One of the biggest storylines heading into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is the return of Ford, and its four-car factory Ford GT effort fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing, which makes its highly anticipated debut in the French endurance classic.
The ambitious program, coinciding on the 50th anniversary of the American automaker’s first Le Mans triumph in 1966, adds historical context, as well as additional pressure to perform, according to legendary team owner Chip Ganassi.
“Le Mans is obviously one of the four big races in the world, you would say,” Ganassi told Sportscar365. “To be able to go there with such a program is an honor and a privilege for our team.
“We want to go back there and we want to do well. We’ve worked hard. People say, ‘Do you feel the pressure of 1966?’ I feel the pressure more of 1964 and 1965.
“I think today, obviously the racing has matured in a way that that timeframe can be shortened a bit, but it’s still a challenge [to win on debut]. It’s a tall order.”
While the Ford GT made its race debut less than four months ago at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the overall program has been nearly three years in the making.
Representatives from CGR and Ford first visited Le Mans in 2014, some 12 months prior to officially announcing its return to La Sarthe and the dual championship effort in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship.
Initial testing of the Multimatic-built GTE contender began last summer, coinciding with the buildup of both CGR’s IMSA and WEC operations, as well as assembly of the race cars and extensive pre-season endurance tests in both the U.S. and in Europe.
The car’s competition debut at Daytona, followed by the Twelve Hours of Sebring in March, showed promise, although unforeseen issues dashed hopes of podium finishes in the highly competitive GT Le Mans class.
However, Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe broke through for victory at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca earlier this month, in a fuel mileage race, giving the Ford GT its maiden class win in only its fifth race.
For CGR’s Indianapolis-based operation, which will join forces with its UK-based counterparts for the four-car effort, Le Mans represents a whole new challenge for the majority of its American crew.
“Le Mans is new for us as a team but we’ve been shipping race cars and moving our race team around the world, with the IndyCar team,” CGR IMSA team manager Mike O’Gara told Sportscar365.
O’Gara said equipment has gone over in two stages, with items such as air compressors, shelving, golf carts and a spare chassis having been sea-freighted last month, prior to the Monterey round.
The team’s two cars will be air-freighted to France this week, after completing a pre-Le Mans test at Road America with the cars in the low downforce aero package for the first time.
Once at Le Mans, the IMSA and WEC operations will join forces to form a single four-car team.
“What’s really important to us is the presentation to the world that we are one team, we work together on a daily basis,” O’Gara said.
“Right now it’s on two different continents but at Le Mans we’re going to be side by side.
“All the garages will look the same. We’re going to use all the same equipment from fueling to air guns… Everything will be the same.”
O’Gara, as well as CGR Managing Director Mike Hull, attended the recent WEC Six Hours of Spa event to gain a better knowledge and understanding of how the integration process will go.
For the U.S.-based crew, it will include adjusting to WEC-specific rules and procedures, everything from garages to pit stop regulations and race strategy.
“Going over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten an appreciation for how big an event Le Mans is,” O’Gara said.
“We have a handful of guys on the team that have been over, so they get it. A lot of guys have never been over, so it’s going to be a new experience for them.”
One of the many common links between the IMSA and WEC programs are the tires, with Michelin providing the same specification to both teams in the buildup to the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic.
The Ford GT claimed its breakthrough first win in Monterey on the same tires that will be used at Le Mans, which have been specifically developed for the unique characteristics of the mid-engined supercar.
“We fully share all data between the Michelin tire engineers with the Ford GT WEC team and the IMSA team,” said John Church, Michelin’s embedded tire engineer with the CGR Ford GT program and lead tire development engineer for the Ford GT street car.
“We have regular conference calls and debrief on our respective tests and we have hosted the CGR team engineers as well.”
And with CGR being the only four-car team in the GTE-Pro class at Le Mans, it could play as a tactical advantage as well in evaluating multiple tire compounds.
“Having all four cars at Le Mans can certainly open some opportunities at the Test Day and in the early practices,” Church added. “Multi-car teams have the ability to learn very quickly and explore more options.”
With Le Mans serving as the centerpiece of the entire Ford GT program, it brings added expectations, especially on the driver’s front.
For Joey Hand, who teamed with Ford teammates Dirk Mueller and Andy Priaulx for a third place class finish at Le Mans in 2011 in a BMW M3 GT, the American driver understands the importance of the race, especially this year.
“It’s clearly a big deal,” Hand told Sportscar365. “This is Ford’s thing. They’re coming back to racing in the U.S. with the new Ford GT but everything’s looking forward to Le Mans.
“The history of it, 50 years ago, winning for the first time… you can’t get much cooler than that.
“There was a lot of history there. I think for me, the biggest thing is that I’m proud and honored to be part of possibly making some new history.
“I believe that if you win this race with a Ford, it will change your racing life. It would be a big, big deal. That’s what we’re all pushing for.”