DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One year ago, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing – specifically its U.S.-based No. 68 Ford GT team of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Le Mans native Sebastien Bourdais – accomplished its stated mission: to return on the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT40 victory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and win.
A book by motorsports writer David Phillips chronicling the team and the Ford GT project’s exploits from its earliest days was entitled, “A Big Ask,” borrowing words from Raj Nair, a top Ford executive who recently was named executive vice president and president of North America for Ford Motor Company. And it was, “A Big Ask,” for a program that began competing just six months earlier in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Nevertheless, the trio of Hand, Mueller and Bourdais accomplished the mission, winning the GTE Pro class, while the team’s other U.S.-based car, the No. 69 Ford GT shared by Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and another IndyCar star, Scott Dixon, also finished on the podium in third place.
Sandwiched between the two Ford GTs was the No. 82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE shared by WeatherTech Championship regulars Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella, alongside Le Mans co-driver Matteo Malucelli. It was ironic that the Risi Ferrari served as the main competition for the Ford GTs, as a well-publicized battle with Ferrari inspired Ford’s original GT40 five decades earlier.
“It was pretty incredible to win in an American car, for an American team owner like Chip Ganassi, and stand on the podium with our teammates from the No. 69 car and the guys we compete with all the time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship,” Hand said. “Going in, we knew the competition would be fierce, because we race these guys all the time and it’s constantly a dogfight every race. We know it’ll be the same this year. We’re proud to represent the U.S. and Ganassi and IMSA, and we’re going to give this our best shot, 100 percent.”
So, as Hand pointed out, the mission heading into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is simple: Do it again. As was the case last year, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing will have a total of four Ford GTs in the field. Two of them, the Nos. 66 and 67 machines, regularly compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship and are based in the U.K.
The other two, which usually wear Nos. 66 and 67 in the WeatherTech Championship, will be carrying Nos. 68 and 69 at Le Mans. The No. 69 lineup is the same as it was a year ago with Briscoe, Westbrook and Dixon sharing the ride.
Until last month, the No. 68 lineup of Hand, Mueller and Bourdais – which also won the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class in the Rolex 24 At Daytona this year – also was expected to return intact. However, Bourdais was injured in a crash during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 last month, so yet another IndyCar racer, Tony Kanaan – the 2013 Indy 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar champion – will make his first Le Mans appearance this year.
While it is Kanaan’s first appearance at Le Mans, he joined WEC regulars Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell in the Rolex 24 At Daytona this year in an entry from the U.K.-based Ganassi team. He also is an overall winner of the Rolex 24, which happened in 2015.
“For sure it won’t be the same without Seb at Le Mans,” Hand said. “But we are a strong team and we’re ready for this. I’ve been working out every day to make sure I can physically go the distance and be on my ‘A game’ throughout.
“Le Mans is tough mentally too, but the strong support I have from my family really helps me with that side of things. I think when your mind is right on everything else, your mind will be right on racing.”
Will Hand and the No. 68 team have their ‘A game’ throughout? Will the No. 69 team or one of the U.K.-based Ford GTs break through this time? We’ll find out this weekend.
“Everyone from all four of our car crews are looking forward to being back at Le Mans to defend last year’s win,” said team owner Chip Ganassi. “It is always nice to compete when you know that you have four quality chances to win an historic event like the Le Mans 24 Hours. We had a fantastic 2016 with the Ford GT and we look to make 2017 even better.”