Saturday’s 6 Hours of Spa results sheet was littered with notable milestones, and one of the key ones didn’t come in LMP1 – which saw Fernando Alonso win on his WEC debut – but in GTE Pro.
Ford’s triumph in the hotly-contested 10-car class marked the No. 66 Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT’s first WEC race win. American driver Billy Johnson got to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time in the world championship as a result.
“To be working on the car before I even knew what it looked like, and to have worked on the road car development too, is a huge honor to me,” Johnson, who is a full-time Multimatic driver, explained to RACER. “To race here and at Le Mans, as one of only two Americans in the Ford program, is also really special.
“To bring home a win, marking the 66’s first, and the first for Stefan and Olivier in the WEC with Ford was a big monkey off the whole team’s back. The pace has been there in the past – the hard work has too – it’s just the results that haven’t. It was very satisfying, now all four Fords racing in IMSA and the WEC have won races.”
It wasn’t a simple race for the No. 66 crew. Mucke, Johnson and Pla had to fight hard all race with the pair of Porsche GT Team 911 RSR GTEs, for much of the race without the sister car too, after the No. 67’s huge accident at Eau Rouge at the start of the second hour.
“That crash, which left us to fight for Ford alone, was huge, but thankfully Harry (Tincknell) was OK, it’s a real testament to the car that Multimatic and Ford have designed. For him to walk away was incredible.”
Johnson’s stint was spent battling for second with Gianmaria Bruni in the second half of the race, the American pushing hard to ensure Pla was in with a shout at the end. He made a bold move to get by the Italian, through traffic at Blanchimont, which turned out to be a key move in the race for the team in its run to the lead.
Then, despite the best efforts from Porsche’s factory roster, when the field was bunched up after the final safety car in the final 45 minutes, Pla completed the charge to the front. Johnson, Mucke and the team watched on in the garage, as Pla ran side-by-side with Richard Lietz’s No. 91 Porsche in the battle for the class lead, making a bold move up the inside at Eau Rouge to take the place and ultimately score the win.
While there wasn’t necessarily mounting pressure internally, Johnson said there was still a sense of relief as well as jubilation when the car crossed the line, after two winless years in the WEC for the No. 66.
Going forward, Johnson hopes that the form shown in Belgium translates to a good run at La Sarthe next month (where Ford will once again race with four cars in GTE Pro) and as a result, more drives with the team.
As it stands, his only other scheduled appearance in the WEC is at the Le Mans 24 Hours, though there are clearly other opportunities for him to race later in the 2018/19 ‘Super Season’ as a third driver, at the rounds at Sebring, Spa and Le Mans in 2019. Next month will therefore be of upmost importance to Johnson, who told RACER he’ll do everything he can to try and secure an expanded program.
“The Pro class is definitely stacked for Le Mans. I think it’s the best class in the race – the racing is good and the cars are relatable. To guess how the performance at Le Mans will be is hard – nobody knows, because of BoP and the Le Mans specific tire.
“We start square one there at the Test Day, you can’t relate the form here to it. And that’s why it’s going to be so tough for us.
“Hopefully we have a good result at Le Mans, and I can be in the position to do more races. I want to do the full championship, it’s not off the table, so we will have to see where it goes.”