Photo: Ford Performance

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.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.