Last week’s test at Sebring for the Ford/Chip Ganassi Racing team marked its third major outing in recent months and gave the factory program a chance to accelerate its learning curve with the new Ford GT on the circuit’s legendary surface.
The pitted, pot-holed, and punishing 3.7-mile course has been a favorite for manufacturers looking to find weaknesses in their cars, and with the famed 12 Hours of Sebring race also playing host to IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Ford, CGR, and their partners at Multimatic reaped numerous rewards from their visit.
Following their recent test at Daytona International Speedway’s smooth 3.6-mile facility, CGR managing director Mike Hull says the lessons offered during a few days at Sebring will apply to most of the other venues on IMSA’s calendar.
“A lot of the chassis balance we find on smooth racetracks like Daytona are accentuated either in a positive or negative manner when we come to a place like Sebring,” Hull told RACER. “There are tracks like Daytona where you test because the race itself is so important, although what you learn there might not be as applicable to the tracks we race as much as you would hope.
“And with Sebring, there are very few tracks we go to where the roughness of the circuit is anything close to what Sebring offers, but you do end up taking away a lot of helpful information about the car that will help elsewhere.”
As Hull explains, the pursuit of finding the right chassis and aerodynamic setup at Sebring is where the most knowledge is gained.
“If you’re just marginally OK on setup at a place like Daytona, you’re going to be terrible at a place like Sebring, and the reason is simple,” he said. “It’s because never, ever are all the wheels on the ground at the same time. So mechanically, you are relying on less than four contact patches to get you around the place. As the car is braking, the wheels are never all four on the ground, as it’s turning, they’re never all four on the ground, as they’re trying to create exit traction, they’re never all four on the ground.
“So, if you have a mechanical ill with your racecar, it gets worse as the tires go away, you’re in deep trouble if you leave here without fixing your problems. And you aren’t always finding what you think you’ll find in terms of setup directions. Because it takes so much work to get there, a team can learn as much about what not to do as they can about what the car is truly asking for from the engineers. If you can solve the handling and performance needs of a car at Sebring, you should be pleased.”
Hours spent lapping Sebring’s winding, undulating circuit can also help a team like CGR to make right mechanical choices for a car like the Ford GT.
“You have to understand how to create maximum mechanical advantage here,” Hull continued. That’s what you get at Sebring. For example, brakes are huge at this track; learning what you can do with brakes here helps you wherever else you decide to race your car next. And that would be the kind of rotors you choose, the brake pads, the friction characteristics of the pad, the balance of the brakes, front to rear.
“It’s a very demanding braking racetrack. And if your brakes are working correctly, your tires stay round! You go through a lot of things like that with a new car at Sebring because the nature of the track forces you to arrive at choices that are reliable, and also perform at a high level. If it can get the job done here, you should be good to go in every other situation.”
As RACER noted last week, the CGR/Ford IMSA team appears to have plenty of driving talent to draw from during its pre-season testing program. Along with CGR’s Joey Hand, prospective 2016 GT drivers Ryan Briscoe, Dirk Muller, and Marino Franchitti were listed as Sebring attendees by multiple sources, and with the usual variety of tuning options to explore, Hull believes more than enough engineering feedback is available to steer the Ford into a competitive state.
“With all variables you have – dampers, ride heights, variation of ride height, roll bars or torsion bars, aero bits, and everything else on the car that can be tuned – you’re looking for not only one opinion, but as many as it takes to create the best overall setup,” he said. “Altogether, it gives you some form of directional answer, and we’ll keep pursuing those answers until they tell us it’s time to show up and race in January.”