Under normal circumstances, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates would be spending this weekend’s Roar Before The 24 test at Daytona International Speedway preparing to defend its Drivers’ and Teams’ Championship.
Three consecutive titles for drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas from 2010-2012 nearly became four in 2013, but with a few too many competitor-assisted crashes and uncharacteristic mistakes reducing the points tally for the No. 01 Riley-BMW, Wayne Taylor Racing took control of the Daytona Prototype class and never looked back.
A season-opening win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona was the high water mark for CGRwFS, and a second win followed during Round 4 at Barber Motorsports Park in early April, but once the team left the Alabama road course, an almighty dry spell descended upon the program.
Pruett and Rojas would eventually finish second in the standings and CGRwFS managed to come away with the Teams’ title, but the winless streak from Round 5 to Round 12 didn’t sit well with the proud organization. And with their history, it was safe to assume 2014 would see a fiery response from the team as it joined the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.
But the plot took a major twist when the team announced it would switch to Ford’s V6 EcoBoost turbo engine, and in an instant, CGRwFS went from planning to overtake WTR’s Corvette DP with their proven Riley-BMW package to accepting the 2014 season would have a whole new set of obstacles to overcome.
Helping the Blue Oval to develop its twin-turbo V6 in the combined P2/DP Prototype class has taken center stage, and although the 3.5-liter engine appears to have serious potential, Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull knows the first few months of the season could be filled with more learning than winning.
“For us it’s different this year because the rules are changing, and the DPs have changed fairly significantly before we moved to a different manufacturer,” he told RACER. “So that in itself is the challenge that we have in front of us, is to understand how to have a car that through the rules which were meant to equalize us to the other categories of prototype racing and how to be most effective with that, that’s certainly what we spend a lot of time with. Plus, with changing engine manufacturers, we’re also changing suppliers, all the installation hardware, the intercooler technology, all the systems on the engineit’s a whole new ballgame and it’s a bit different for us.
“It isn’t a case of wheeling out the identical car we won the Rolex 24 with and giving that another go. We accepted this challenge because we believe we can win championships with Ford, but at the same time, you can’t wish away the changes that have taken place and the time that’s needed to make the car into a contender. You naturally hope that happens right away, but that doesn’t always happen.”
Even with the championships the Riley-BMW package delivered, Hull says he and the team welcome the fresh new technical challenges that have come with fielding a turbocharged Riley-Ford.
“There’s a lot of complexity in this Ford engine that is new for us,” he added. “What’s really neat about it is the fact that we can actually work on the car and do creative things. And some people who are into this spec car racing mentality might consider that to be a challenge, but we really do enjoy it. Although it’s very challenging technically, that in itself has its rewards. Everyone has to think their way through new problems or ways of doing things, and that has an energizing effect on an organization. You just face the challenge every day and you try to get the most out of what’s in front of you.”The Ganassi team isn’t the first Riley DP program to be involved with Ford’s EcoBoost turbo that honor went to Michael Shank Racing. The Ohio-based team handled the majority of pre-season testing and early development work with Riley before Ford added CGRwFS to the stable, which is now paying off for all of the key partners.
“First of all, Ford’s been working on this project for quite a while with the Riley car and with Michael Shank Racing,” said Hull. “So there’s already a good database that we can draw from. And that’s a big help because Shank’s a person who does things the right way and there’s a lot of significant data already available. And we share information equally with Shank; it’s part of the process here, which we’re happy to do.
“Secondly, Riley’s been involved in this process with Shank and we’ve been involved as a partner with Riley really since 2004. So the working relationship that we have with them is I don’t know if it’s unique in terms of a chassis manufacturing company and a race team, but we feel that it is in the sense that we share everything with them unselfishly and they in turn help us with our program, so I think that we draw from that is the second thing.
“And then thirdly, we already have a lot of information available to us that’s been driven from both the Lexus program and the BMW program. And that’s helped to drive our chassis up the grid and to the podium. So I think it’s those three things that have us feeling confident at this stage. It’s partnership between those three groups of people that I don’t know if they ease the burden of what we have to do but they give direction for what we have to do. It’s a lot better than having to go about this all on our own.”
CGRwFS traditionally expands to two cars for the Rolex 24 and has both Riley-Fords here for the Roar test. With Pruett and Rojas starting their championship run at Daytona, Hull and Ganassi tend to pull their IndyCar Series and NASCAR Sprint cup drivers in for the big event and place them where they feel will best serve their championship aspirations with the No. 01 and can pace the field in the No. 02. And, with the recent retirement of Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya’s move from Ganassi to Team Penske, another degree of change has been brought into the 2014 Rolex 24 program.
Montoya’s Sprint Cup replacement Kyle Larson, who tested the Riley-Ford for the first time last month, is back for the Roar in the No. 02 along with Marino Franchitti, who drove for Ganassi at the Roar in 2010. Reigning Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who has replaced Marino’s older brother in the No. 10 Target Indy car, is part of the program and defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who tested alongside Larson in December, will miss the Roar but will return for the race.
Ganassi’s most recent signing, Ryan Briscoe, would be a great fit next to Pruett and Rojas in the No. 01 but is committed solely to the Corvette Racing team. The surprisingly fast Jamie McMurray, who has five Rolex 24 starts with Ganassi and a best finish of second in 2011, is also a wise selection for the car, but he’s not the only name that has been mentioned. It’s believed Indy car veteran Alex Tagliani was close to joining the team for Daytona, but with time running out, it’s possible the French-Canadian ace could be looking at a Sebring start if his IndyCar Series options fall through. Final tweaks to the 01’s lineup has 2013 Indy Lights champion Sage Karam in the car with Pruett, Rojas and McMurray.
Beyond the obvious goal of winning the race, playing the Match Game with Ganassi’s open-wheel, sports car and stock car talent at Daytona also has other benefits, according to Hull.
“I think what it does is it provides opportunity, certainly for some drivers who haven’t driven with us prior to this in Daytona,” he explained. “But really what’s unique and special about the 24 Hours of Daytona, and I think going all the way back to the first endurance races here, is they put this thing on the calendar so that it happens before everybody’s hard-core race season begins. So what then happens is you have a great opportunity to mix drivers together from different global perspectives and persuasions that you would never have the opportunity to use during the year.