You won’t find a big, ultra-modern race shop, a large suite of team offices or even multiple set-up bays at the modest Risi Competizione Ferrari race shop in Houston.
There is one IMSA GT Le Mans race car and one set-up pad. The four full-time members of the Risi WeatherTech Championship GTLM team can easily fit around a kitchen table.
So, although the Ferrari of Houston showroom is filled with hardware from its prior successes at Le Mans, Daytona, Sebring, and Petit Le Mans, when the ultra-popular Houston based team announced its plans to enter the IMSA WeatherTech Championship season finale, success this time around seemed unlikely.
Although much smaller than its factory rivals, the Risi team is deeply experienced, always well-prepared and deeply imbued with a team spirit and passion to win. They do not show up at major events to fill the field.
At Petit Le Mans there would be no concerns about points or championships. They were there to go for the win.
But while their arch-rivals Porsche, Ford, BMW and Corvette factory teams were in peak late season form, the Risi Ferrari team hadn’t done an IMSA race since finishing second at Daytona more than eight months earlier.
Past data would be of limited help as they would be racing on a different generation of Michelin tires than they had used at the 2018 Motul Petit Le Mans.
And, despite recent resurfacing of several key sections of the track, Risi and Ferrari hadn’t tested at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
One of the keys to team principal Giuseppe Risi’s success has always been an ability to clearly focus.
The Risi team again had an elegantly simple winning plan for Petit Le Mans.
At a circuit that Risi’s 2016 GTLM winner James Calado affectionately describes as “a proper driver’s track,” Risi would look to its drivers to deliver success.
“You have to hustle the car here to go quickly,” said Rick Mayer, race engineer, Risi Competizone.
Arrangements were made with Ferrari for technical support and three top Ferrari drivers: James Calado, Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi, the winners of the GTE Pro class at Le Mans this past June.
Know Your Tires
Michelin works with each of the WEC GTLM manufacturers to develop bespoke soft, medium and hard compound options for its specific chassis model.
For 2019 IMSA competition, the GTLM teams each use their Michelin range from the 2018/2019 WEC season which ended at Le Mans in June with a Ferrari GTE-Pro class victory.
Although the characteristics and demands of IMSA tracks differ from the WEC circuits, WEC drivers and engineers typically lead the development for their respective manufacturers.
“In recent years James and Ale have joined the Ferrari tests with Michelin to develop the range of Ferrari tires. They knew the car and the tires well,” said Mayer.
The Race Unfolds
“We knew which tire that we wanted to run, but it was a little warmer than expected,” Mayer said.
With the partial resurfacing adding grip, loads were increased, and so was tire degradation from abrasion as the new surface wore. The Ferrari team experienced some blistering but didn’t panic.
A drop of nearly 15 degrees in track temperatures between Hour 4 and Hour 6 helped bring the temperatures back into their window.
In the cooling conditions all five GTLM manufacturers set their fastest race laps in the final 14-lap flurry to the finish. Ryan Briscoe in the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT set a new GTLM race lap record of 1:16.542 while chasing Calado to the finish.
“The temperatures went down and the race came back to us,” Calado said. “It was a great fight, Ford and Ferrari right there at the end.”
It’s somewhat fitting the Ford vs. Ferrari battle arose given there’s a film of the same name premiering this fall recalling the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But at Petit Le Mans, it was Risi Ferrari’s day over the Ford factory.
“Compared to a factory team, this is a small team, but they love what they do. The team did an amazing job and I’m excited to race with them again,” said Serra, who also won here in 2018 in a GT Daytona class Ferrari.
“They (the drivers) know the car, the tire. It’s an advantage to have these guys. We set up the car based on what they suggest. When you have these drivers, they know the tire, they know what they need it to do to go quickly,” Mayer said.
“We didn’t get a chance to test so we were on the back foot, but we were lucky on set-up.”
Standing in the pit box in front of the Risi team garage one morning at Le Mans in 2016, Giuseppe Risi quietly enjoyed the early race week scene and reflected his confidence in the team’s approach and preparation.
“The boys tell me that we are ready,” he said.
And, at Petit Le Mans 2019, they certainly were and claimed Risi’s fifth victory in the event.