Ford launches Le Mans return

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Two works teams likely to contest GTE Pro in new GT supercar | By Gary Watkins

Ford will make a full factory return to the Le Mans 24 Hours next season on the 50th anniversary of the first of its four consecutive victories in the French enduro in 1966 (below).

The US car giant is developing the carbon-chassis Ford GT supercar, which was unveiled at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, to the new GTE rulebook that comes into force in 2016. It plans to field a minimum of two GTs at Le Mans as part of a full-season attack on the World Endurance Championship, though a four-car assault involving additional entries from a United Sportscar Championship campaign appears likely.

Ford will mount concurrent WEC and USC campaigns under the banner of Chip Ganassi Racing, which has partnered with the manufacturer in the USC’s Prototype division since the beginning of 2014. It will enter two cars in the GT Le Mans class in North America from its Indianapolis headquarters and then join forces with the Multimatic organisation, which has developed both road and race versions of the GT, to run the WEC cars in GTE Pro from workshops in the UK.

1966 and all that

Ford’s return to Le Mans, which was announced at the French track on the eve of this year’s race, was planned from the very conception of the latest car to carry the ‘GT’ monicker – road and race car have been developed alongside each other at Multimatic in Canada. The twin aims of the racing car are to celebrate the brand’s success with its MkII, MkIV and GT40 racers from 1966-69 and to promote the Ford Performance sub-brand of which the GT is the halo model.

“In 1966 I was nine and had never seen such a thrilling moment as the Fords finishing one-two-three,” said company executive chairman Bill Ford. “I am very proud of our past but more interested in what happens in the future. We are back with a great partner like Chip Ganassi, and it feels great.”

Ford vice-president of global development Raj Nair explained that the company had “developed the GT from the outset to have a car capable of bringing Ford back to racing”.

The Ford GT project represents the company’s first overt factory sports car racing programme at this level since its Group C prototype campaigns with the C100 in the 1980s. That project was canned after a little more than a season of racing ahead of the 1983 WEC.

First for Ganassi

Team owner Ganassi admitted that the lure of the GTE programme was one reason why he signed up with Ford to run a pair of Riley DPs, powered by the same 3.5-litre twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 used in the GT, ahead of the inaugural USC in 2014.

“This one has been in the oven baking for more than two and a half years,” said Ganassi. “The chance to go to Le Mans was the clincher when it came to moving over to Ford. I’ve always wanted to go to Le Mans, but I told everyone that you have to wait for the right programme. Talk about landing on your feet. It is really exciting to be with these guys.”

Ganassi said it was “to be decided” how many cars will be entered for Le Mans. But he hinted that the US-based squad could join the European team in the blue-riband WEC round. “Any time you have a new car you are probably better off having multiple cars, so you are learning at a faster pace,” he explained.

The WEC race operation will be headed up former Aston Martin Racing team principal George Howard-Chappell, who is also programme manager for the Ford GT racer at Multimatic. “I think it would be too rambunctious for an American team to come over here to Le Mans cold,” said Ganassi. “I’ll have help from George, and it will be some of their people and some of our people.”

Drivers not yet confirmed

No drivers were announced at the launch of Ford’s Le Mans return, but Ganassi admitted that Joey Hand would almost certainly be part of his plans. The US driver opted to leave BMW at the end of last season after learning that he would not remain in the DTM and joined Ganassi’s Prototype squad in the US.

“I think it’s safe to say you’ll see Joey in this programme,” said Ganassi, who also suggested other team regulars could join its twin campaigns “either on a permanent basis or from time to time”.

Ford is known to have approached a number of GTE drivers currently in the WEC and is thought to be close to signing more than one. Long-time Ganassi driver Scott Pruett, who has won five Grand-Am titles with the Ganassi team, is another candidate. The 55-year-old said that “he hoped to be part of the programme” and “to come back to Le Mans next year” for what would only be his second start at the 24 Hours.

Pruett has undertaken the initial shakedown running in the first Ford GT, which began in May, along with Multimatic regular Scott Maxwell. An extensive programme in North America is planned through the summer before testing begins in Europe in the autumn ahead of the car’s debut in next January’s Daytona 24 Hours round of the USC.

The car will run, like all its factory rivals in both the WEC and the USC, on Michelin tyres.

What’s the target?

Ganassi was bullish on the launch of the programme in Le Mans in June. “We want to come here and be at the front straight away: we don’t go to any races not aiming to win,” he said. “If I didn’t think we could win, I wouldn’t have undertaken the programme.”

*Chip Ganassi’s previous visit to Le Mans ahead of the launch of the Ford GT programme came as a driver back in 1987. The recently retired CART racer was picked up by the Sauber squad to share one of its Mercedes-engined C9 chassis. The car failed to finish, in what would prove to be Ganassi’s last ever race as a driver.

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