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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.”

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”

Pirelli: Slow puncture caused Vettel’s British GP tire failure

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Pirelli has determined that a slow puncture was the cause of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 tire failure towards the end of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix.

Vettel suffered a failure on his front-left tire on the penultimate lap of the race at Silverstone while running third, forcing him into a late pit stop that ultimately left him P7 at the checkered flag.

The incident was just minutes after Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen had also hit trouble with his front-left tire, although Pirelli stressed after the race that the incidents were unrelated.

Pirelli announced on Friday that, after conducting extensive analysis of the tire, it could confirm that its initial belief that Vettel had suffered a puncture was indeed correct.

“As appeared clear since Sunday afternoon, a full investigation has now confirmed that the original cause of the failure was a slow puncture,” Pirelli said.

“The consequent driving back to the pits on an underinflated and then flat tire led to the final failure.

“Kimi Raikkonen’s damaged tire shows less evidence of what occurred, so further tests and analysis are still ongoing in Pirelli’s laboratories and indoor testing facilities.

“It will take a few more days to reach a definitive conclusion.”

BMW completes first test with 2018 M8 GTE in Germany

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BMW has completed the maiden track test of its new M8 GTE car that will race in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2018.

BMW announced back in September that it would be returning to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the WEC in 2018, entering the GTE-Pro class.

The German manufacturer has since been developing its new M8 GTE car which will also replace the existing M6 GTLM in the IMSA-run series, where it is raced by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

BMW announced on Thursday that it had completed a three-day test last week at the Lausitzring in Germany, with factory drivers Martin Tomczyk and Maxime Martin both enjoying time behind the wheel.

“To see the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack makes me very proud. Everyone involved has done a magnificent job in recent months to allow us to reach this milestone in the development of our new flagship for the GT racing scene,” said BMW head of motorsport Jens Marquardt.

“In the first instance, the purpose of a test like this is obviously to get to know the car. In this regard, greater emphasis is placed on the safety aspect than performance. However, the first impression of the BMW M8 GTE out on the track is a very positive one.”

“Firstly, I feel very honored to have been able to drive at the first real test of the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack. I had great fun with the car,” added Tomczyk.

“The BMW M8 GTE is good to drive from the outset, and it is easy for us drivers to work out the way it handles, which is important. We got a lot of kilometers under our belt, and gathered a lot of data. We also took our first steps with regard to performance, which is by no means a given at a first test.

“We will obviously work more intensively on that at the coming tests, and will build on the strong basis we established here at the Lausitzring.”

The BMW M8 GTE is set to enjoy another on-track test next month, with Antonio Felix da Costa due for some lap time.