Photo courtesy of IMSA

Ganassi set to battle for title, to conclude epic Ford GT debut year

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Chip Ganassi Racing Teams have made winning championships in the Verizon IndyCar Series a habit, with 11 achieved since 1996. The team has also secured five GRAND-AM Rolex Series Daytona Prototype titles in the prior era of North American sports car racing before the merger and the eventual launch of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2014.

What would be a new accomplishment for Ganassi in 2016 would be a GT Le Mans class title, in a year when the team’s new jet fighters in wheels – the new Ford GTs – are up against the established heavyweights from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, albeit the latter two manufacturers also debuting new cars this year.

It’s been a learning year for Ganassi, long a standard bearer in the DP ranks but new to the GTLM scene this year.

The team’s already achieved arguably the biggest race win of the year with the 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph and now are setting their sights on winning the GTLM crown, and toppling the proverbial standard bearer in GT this millennium – Corvette Racing – in order to do so.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull explained going into Sunday’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase that the culture of winning the team has instilled has been a daily motivating factor in the team’s maiden GTLM season, to achieve the success they have up to this point.

“I think we have a roomful of people here at Woodland Dr. in Indianapolis who have either by example, or by doing, have won races together, and work very unselfishly,” Hull told NBC Sports. “You try to get the most of today. We want to win every day. But we want to win with humility, and lose with dignity. That’s really what we’re all about.

“We have five carnivorous OEMs. Each defines their own technical culture with their cars, and their own automobiles. There’s so much passion from fans for cars. We underestimated that, perhaps.

“And to be honest with you, we’re still learning about the racing in this category. We’re learning about our car, our drivers, our people, and everything it takes. The racing is slightly different, yes, but it always is. You study the rules and make the best decisions you can.

“I’m not sure if people expected us to have early success or not. But we’ve practiced doing new things for a while. This is how people pull together in our building to get the most from our product.”

Asked who Hull and Ganassi have viewed as the target and the best team to learn from and he made no hesitation: it’s Corvette Racing.

“I would give a lot of credit to the Corvette Racing team,” Hull explained. “Just like when we came into IRL from CART, we studied the best people in the category. You watch how they race, how they practice, qualify, and what is their racecraft. At this point I don’t know if we’re a mirror image, but I have high respect for how they manage their process.”

Perhaps it’s fitting then, that it’s a Corvette versus Ford showdown that began with Sunday’s race at Road America and will continue for the final three races of the year later this month at Virginia International Raceway, then in September at Circuit of The Americas and in October at Road Atlanta.

At Road America, Ford looked poised to win its fourth IMSA race of the year with the No. 67 Ford GT pairing of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe.

But apparent turbo issues on the final two laps left Westbrook needing to defend from a snarling pack behind him, and ultimately losing the lead on the final lap to Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette.

It was a seismic shift in the championship that saw the No. 4 car, which was sixth in class not much earlier, extend its points lead from 10 to 13 on a day when the two cars could have left tied had the No. 67 won and the No. 4 ended sixth.

Hull said the team wouldn’t be in championship-contending position if not for the drivers that were selected. Briscoe and Joey Hand are Ganassi veterans while Westbrook and Dirk Mueller have been easy plug-and-play solutions.

“Chip Ganassi Racing is a big fan of talent that knows how to win,” Hull said. “And those four drivers possess all those attributes. We don’t have to teach them how to win races.

“Of course they were not the only ones we talked to, certainly. This time 12 months ago, my goodness, there was a line out the door. I would have liked to hire every one of them, to be honest with you.

“But they all drive the car for their teammates. We’ve had unselfish teammates in DP racing and we do now here. That then transfers directly to everyone who works on the cars, our two entries and one team of people.”

Hand and Mueller have been perhaps unlucky to not have won in IMSA this year, although they combined with Sebastien Bourdais to win at Le Mans – and it’s a given how much that triumph means not just to them, but to Ford and Ganassi’s programs.

For Hand, despite the lack of IMSA wins, the frustration isn’t there because it hasn’t been for a lack of pace – just a lack of luck.

“It was a great morale booster for the other car to win at Laguna,” Hand told NBC Sports. “And that momentum carried us into Le Mans. That shows what a team effort it is.

“I think you saw at Laguna in the 66, we had the pace. They had the strategy. Same thing at Mosport where we were in the mix in the 66, then the 67 had the alternate strategy and it worked. I don’t feel bad, because we’re in the mix. It’s one thing if you lose and you’re slow. But now, we’ve been in contention a lot this year.”

And for Hand, coming back to GT after several years in DPs hasn’t been that difficult an adjustment period. The competition remains fierce; so too does his desire to win.

“It’s not a lot different. The differences are subtle,” he said. “You’re always careful in traffic, between the GTD cars we go by and the PCs who don’t pass you as fast.

“But in GT, it’s pro/pro with these really good manufacturers, so you have a proper dogfight every race. That’s why we love this class, and that’s why we’re in it.

“The GT class is still the one to watch.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consectuive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.