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HARDWICK: Looking to Le Mans with Mustang GT3

Proton Competition driver Ryan Hardwick files his first Sportscar365 column ahead of 24H Le Mans…

Photo: Ford

By: Ryan Hardwick

I’ve been a Ford fan for most of my life. I grew up in East Tennessee, and my very first car was a 1995 Mustang GT. It was black on black, with a manual transmission and the 5.0L V8. I learned to drive in that car.

Now I have the opportunity to race the biggest endurance race in the world with Ford and Mustang, and to think I’ll be one of the first guys to drive it down the Mulsanne straight is incredible. I’ve come a long way from back when I was 16 years old, driving my Mustang GT through the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.

As an American driver, I have a great passion for Ford. Watching what Ford did in 2016 with the Ford GT was incredible – designing a brand-new car from scratch with Multimatic Motorsports for the sole purpose of winning at Le Mans.

It was 50 years to the day, from when they first won in 1966. I don’t know if something quite like that will ever be done again in sports car racing.

The opportunity to race with a Mustang in its first trip to Le Mans alongside Multimatic Motorsports and Ford Performance, and with a familiar team in Proton Competition, is a dream come true.

When the announcement was made that Ford selected Proton to be their first customer team, I was delightfully surprised and immediately threw my name in the bucket for the FIA World Endurance Championship program.

Every driver says that they want to win Le Mans, but I’d say for me, I’m hyper-focused on it.

Photo: Ford

I’ve been fortunate enough to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Twelve Hours of Sebring, so Le Mans is really the next thing that I want to accomplish in sports car racing. Few drivers have won all three. To do it with Ford would make it that much more special.

This sport is a true team sport. The driver is just one tooth on the sprocket.

To win any endurance race, much less a 24 hour one, will take perfect execution from engineering, data, analytics, car preparation and pit stops. One mistake anywhere in that group – you’re bound for failure.

Chris Ried, Ford and I obliged when we kept together the same team that won the ELMS championship last year.

I wanted the same group. I’ve worked with a lot of race teams through my career, but without a doubt, this group is one of the hardest working groups that I’ve ever worked with.

One of the biggest highlights of this WEC season so far was the season-opener in Qatar. There was a shipping delay that affected most of the paddock, where most of the GT3s were late arrivals to the facility.

Our brand-new Mustang GT3 was one of those affected, and our team had to do what would be a week’s worth of preparation in about 36 hours. From timekeepers and sensors to data logging – you name it. It is a massive undertaking.

We have consistently improved and achieved better results through the WEC season, also improving upon the reliability and durability of the car. We’re also realistic.

We know we’re in the highest level of sports car racing globally with WEC. We’re also racing Mustang GT3 in IMSA and in the largest class of the field in GTD.

We’re in the most competitive places you can race a car and we’re also racing cars that have been around and developed for… gosh, a decade in some cases. Those teams know those cars inside and out, and there will come a time where we know our Mustang at that level.

Photo: Ford

I will say that Le Mans, on paper and by design of the track, should really lean toward and benefit our Mustang.

The car likes high speed, long straights and big, fast corners – which Le Mans has plenty of. We may have our best race of the season at Le Mans. We’re going up against our biggest competition here, but I am cautiously optimistic that we can have our best result of the year here.

Long into the future, I’ll look back and just have an immense sense of pride and gratitude for the opportunity to race and be a part of the Ford racing heritage and history at Le Mans.

The first victory in 1966 was well before my time, but what Henry Ford II and that team accomplished, building that GT40 and going to beat Ferrari in their own backyard.

They were so dominant and that started that piece of the Ford legacy at Le Mans. The 2016-2021 Ford GT furthered that legacy.

To be one of the first drivers to race the Mustang GT3 at Le Mans, adding my name to the history books, is truly something special.

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