For Giuseppe Risi, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is not just any other race, it’s the one that means the most in his illustrious motorsports career.
Risi vividly remembers his first trip to the around-the-clock endurance classic, as a spectator in 1969, to see Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver take their iconic Gulf-liveried Ford GT40 Mk. I to overall victory.
“That was the first time I went to Le Mans. I was just a little spectator. And I thought one day I’d come back there,” Risi told Sportscar365.
He did, and through the years, the Italian achieved success at Le Mans, both running cars and as a team owner, having earned three class victories with his own Risi Competizione squad.
While having been absent from Le Mans, in full capacity, for the last five years, the Houston-based squad returns to the race in 2016, looking to rekindle some of the team’s past magic.
Le Mans Success
Risi and Le Mans are almost synonymous to success. The team scored its first class victory in 1998, with Wayne Taylor, Eric van de Poele and Fermin Velez in a Doyle-Risi Racing-entered Ferrari 333SP.
Ten years later, Jaime Melo, Mike Salo and Gianmaria Bruni broke through to give the Ferrari F430 GT its first of only two GT2 class wins at La Sarthe, both achieved by the team in back-to-back years.
Out of the team’s six previous starts, often with two-car efforts, Risi has been on the podium five times.
“Every time we’ve gone to Le Mans, we’ve always had a great, well-prepared car,” Risi said. “With the 430, we won twice, but every time we led the race. We should have had four wins with the 430.”
Risi said the decision to commit to this year’s race, in the first year of the new turbocharged Ferrari 488 GTE car, was simply down to budget.
“Le Mans is a very expensive race, it doesn’t matter which way you skin it,” he said. “It’s especially the case when you start off from [America]. I’d go to Le Mans every year if we had the finance for it.”
Preparation for the team’s pilgrimage to Le Mans began a number of months ago, but was solidified with confirmation of its GTE-Pro class entry from the ACO in February, which set everything into motion.
Led by longtime team manager Dave Sims, the planning process has been intensified in recent weeks, with everything from booking flights, hotel rooms and motor homes to coordinating Le Mans-specific equipment such as tire ovens and garage decorations, as well as finalizing spares packages.
Despite not having been to the race as an entire team since 2010, Risi says he has the full confidence in his veteran crew to get the job done.
“The key to racing in my career, which now spans 45 years, is preparation,” he said. “There is no substitute for preparation.
“You can do what you like, have the quickest guys… I’ve seen the fastest drivers and teams with extremely deep pockets. But if you don’t have the basic preparation, that is what the team is.”
While the car and all equipment will be air-freighted to France next month, Sims said the biggest challenge is preparing for the stretch of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races post-Le Mans.
“For an American team to do Le Mans is very different,” Sims told Sportscar365. “The biggest logistical problem is after Le Mans, in getting to Watkins Glen.
“It doesn’t end there as immediately after Watkins Glen, you’ve got Mosport. The transporters will have to leave Houston when we’re in Le Mans, go up to New York and receive the car, which would be shipped to the circuit and finish off an engine change there.
“The trucks then have to be over the Border into Canada. We also have the logistical problem of all the [shipping] boxes and five tons of spares can’t be taken into Canada. So we have to get them back separately to Houston.”
One of the big advantages the team has is driver continuity, with both full-season IMSA drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander confirmed in Risi’s entry alongside a third, yet-to-be-announced pilot.
Fisichella and Vilander are both two-time class winners of the event, having shared the same AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia to GTE-Pro class victories in 2012 and 2014.
While it will be both of drivers’ first time at Le Mans with Risi, both are confident about prospects for victory.
“We have to remember the years of the 430, when Risi was really strong at Le Mans, with two class wins,” Vilander told Sportscar365.
“I never raced with them at Le Mans before but I always saw them and admired their preparation and determination. This year hopefully we will have the same values as we approach Le Mans.”
There’s also continuity with Michelin, as its longtime technical partner will also be working closely with the team at Le Mans.
Risi will get its first chance to race on the 2016 WEC tires later this month at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which according to Michelin race tire engineer Michelle Phillips, will glean some insights to see how the car will react while in France.
“Working with the same drivers and engineers also helps the confidence level,” Phillips added. “We know from drivers’ comments what they prefer and what the tweaks produce.
“We are comfortable working together and can bounce ideas off each other.
“So far with the new car we’ve developed a pretty good idea of how the car works with our current tires. The new tire is a little bit different, but we are not expecting a huge leap.”
Phillips will also be embedded with the team at Le Mans, marking her second trip to the endurance classic.
Risi’s return to Le Mans conveniently coincides with Ford’s return to the race as well, which not only rekindles the old Ferrari/Ford rivalry, but also some memories for the legendary team owner.
While having witnessed Ford’s last victory at Le Mans in 1969, Risi is not prepared to watch another Blue Oval claim top honors, especially this time up against his own team in the hotly contested GTE-Pro class.
“The wine is bad at Le Mans and there is no scenery at Le Mans. So I’m not going back to Le Mans for that!” Risi said.
“Le Mans, for what it is, in the world of motor racing is unique. There is nothing like a Le Mans win.”