Ryan Briscoe making most of filling in for James Hinchcliffe

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It’s one of the hardest positions to be put in, replacing a close friend. Even if it’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t always feel right.

At the same time that James Hinchcliffe was seriously injured while practicing for the Indianapolis 500 in mid-May, Ryan Briscoe didn’t have a ride for either the 500 or for the season.

When it became apparent Hinchcliffe was going to be lost for the season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports approached Briscoe and asked if he’d fill in for his friend for at least the Indy 500.

After Briscoe agreed, and earned a 12th-place finish, it made sense for SPM to keep him in Hinchcliffe’s car for the remainder of the season. And the 33-year-old Australian native has prospered. After Indy, he earned an excellent eighth-place showing at Texas.

He may have had a top-five finish this past Saturday at Fontana had it not been for a last-lap wreck with another of his close friends on the circuit, Ryan Hunter-Reay. Briscoe finished 16th in that race.

USA Today had a lengthy interview with Briscoe on Thursday. Here are some key excerpts. If you want to read the whole interview, click here.

Q: Replacing Hinchcliffe: “It’s been really good. Obviously, the circumstances aren’t great. But it’s been good to keep up with Hinch and see him, I saw him last week at the race shop and it’s going really well. That’s really comforting to know. I think it makes the situation much easier knowing that it’s just temporary injuries he’s got and he’s going to be coming back.

“But it’s been a lot of fun for me to get to know a new team, and a great team it is. I’m having a lot of fun and I feel like we’re really starting to jell and learn some things together, learn what I like from the car and sort of really starting to adapt to each other and make improvements, overall, to the team. So far, really positive.”

Q: The biggest challenges: “I think the most important thing is to really keep an open mind on everything and not get too caught up on numbers and setups that I’ve run in the past. Because there’s so much that goes into setting up the car. It’s not just, like, a rear spring that you like. Everything works together. And I think the most important thing for me has been to jump in and really sort of come to grips with what the team has developed the last few years with the likes of (Simon) Pagenaud and Hinchcliffe and James Jakes this year. And from there, take it from there and start to develop it. Certainly not come in and try to turn things upside down. Because the team’s been doing a great job and I just want to come in and learn and try to bring something to the table as well.”

Q: Is this a good opportunity for you? For sure. I was sort of sitting on the couch for most of the year, which has been a bit of a bummer. I have a great program going with Corvette with the endurance races, but at the same time, that is only four races. It’s not very busy and they don’t go testing a whole lot.

“So it was pretty tough watching the IndyCar season kick off  and not being a part of it, especially with the new aero kits (which) I’ve been very excited about over the past couple of years. Not being able to participate was really hard. Now that I’m back in the game, it feels awesome. I’m just trying to take it day by day and make the most of this opportunity.”

Q: Despite Saturday’s crash, your team looked very competitive: “It can compete, yeah. And we’ve seen them compete in the past. But it is sort of the underdog, one of the underdogs, of the IndyCar Series. And I think a lot of the time as a team they punch above their weight. And it’s great to be associated with them because they’ve got a winning attitude. Even though they’re not one of the big teams, may not have all the same resources and money to spend, every weekend the No. 1 goal is to go out and win races. And they’re always thinking on their toes in the strategy as well.

“They got a win this year with Hinchcliffe (Phoenix), a (first and third) finish, and that was just really the team making something out of nothing on the strategy and it worked. And I’m looking forward to those sorts of opportunities. But obviously, showing our pace on the weekend, we’re perfectly capable of competing on performance, too. We’ve just got to keep that up.”

Q: Describe Saturday’s crash: “It’s a weird feeling. Unfortunately I’ve done it a couple of times now where I’ve gotten airborne. And it’s scary, and it’s kind of peaceful at the same time. All of a sudden, it’s kind of like you’re on the runway in an airplane and it just takes off and you have that zero-gravity kind of feeling. You know, everything happens so slowly.

“When I got into the incident with Hunter-Reay, the car started spinning backwards, and the first thought that came into my mind was, ‘please stay on the ground.’ Because I spent the whole month of May at home, watching cars fly. And it’s a scary thing. So I was thinking, please don’t get airborne. Next thing, you just start to feel the rear of the car lift up off the ground. And then you’re just a passenger at that point.

“You’re just hoping that your head’s going to be OK. Being in an open-cockpit car, that’s the No. 1 fear when you’re upside-down that no object, debris, other car on the track, that your head is not going to make contact with everything.

“… It all happens sort of quickly, felt the car tumbling over and over. But pretty quickly, I knew that I was OK. I hadn’t hit my head hard. I didn’t even have a concussion or anything. And at that point, you’re just relieved. You’re just like, ‘Oh, thank God.’ Because you just never know in those deals, when you’re upside down at 200 miles per hour. It’s not fun. But it’s definitely a weird feeling.

“… I never felt too rattled by it. In that instant, you have that fear, like, ‘Oh, God, I hope I’m going to be OK.’ But as soon as it’s over, it’s like, ‘Well, I survived that crash, just like any other crash. You just … I don’t know, I mean, I didn’t really let it get to me too much.”

Q: Saturday’s pack racing at Fontana: “I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but I thought that it was an exciting race and, if anything, I think there could have been a bit more discipline amongst the drivers. … We just need to look after each other a little bit more out there. But I don’t see that sort of racing continuing a whole lot. I don’t think the series wants to take that risk on a regular basis.”

Q: How’s James Hinchcliffe doing? “I wasn’t in Toronto, but a lot of people said he was doing great, but he just looked really frail. And obviously he’s been through a lot of trauma. I saw him five days after Toronto, I was up in Indy and he came into the race shop, and he looked awesome. And even everyone on the team was like, wow. It’s just amazing to see how much stronger and how much better he looked just in five days since the race weekend. And that was coming up on two weeks ago now. He’s been texting over the race weekends and so on, and he’s in really good spirits. The doctors say he’ll make a 100 percent recovery. I’d say it’s better than anyone really expected after the crash.”

Q: Will replacing Hinch lead to a full-time ride for you next season? “I’m hoping that an opportunity could come together where the team has the funding and would want to take me on board to be a partner on the team. We’ll just see what happens, but in the meantime, we have five races to go and I’m just going to go out there and run hard and do the best I can for the team. It would be amazing if we could win a race to finish out the season.”

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Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).