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The Way It Is/ The next steps in Ford's GT program

by Gordon Kirby
Last week I took a close look at the design and early development of Ford's new GT racer. This week Chip Ganassi's General Manager Mike Hull and one of the team's leading GT drivers Sebastien Bourdais discuss the lessons from Daytona and testing plans over the next few months prior to the new Fords racing at Le Mans for first time in June.

Mike Hull reports that the Ganassi/Ford team has scheduled a test at Sebring this week to see if they're on the right track to solving the problems that surfaced at Daytona.

"We didn't have a test scheduled this coming week but we're going to Sebring again for more testing this week," Hull said. "We're going down there to re-enact what happened at Daytona and try to be ready for the race at Sebring. We'll also do the open test at Sebring before the race.

"So our people haven't slowed-down since the 24 hour race. They've been on it hard. We're going to go and try to react to the situation at Daytona and invest some time in being better at Sebring and Long Beach."

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Hull explained what he believes was the root of the problems the Fords encountered at Daytona.

"We think we're going in the right direction on creating a fix," Hull commented. "We don't have a fix at this point but we think the transmission problem was primarily related to the engine mapping while running under yellow. We hadn't really had a chance in our testing to work on fuel mapping under yellows and when we switched to that map during the race it affected the drivetrain very dramatically. It basically shook the gearbox apart when we were running under yellow early in the race.

"Mike O'Gara and the guys worked on the fly with the drivers and engineers to figure it out what was going on. They decided to have the drivers stay off the yellow map when they were behind the pace car and have the driver use his foot as the fuel map. In the process of figuring that out, one of the cars broke some internal gearbox parts which would be hard to break if you put them in a press!

"I was amazed at how resilient our people are because changing a transmission in that car is not easy to do when we're here at the shop, let alone at the track. But at a 24 hour race you want to get to the end. You don't want to stop.

"Our guys took the car back to the garage and did a wholesale change of the transmission. They put everything back together and got back out on the racetrack. It wouldn't matter if it was a sprint race or an endurance race, our guys don't give up. They're always going to keep working to get their car to the end, no matter what.

"The other car had some electrical issues that were not related to the transmission and all those parts have been taken out and sent back to the vendors for inspection. Initially, we thought it might have been caused by the in-car camera because it was the first time we had run one in the car. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that. There's more to it, but we'll get to the bottom of it."

Hull assessed the quality of the competition Ford faces in the GTLM category.

"We're in the infancy stage of being in this category of racing," he observed. "What we saw unfolding in front of us at Daytona was two or three factory teams that are well into the development curve of their products and know how to have their cars at their best for the end of the race. We watched very carefully what the Corvette team did throughout the race and at the end of the race. They put on a terrific demonstration of what you need in the GTLM category to win the race as a team and that's where we would like to be with our program with some time invested.

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"I like the way the Corvettes raced through each segment of the race and I like the way they just go about their business and win races. It's terrific when you can race in a category where somebody looks way down the field to see the goalposts.

"Coming away from Daytona we know how much work we have to do. We have a terrific race car. It definitely has speed. We demonstrated that to ourselves during our winter testing and we're just going to work really, really hard to be better the next time we race and better again the time after that.

"That's the goal we've always had as a race team. We go forward with our eyes wide open to understand our weaknesses as well as our strengths and try to use competitors who are effectively getting the job done as the direction for where we need to be."

Hull confirmed that Ganassi's regular Ford GT drivers this year include Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Sebastien Bourdais, Dirk Muller and Joey Hand.

"We still have one endurance driver slot that is yet to be finalized," Hull said. "We've zeroed in on somebody and we're just trying to get the deal done. We'll have an agreement done with the sixth driver for the Sebring open test."

Bourdais is one of the most experienced drivers out there today with a wide background in Champ Car, F1, IndyCar and long-distance sports car racing.

"I really enjoy Sebastien because he doesn't mince words," Hull said. "He's a one sentence guy and Chip Ganassi Racing is a room full of one sentence people. That's what makes us better. So Sebastien immediately melded himself into our group.

"Watching him over the years, there's no question about his ability, but his ability out of the car to get right to the point is to me what you want in a race driver. I really enjoy him. He's a fantastic guy."

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Bourdais offered his assessment of the Ford program.

"I think it's still very early days," Sebastien commented. "The competition out there in GTLM is pretty huge and you would be foolish to think you're going to go out there right away and crush the competition. That's the goal, but we've got a long way to go to be in that position. We've got a lot of things to develop and put into place before we can perform the way we want.

"The design of the car is very aggressive for a GT car. It's very close to a prototype in the design and construction of the car. But with that choice of having a very sweet-looking and aggressive design you have to work hard to make it the equal of the classic GT cars like the Corvettes and Porsches.

"I don't have the experience with GT cars to really know what's the best package or the right tools. The car feels very good and is pretty cool to work with. It's an exciting time because I think there's a lot of potential for the future.

"There's not even any discussion about the quality of the group that's been assembled by Ford, MultiMatic and Ganassi. There's a tremendous amount of resources and experience that's going into making it work. I've been very impressed with the whole operation. There's a lot of power and strength in the support we're getting from Ford and MultiMatic which is why it's really cool to be part of this program. When there are problems, they are very quick to come up with solutions.

"I've known Chip for quite a few years and it's very nice to finally drive one of his cars," Bourdais added. "He's a racer and when he decides he's going to do something he works hard to give himself the opportunity to be successful. That's the difference between him and many other teams."

Hull described Ganassi's busy testing program over the coming weeks with its GT and Indy cars.

"In the next five weeks we're going to Sonoma next Wednesday for a one-day test with all four Indy cars and drivers," Hull said. "Max Chilton and his group of guys go on from there to Fontana so he can do a big oval test and receive approval from IndyCar to be qualified to drive in the open test at Indianapolis in April.

"From there Max and his guys will go to Sebring and he'll do a full day at Sebring as a rookie test for a street-type track. So over a span of twelve days he'll be in the car three times.

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"Then we go to Phoenix for IndyCar's open test on Friday and Saturday of that week. The schedule for the Phoenix test allows us to run until eight o'clock both days which is neat because that's when the race will happen at Phoenix.

"The following week we go back to Sebring with all four Indy cars and seven or eight days later we go to St. Pete for the IndyCar opener. The following Tuesday in the week of the 12 hour race at Sebring we're going to test our Indy cars at Barber Motorsports Park. So we've got quite a bit of action on both the GT and the IndyCar front over the next seven weeks. The sports car and IndyCar people are working together to get everything to the right place at the right time."

Amid an extremely busy schedule Hull is looking forward to Ganassi's debut race at Le Mans in June with the Ford GTs.

"We're going to do a two-day test at Road America with the sports cars in early May," Hull said. "That will be our pre-Le Mans test. We're going to try to enact some of things at Road America that we will encounter at Le Mans. Right after the Road America test we will load and go to Le Mans for the pre-race test over there."

Not to mention competing in the 100th Indy 500 over the month of May. Chip Ganassi's race teams have a lot on their plate this year and many fans across America and around the world will be watching closely to see how they perform in partnership with Chevrolet at Indianapolis and in company with Ford and MultiMatic a few weeks later in the world's most renowned long-distance sports car race.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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