ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The remaining extra drivers for the four Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans are highly likely to be announced next week.
A team spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that it’s likely the early part of next week will see the remaining drivers picked for the June 18-19 race, once Ford finalizes its plans in partnership with the team.
Team principal Chip Ganassi didn’t drop any hints of who on Saturday during a media availability with select reporters at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but did tease that it likely won’t be too much of a surprise.
“You can probably guess,” Ganassi said.
The eight confirmed drivers for the four Ford GTs – which will compete in the GTE-Pro category of the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship – are all full-season drivers.
The WEC quartet of Olivier Pla, Andy Priaulx, Marino Franchitti and Stefan Muecke with the IMSA quartet of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe set to join. All full-season lineups will stay in their same car at Le Mans.
While not formally confirmed beyond the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring next week, Sebastien Bourdais is highly likely to be nominated as one of the third drivers as well in what would mark his return to Le Mans for the first time since 2012, then driving with the Pescarolo team. Bourdais has three overall runner-up finishes but no victories at the track where not far from where he grew up.
Scott Dixon is also a strong and highly rumored candidate for one of the seats, and the Verizon IndyCar Series champion hopes to know officially either way soon.
If Dixon gets the call, he’d need to figure out the logistics of making it happen, although it’s possible to do so.
As a Platinum-rated driver by the FIA, he is exempt from Le Mans Test Day participation on June 5 even as a Le Mans rookie. That date is the same date at which point IndyCar races its second of two races in Detroit.
He’d need to, however, be on a plane immediately after the Saturday night race at Texas on June 11 to ensure he’d get to Le Mans in time for scrutineering (downtown technical inspection) on Sunday, June 12. Scrutineering runs for two days, and teams have their photo shoot and other scrutineering activities only one of the two days.
He’d also have to complete simulator training to learn the track and safety procedures. This was done by NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell last April, for instance, as he made his Le Mans debut (and will make his return this year with Scuderia Corsa in the same Ferrari F458 Italia) last year.
Ganassi’s other IndyCar drivers – Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton – all have limited sports car experience but seem less likely to be in the frame as it stands. Kanaan told me in January he’d go wherever Ganassi tells him to and would love to if asked, while Chilton has said on multiple occasions that while any Ford GT chance would be a good one, he has unfinished business in LMP1 after his Nissan GT-R LM NISMO experience last year, his maiden Le Mans race, was far from an ideal debut. Kimball’s name has not been mentioned in regards to the Le Mans seat.
Ganassi did say that having drivers from his other programs – be it IndyCar or NASCAR – does add a cachet to sports car races the team competes in.
“Back in the era when I did it, it was a good thing,” he said. “That’s a better question for the drivers really.
“It helps, obviously. Do I want to have IndyCar drivers in sports cars or stock car in sports car? Not really.
“But with successful ones, it brings cachet. A Dixon, (Dario) Franchitti, (Kyle) Larson, (Jamie) McMurray… and you bring it to that, it brings cachet.
“Anytime you have winners, it brings cachet to sports cars.”
As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.
McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.
In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.
“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.
“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”
Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.
Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.
When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.
“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.
“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.
“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”
No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.
On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.
In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.
“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.
“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.
“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”
Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.
“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”
With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.
“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.
“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.
“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”