward one goal gives us all a more positive chance to try and win one of the best races in the world. I think it’s great for Ford to commit to this race in such a big way. It shows the dedication and passion to win. That’s something that’s very important to me as a driver. It motivates you when you see that sort of commitment coming in. Hopefully we can deliver for Ford and everybody at Ganassi.”

It might be Billy Johnson who helps this group the most. One of only two Americans in Ford’s 12-driver lineup, Johnson was instrumental in the test and development work of the Ford GT and has been rewarded for his efforts with a place on board. Unfortunately for him, despite winning the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge championship last year, his new Platinum rating has affected his ability to defend that title. Nonetheless, with a mix of both car and Daytona experience in his pocket, Johnson is the under-the-radar ace in the hole that could emerge a star in the stacked GTLM class.

“Just before Christmas I was doing more development work on the Ford GT and running some more in Mustangs. I was definitely staying busy for Ford,” said Johnson, who is the No. 68 Ford with Pla and Muecke.  “(It’s been) a lot of working out. Running and eating right and just making sure I’m in good condition for putting in the best performance I can at the race.”

Johnson’s one of the four “extra” drivers as you were, and the only full-time sports car driver among them. Bourdais and Dixon have easily acclimated to the Ford GT, while Kanaan looks forward to his debut in the twin-turbo, EcoBoost V6 beast. Bourdais and Dixon are past overall winners at the Rolex 24 and look to add class wins to their resumes.

“We had so little experience and starting the year and career of the car with a 24-hour race was like asking, ‘Hey, how much harder could we make it?'” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “Overall it was a painful experience because it didn’t go anywhere near what we wanted, which makes Le Mans even more remarkable.

“To be honest the oddball was Daytona because we never suffered that many problems. It all gathered for Daytona and it was like, what is going on? How is this possible? We ran… not problem-free, but ran a lot of laps without problems in testing. It was so weird. But then running four cars with no major problems at Le Mans was a testament to the performance.”

Dixon added to NBC Sports, “With a car like this you have a bit more leg room and things to try. Different development pieces. I’m not so immersed in the program. But for me, it’s coming to do some miles and make sure I can help everything run smooth.

“Winning here in 2006 and 2015 is huge, because it’s such a tough race to get everything race. Many times we’ve been in the hunt and the sister car has won when we haven’t. It’s a different style of race. It’s great for team building, learning setups.

“As far as races go, there’s key ones you want to win. Daytona is definitely on that list.”

Ford’s winning legacy at Daytona includes six overall triumphs, including the first 24-hour race at Daytona in 1966 with Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby in a Ford GT40 Mk. II.

“We’re ready to get this second season started with Ford GT,” said Dave Pericak, global director, Ford Performance. “We walked away from last year happy with what we were able to accomplish, but that doesn’t mean the job’s done. The team did a great job preparing in the very short off-season and we believe we’re prepared to compete for championships in 2017.”

Ganassi added, “Overall, when you look back at 2016, I would say ‘mission accomplished’ when it came to debuting this program with Ford. We won races, competed for the championship in both IMSA and WEC and of course won in Le Mans. Like any new program, you’re going to have some growing pains as we did here in Daytona but we have worked through all of those and finished 2016 strong. This year is a totally different scenario. Not only do we have four cars instead of two, we also have a 24-hour win under our belts and a season’s worth of experiences with this car. I can’t wait to see what this year’s race brings.”

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

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Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

Hinchcliffe will donate brain to study race-related concussions to help safety of sport

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is well known throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series for his sense of humor.

He’s the kind of guy that keeps not just his own team loose, but also does the same for other teams and fans.

Even when he’s talking about a serious topic, he can usually be counted on interjecting at least one or two great one-liners.

Hinchcliffe was in his usual form during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while he joked at times, the underlying message he tried to get across was very serious and very poignant to all forms of motorsports.

Namely, concussions and concussion research.

Hinchcliffe went so far as to say that when he passes away, he’s ready to donate his brain to science so it can be studied, particularly for some of the impacts and resulting concussions he’s endured throughout his racing career.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent, absolutely, it’s a done deal,” Hinchcliffe replied when asked if he’d ever consider donating his brain.

He then added with a whimsy but serious reality, “If it can help, if it can be put to use, I’ve got no need for it at that point. Absolutely, I’d donate it to the cause.”

Hinchcliffe said he’s studied the topic of racing-related concussions in all forms of motorsports, particularly IndyCar and NASCAR.

The Canadian driver, who sat on the pole for last year’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, said he’s thought on occasions about the ramifications of concussions upon race car drivers.

But it was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that forced him to sit out the entire second half of last season that greatly increased the attention of a number of drivers across all forms of motorsports.

“Honestly, I think most guys would be in a similar situation,” Hinchcliffe said. “Dale’s (Earnhardt’s) situation, I think that was something that a lot of guys had never been asked.

“But as soon as it was brought up, it was a no-brainer.”

Hinchcliffe then grew embarrassed when he realized his verbal faux pas and apologized, but his message was still on-point.

“It’s a very easy decision for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “If we can do something now, especially with something we don’t need anymore (after dying) and it’s going to help benefit the future safety of our sport, then it’s an easy call.”

Hinchcliffe starts 17th in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Sunday’s race, a year after qualifying for the pole position.

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Vice President Mike Pence confirms Indy 500 visit

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INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence, the former Gov. of Indiana, will be “back home again” this weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

The slight difference, of course, is that his main residence is now in Washington, D.C. since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January.

Pence is a longtime fan and visitor of the race, so while he confirmed he’ll attend on Thursday, it will not be in any official capacity.

“The Vice President is a Hoosier, grew up here, and tweeted some photos. He will be here as a fan. There will be no official role for him at the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles on Thursday.

Rumors percolated on Wednesday he’d be in attendance. On Wednesday, Boles said IMS was in the process of preparing for Pence’s arrival from security and operational protocols.

“We have heard, as have all of you, that there is a possibility the Vice President of United States,” Boles said Wednesday. “We are not in position yet to confirm or deny yet; however I can tell you we are preparing for it. As soon as we know, we hope to know by end of the day tomorrow, we’ll have another one of these briefings.”

Indeed they have on Thursday. The only major change announced was that there will be no pedestrian traffic at Gate 4.

“The Turn 2 suites, just South of those suites is what we call Gate 4. Gate 4 will be closed to pedestrian traffic beginning tomorrow,” Boles said.