DEARBORN – In 2016, Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe had almost all the luck.
While it was the No. 66 Ford GT team of Joey Hand, Dirk Müller and Sébastien Bourdais who went down in history for winning the GTE Pro title at the Le Mans 24 Hours, it was the No. 67 team who drove to a commanding first-ever win for the new Ford GT at Laguna Seca, then made it three IMSA wins in a row at Watkins Glen and Mosport. It seemed as if Westbrook, Briscoe and strategy chief Brad Goldberg had the golden playbook.
Then, in a series of near-misses, the No. 67 team made the podium seven more times in 2016 and 2017 but couldn’t get to the top step. At this year’s Rolex 24 At Daytona, it was their time to win again as Briscoe, Westbrook and endurance driver Scott Dixon just edged out their No. 66 teammates. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing will try to keep the momentum going at the 12 Hours of Sebring on Saturday.
The Ford GTs weren’t the fastest cars in qualifying or during the race in Daytona – those honors went to Ferrari and Corvette – but they used smart pit and tire strategy, not to mention heads-up driving, to get the lead early and keep it.
“It felt extra special to break the no-win streak with a win at the first race of 2018,” Briscoe said. “It felt like in 2017 we just never had quite enough for the win. We were just competing for the podium. It was definitely a little bit frustrating. It was great to kick this year off with a strong car and a win. We’ll try to keep that going.
“We’re only one race into the season, so there’s a lot of work ahead of us. The competition is going to be tough. I think Sebring as always is going to be a true test. It’s one of the toughest tracks on the circuit for a lot of reasons. The racing is hard; it’s a long race. I hope we’ll be prepared enough to compete well, but I have no expectations it’s going to be easy.”
The win in Daytona was the second in a row for the team at the Rolex 24 and the 200th overall for team owner Chip Ganassi. Ford has only one historic race left to win with the new Ford GT – the 12 Hours of Sebring – and that has made the team hungry.
“We’re fortunate in that we have the smartest people in the business at Ford Chip Ganassi Racing,” said Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “They make smart decisions and it’s proven again and again on the track.”
At last year’s race in Sebring, Ford nearly finished p2-3 at Sebring after a penalty sidelined one of the leaders, until a last-lap crash put the No. 67 out of podium position. The No. 66 finished second, ending its attempt to win class titles in the Le Mans 24, Rolex 24 At Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring in nine months.
“We really just put everything on the table,” Hand said. “If you finish second, the one thing you want to make sure of is that you did everything you could to win the race. We’ve tested at Sebring a few times since then and added to the data we have from that track, we’re confident we can give it another shot this year.”
The challenge level is knocked up one notch for endurance drivers Dixon and Bourdais, who will compete in an INDYCAR race and the 12 Hours of Sebring in the same week.
“Having two races in the same week is the easy part,” Bourdais said. “When you’ve been doing this for such a long time, it kind of becomes second nature. I just have to open the right drawer in my brain for which car I’ll be driving (laughter). It happens pretty fast now. Even last year, when I came back from my accident, it felt normal to get back into the routine. The racing is always so competitive, so making sure that we are completely focused in our preparation and then throughout the race is the most important thing.”
Bourdais appreciates the back-to-back races in his “backyard.”
“It’s nice to be home for St. Pete,” said Bourdais, who lives with his wife and children near the INDYCAR race circuit. “That’s something I get to do twice a year, between this race week and Le Mans. It’s a pretty special feeling getting to share it with family and friends. Transitioning to Sebring, it’s a pretty familiar place, since we test a lot there.”