Aftershave sponsorship landed single-seat specialist Chip Ganassi a drive for Sauber at Le Mans in 1987 – but it soon evaporated…
By Gary Watkins
Chip Ganassi wasn’t an obvious candidate for a pseudo-factory drive at the Le Mans 24 Hours. After all, the 29-year-old American, then sitting on the sidelines after six part-seasons of Indy Car racing, had only a handful of sports car races under his belt. Yet he still ended up driving for Sauber, a team with ever-increasing support from Mercedes, at the French enduro in 1987.
Ganassi shared a Merc-engined Sauber C9 with Johnny Dumfries thanks to his links with the International Management Group. The driver was managed by Mark McCormack’s renowned organisation, which just happened to have been behind Sauber’s sponsorship deal with Yves St Laurent’s Kouros aftershave brand. It wanted an American driver in one of the Swiss team’s pair of Group C cars and IMG man Ganassi was available.
“The contact definitely came through IMG,” explains Max Welti, team boss Peter Sauber’s right-hand man throughout his Group C campaigns. “The deal came at a time when we were trying to become much more of an international operation. I do remember Yves St Laurent being interested in getting an American driver on board.”
Ganassi’s sports car experience stretched to a one-off in a March-Buick at the 1986 Daytona 24 Hours and a couple of drives in a works Spice-Pontiac Camel Lights car the same season. He may have been “just dabbling at sports cars”, but he proved to be far from out of his depth at Le Mans 20 years ago.
“He was quick, there’s no doubt about it,” says Welti, “especially when you consider that he did not have much experience of long-distance racing. He’d done Daytona, but the only thing that race has in common with Le Mans is that it lasts for 24 hours.”
This lack of experience probably explains an incident during qualifying that resulted in Ganassi receiving a major dressing down from Welti. Instructed to do one lap, he took his C9 out and passed the pits twice before bringing the car back in.
“Coming from oval racing, one lap to me meant an out lap, a flying lap and an in lap,” explains Ganassi. “So that’s what I did. When I came in Max was mad at me. ‘Why did you do three laps?’ he screamed at me. I said, ‘I didn’t’.”
Welti laughs off the incident today as ‘miscommunication’. “I remember going nuts,” he says, “but, of course, in those days we didn’t have the standard of radio communication that we have today.”
Ganassi’s Sauber was one of the revelations of qualifying. Dumfries, fresh out of Formula 1 and a year away from his historic Le Mans victory with Jaguar, was third fastest after the first qualifying on Wednesday. The car, which Mike Thackwell also drove in qualifying, slipped to seventh the following day, but Dumfries again starred during the early part of the race. He brought the car into the top six and set a fastest race lap that would stand to the end of the 24 Hours.
The only problem was, according to Ganassi, that the Scot over-revved the engine in the process: “My team-mate came in a bit early and I got in the car and the engine only lasted half a lap [it was actually two laps]. Dumfries had been going from third to fourth gear and ended up in second.”
The circumstances of the problem may explain why the official reason for the retirement, just two and a half hours into the race, was given as transmission. Ganassi is adamant that engine maladies stopped the car, an account backed up by some contemporary reports.
Ganassi only got two racing laps, but he fulfilled a dream by racing at Le Mans. “I wanted to do more sports car racing and the Sauber thing was a great opportunity with a great team.”
There was talk of a Le Mans return, but as Welti points out, “everything was changing for both sides”. The team was about to become an overt Mercedes factory operation and the driver was on the verge of taking his first steps in team ownership. That, of course, would lead to the establishment of the eponymous organisation that has gone on to become one of the leading players in US single-seater racing.
“I was getting out of driving,” says Ganassi, who would return to sports car racing as a team owner 17 years later in the Grand-Am Daytona Prototype category. “So it just never happened for me again, but I look back on my time at Le Mans with fond memories.”