Billy Johnson is proud to be flying the stars and stripes, as the only American driver in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s FIA World Endurance Championship operation gears up for his European sports car racing debut.
The 29-year-old California native will be taking part in the opening three rounds of the championship, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in the No. 66 Ford GT alongside Olivier Pla and Stefan Muecke.
For Johnson, who has played a major part in development of the Multimatic-built car, the chance to race with the factory Ford program, on a global stage, is a dream come true.
“It means the world to me,” Johnson told Sportscar365. “It’s definitely a historic moment for Ford to be returning to Le Mans and to be doing the WEC season.
“To be the only American in one of the two WEC cars is a very, very special thing.”
Johnson, a standout driver for Ford and Multimatic in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, received the nod earlier this month to be part of the manufacturer’s four-car effort for Le Mans.
It was then later determined that he’d also be added to the No. 66 car lineup for both the Six Hours of Silverstone and Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, as well as this week’s Prologue pre-season test at Paul Ricard, in preparation for the French endurance classic.
“This is definitely a big step and it’s an honor to be racing in the WEC, in the top level of sports car racing globally,” he said.
“To be able to do it with Ford, who I’ve been driving with for many years now, not only on the race car side of things but helping develop the street products…
“It’s great to be able to compete at this level against some very, very good drivers and race teams. I’m excited for it and up for the challenge.”
While it marks a steep learning curve for Johnson, largely in getting acclimated with new tracks, it’s also uncharted territory for the Blue Oval, which is undertaking an ambitious dual-championship program.
Ganassi’s Indianapolis-based squad gave the Ford GT its competition debut in January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, followed by last weekend’s Twelve Hours of Sebring and will complete the remainder of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a UK-based satellite operation, headed up by Multimatic’s George Howard-Chappell, is taking on the WEC and the two teams will combine for the four-car effort at Le Mans.
“The whole program is one big group,” Johnson said. “We’re Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK. But all of the information is being shared.
“So everything learned at Daytona and Sebring, in terms of reliability, performance and improvement is obviously just more data points to help the overall effort and vice-versa.
“What we learn at this test and what we learn at Silverstone and Spa is going to help the overall program because the goal is to have the best result we can at Le Mans.
“The more races, the more cars acquiring data further helps prepare the entire group effort for Le Mans.
“This is a brand-new car, brand-new teams… Brand-new everything. Definitely, the more you can run, the better.”
With nearly 15 test days under his belt, Johnson is considered to be one of the most experienced Ford GT drivers, having carried out the bulk of the development work alongside Scott Maxwell.
He’s had nothing but positive remarks about the GTE contender, which makes its European public debut this weekend at Paul Ricard.
“It’s just a really, really great car to drive,” Johnson said. “There’s no real quirks or tricks about it.
“I’m looking forward to working with everybody and help the team progress forward as best I can.”
While only confirmed for the first three rounds, Johnson hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of being called back for additional WEC races later in the year, should there be an opportunity.
“Nothing is set in stone,” he said. “Originally it was [just] Le Mans. Then it was doing the two races to prepare, and I’m over the moon about that.
“What I’ve been told is the plan so far, but if things do change and if I’m offered the opportunity to race in more events post-Le Mans, I’d be very excited about that.
“But for now, I’m focusing on what’s been presented to me and the job I need to do right now. We’ll see when the time comes.”