Photo courtesy of IMSA

Ford GT goes for the endurance race ‘triple sweep’ in Sebring

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SEBRING, Fla. – A year ago, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing and its pair of Ford GTs merely looked for reliability in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring after a nightmare debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona when issues that hadn’t arisen during preseason testing all popped during the race itself.

A year later, the team, and the car, stands on the precipice of winning endurance racing’s “triple crown” of major endurance races all in a row.

Ford dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais emerging as the trio that delivered Ford a win 50 years after their famous 1-2-3 victory in the 1966 race, a goal that Ford outlined that it wanted to complete.

Then at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, Ford won again, but this time in a dogfight against three of the other four manufacturers entered in the field. All of Chevrolet with the venerable Corvette C7.R in its fourth season, the emerging No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE in its second, and the new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR on its race debut, put up a threat to the Fords, but the Blue Oval emerged with its second win in a row, and with the same trio of Hand, Mueller and Bourdais. Mueller’s pass of James Calado in the Ferrari into Turn 1 in the final half hour was the ultimate pass for the win, and Mueller held on against Patrick Pilet’s Porsche to the flag.

This driving trio has a chance to become the first trio in major endurance sports car racing history to be the same three drivers to hold those three race titles at the same time, even though Ford would not be the first manufacturer to complete the endurance race triple at the same time.

In fact, Corvette Racing pulled off the feat with five consecutive major endurance race wins in 2015 and 2016. Corvette won Daytona and Sebring with the trio of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Ryan Briscoe – incidentally, the last of whom drives for Ford now. Then following Magnussen’s crash in practice, that car was withdrawn from Le Mans before it even had the chance to complete the triple. But Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor scored an emotional win at Le Mans with the sole remaining Corvette left.

Corvette then won at last year’s Daytona and Sebring with Gavin, Milner and Marcel Fassler. Gavin’s win in a photo finish over Garcia at the 2016 Rolex 24 will live in sports car racing lore. But Ford’s dominance at Le Mans stopped the Corvette win streak in its tracks.

It’s with that setup that Ford, with partners Chip Ganassi Racing, Multimatic and Roush-Yates Engines, can now match Corvette in holding the Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring titles all at once. Ford looks to win 50 years after Mario Andretti won here in 1967. And Ford has three cars with which to do it.

No. 67 Ford GT. Photo: Ford Performance

Hand, Mueller and Bourdais are going for their own hat trick as well. Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon will look to stop them in their tracks in the No. 67 Ford, which qualified on pole position. Then a third Ford, the UK-based No. 68 car for Olivier Pla, Stefan Muecke and Billy Johnson, will look to play spoiler from a bit further back in the grid.

“The journalists have told us it’s a ‘triple sweep,’ but we can’t think about that,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “We’re just doing our job at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Working for Chip over the years, having Ford, Multimatic, Roush-Yates and Michelin have provided us the opportunity to do this the right way. I can’t tell you how much fun that is to do. I love the history of Sebring. From a historical significance, and being a fan of Sebring, a fan of racing, it’s just an honor to be part of and terrific opportunity for us.”

The funny thing is, if Corvette stops them, Corvette will have completed its own hat trick, with a third straight win at Sebring.

Mike O’Gara, Joey Hand, Sebastien Bourdais, Dirk Mueller, Mike Hull. Photo: Tony DiZinno

All three of Hand, Mueller and Bourdais have won at Sebring before, with the first two having had class wins and Bourdais being part of the overall winning lineup in 2015. They downplay the history aspect and instead are more keen to look on the mantra established by team boss Ganassi of his liking winning when it comes down to today’s race.

“We always want to win every race. It doesn’t change,” Hand told NBC Sports. “I was excited to make history at Le Mans. Excited to win Daytona. And to get in the history books again would be awesome. I love the fact my kids will get to read a book about what we’ve done.

“But of course we want to do it. Dirk and I have won a couple times, and been close others. The team is good here. Compared to last year, we have a much better shot. I feel pretty good about it.”

Bourdais, who only races with Ford in the endurance races and has a shot at his own Florida triple crown as well as being a part of Ford’s, downplayed how important his own role has been to the success.

“I don’t race for stats… but obviously you look back, and these big events mean a bit more than the others,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “I only get to do the big ones so it makes it easier! It’s a great honor to be racing the works car and have the chance to contend for wins.”

Mueller got the car into this position to begin with, following his pass for the win at Daytona on Calado in the waning stages. That was after he’d won the pole at Le Mans, then started and finished the race.

“Sometimes to the outside it looks like it’s just someone is sticking out, when it’s about the team,” Mueller told NBC Sports. “It’s who gets tires. Who’s in traffic. Then who does the start. That’s what I liked about Le Mans. I was lucky to do the pole on my last lap. It was cool. I started and closed the race, and when I got it all and that’s not usually the case!

“(At Daytona), Joey did fantastic in the beginning. Seb and everyone did a great job to keep on track. Then you had everyone who has to finish. It was good fun.”

Hand’s 2012 heroics against Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari will live on in memory and the cool Californian expects a similar ending today, even if the Corvette is known to be very good in cooler evening conditions.

“This track and race is a case where I’m pretty much expecting a dogfight at the end,” said Hand.

But it’s Briscoe, who won the pole on Friday in the No. 67 car, that had perhaps the funniest line about his colleagues in the No. 66 car going for the triple.

“Those guys don’t need to win ‘em all,” Briscoe laughed.

Lauda: Halo decision has ‘destroyed’ push to bring fans to F1

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Niki Lauda believes the decision to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection to Formula 1 for 2018 has “destroyed” efforts to make the sport more appealing to fans.

The FIA announced on Wednesday that all cars would be fitted with the Halo from next season as part of its push to improve safety standards and prevent head injuries.

The Halo was extensively tested through 2016, but has not featured since last year’s finale in Abu Dhabi, with the ‘Shield’ concept being trialled – albeit unsuccessfully – at Silverstone.

There was a large amount of outcry online from fans following the Halo announcement, and three-time F1 world champion Lauda has also condemned the decision.

“We tested the Halo, the Red Bull ‘Aeroscreen’ and Ferrari’s Shield as cockpit protection. None has convinced me 100 per cent,” Lauda told Auto Motor und Sport in Germany.

“You have to make the right decision in such a situation. The Halo is the wrong one.

“The FIA has made Formula 1 as safe as it gets. Also the danger of flying wheels is largely eliminated, because the wheels are always more firmly attached.

“The risk to the drivers has become minimal.”

Lauda stressed that introducing Halo would only serve to turn fans away from F1, despite the sport’s best efforts in recent years to try and draw them back in.

“We are just trying hard to get new fans for the sport with fast cars and getting closer to the spectators,” Lauda said.

“Now this is destroyed by an overreaction.”

Hamilton plans to see out Mercedes F1 contract to end of 2018

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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of next season, but speculation had emerged suggesting that a move to Ferrari could be of interest for the Briton as he nears the end of his career, or that he could even opt to retire from racing.

Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.

“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.

“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.

“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.

“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.

“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”

Q&A: Andy Meyrick on McLaren GT4, Ligier LMP3 European balance

Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing
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As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).

Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.

The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.

Meyrick helmet. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.

MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?

Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.

“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.

“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?

AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!

“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”

Bobby Rahal with Dave Price at 2016 Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?

AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.

“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…

AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.

“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.

“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?

AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.

“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?

AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.

“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.

“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.

“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.

“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”

Wehrlein: Sauber F1 set for big C36 upgrade in Hungary

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Sauber is set to bring a sizeable update for its C36 Formula 1 car to the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, according to driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber has been battling at the back of the grid throughout 2017 after years of financial difficulties, limiting the development of its new car.

The team is racing with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals, but it currently sits P9 in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Wehrlein confirmed that Sauber would be bringing a sizeable update package to Budapest, and was positive about the boost it may offer.

“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.

“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”

Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.

“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.

“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.

“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!

“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.

“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”