Following a rather challenging year, marred by the struggles of the now-defunct Nissan LMP1 program, Olivier Pla is looking forward to a reset of sorts as the Frenchman chases a world title and elusive 24 Hours of Le Mans class victory with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.
Pla was confirmed alongside Andy Priaulx, Marino Franchitti and Stefan Muecke in Ford’s FIA World Endurance Championship effort last month.
“For me as a driver, to have the chance to drive for Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing is something very, very special,” he told Sportscar365.
“This car has so much history at Le Mans. It’s a fantastic opportunity for me so it’s up to me to make the most of it.”
While having been one of the lead development drivers of Nissan’s GT-R LM NISMO, the team’s delayed start and struggles in its one-and-only race at Le Mans resulted in the 34-year-old pursue other options.
Just as dozens of other drivers, Pla looked to Ford shortly after the official announcement of its dual-championship effort with the new Ford GT.
“I decided to contact them after Le Mans,” he said. “I needed to see if the option was [possible] for my future, obviously.
“We were talking and things went pretty well through the summer. I had to make a decision by September.”
That decision, in hindsight, worked out perfectly, as three months later, the Nissan LMP1 program was no more, following a sudden decision from Japan to halt the factory effort just days before Christmas.
“It’s really unfortunate what happened [to Nissan],” Pla said. “I had been working with a very, very good group of mechanics and engineers.
“Obviously the concept was brave and you have to give them credit for that.
“I had this opportunity and it was my decision and that was it. I think things were moving quite well with Mike Carcamo [new Nissan LMP1 team principal]. I’d say it was really a shame but that’s life.”
While primarily boasting prototype experience, including three WEC seasons with OAK Racing in LMP2, Pla said he’s been able to quickly come to grips with the Multimatic-built GTE contender.
His first laps in the Ford GT came during an IMSA-sanctioned test at Daytona in November, just days prior to the manufacturer’s driver announcement for its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship squad.
“Coming to Daytona in November, I didn’t really know what to expect from the car,” Pla said. “By the second lap I had a smile on my face. That was really good.
“Obviously Ford has made a quick car. The regulations in GT is also [evolving]. All of the cars will have more downforce, more power, so it makes it quite fun to drive.
“I think it’s going to be very, very tough competition with incredible lineups of drivers from every manufacturer. It will be really interesting.”
Newcomers Ford will go up against the established GTE-Pro teams, such as Aston Martin Racing and AF Corse, with its new Ferrari 488 GTE, as well as a Porsche 911 RSR entered by Dempsey Proton Racing for Michael Christensen and reigning class champion Richard Lietz.
While having the second-most WEC experience within the driver lineup, Pla feels the Multimatic-run Ganassi WEC squad will be quickly up to speed.
“I think we will have a very strong team in WEC,” he said. “George [Howard-Chappell, WEC team principal] has been there for a while and he knows what you need to build a race team.
“Ford is coming to win. They want to win Le Mans and they are coming to also win some championships. We need to start working first, then we will see. But we are quite optimistic right now.”