INSIGHT: What next for Ford's IMSA program?

Image by Levitt/LAT

INSIGHT: What next for Ford's IMSA program?

IMSA

INSIGHT: What next for Ford's IMSA program?

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“We’ll be there,” said Chip Ganassi.

He didn’t say how, or with whom, but the owner of Chip Ganassi Racing answered one of the biggest questions looming over IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

With 2019 serving as the fourth and final year of its contract to run Ford’s factory GT racing program, sports car fans have been waiting to hear if the Blue Oval will extend a new contract to remain in IMSA with CGR, possibly the FIA World Endurance Championship as well, and the category it would enter.

Although Ganassi did not mention Ford by name in his brief response to RACER, it’s the strongest indication to date of the brand’s intent to remain in top-tier sports car competition.

After combing the IMSA paddock for the last two months, a number of interesting scenarios have emerged for Ford. Based on the latest intel, everyone involved is waiting for Ford’s decision on what will happen at the conclusion of 2019.

Of the known options, five leading choices stand out.

  1. Ford could sign a new contract with CGR to keep its Ford GTs on track in IMSA and the WEC.
  2. It could sell more of the Multimatic-built GT race cars to private entrants, as it did with Ben Keating, and move away from a factory effort.
  3. It could continue with a blend of factory-funded cars and add in a few privateers.
  4. It could embark up on a Daytona Prototype international program in IMSA.
  5. It could choose to scuttle the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing operations and withdraw from domestic and international sports car competition.

Using Ganassi’s “We’ll be there” quote as a guide, the farewell scenario seems unlikely, making factory GTs, privateer GTs, and DPi as the most likely avenues for Ford to consider. Let’s start with DPis, since that’s been the most anticipated follow-up program for the GTs.

Ford’s expected shift to DPi sits atop the list on again/off again projects that come to mind in recent years. There’s no question a Multimatic-built Ford DPi, using the same 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 engine found in the GT, is under development. We’ve even believed, at various points, that it was a sure thing for 2020. But what if it isn’t, and what if Ford’s DPis are presented outside the norm for the brand?

Unlike the GT, which emerged as a factory-only project for the first three years, there have been multiple suggestions that Ford’s DPi plans involve selling the car to customers from the outset. At present, only Cadillac makes its DPi-V.R available to privateers; Acura and Mazda do not, and Nissan, which is not involved as a normal factory entry, has yet to see more than one team purchase and run the Ligier DPi bearing its name.

If and when a Ford DPi arrives, its involvement could look similar to Cadillac’s current model, where a longstanding relationship with one team like CGR ranks as the frontline program, and other, non-factory teams, are allowed to purchase the DPi and pay for factory support. Provided this happens, it would be the first customer-oriented DPi launch for IMSA.

Cadillac is currently the only manufacturer that makes its DPi available to customer teams like Juncos. Image by Galstad/LAT

The timing for Ford and DPi could also be subject to evolving needs. While there’s nothing stopping Ford from moving ahead with a DPi in 2020, there are questions of available budget and messaging to ponder. Although unconfirmed, sources have said the funding to green-light an all-new prototype venture, including customer cars and support, has been lacking – at least while Ford explores its short-term options with the GT. It could be one of the reasons for the on again/off again nature of the project.

The delays might also, as another source suggested, play to a bigger initiative within Ford.

The auto industry’s gradual move towards electrification has become an important part of Ford’s future strategies for racing. With IMSA all but guaranteed to adopt a hybrid-electric system for DPi 2.0 in 2022 to complement internal combustion engines, there’s value in waiting a few years before revealing a prototype. From a marketing standpoint, apportioning a budget for a hybrid DPi sounds easier than asking for new funds to race with the same engine in a different class.

Ford already raced with the GT engine (before the GT was built) in Grand-Am and IMSA using a lower-tech Daytona Prototype featuring custom Blue Oval bodywork. Swapping the tubeframe DP chassis for a carbon-fiber creation from Multimatic using custom bodywork would be great, but might not move the needle internally.

Provided the budgeting issues are accurate, pushing a DPi program out to land in a next-generation hybrid DPi formula would appear to tick a lot of boxes.

Leaving DPi for privateer GTs, Ford Performance boss Mark Rushbrook confirmed the brand will seek more Keating-like arrangements where car sales and support packages are offered to the chosen few.

“We are very excited about Ben and the program going to Le Mans this year,” he told RACER. “I honestly didn’t know Ben prior to his interest in this. He did approach us a year ago with a similar proposal. It wasn’t the right fit at that point in time, but we got to at least know him from that discussion that when we felt this year was the right time, he was definitely a natural, one of the first people that we wanted to talk to. We were able to work out the details to make it a good program to work for us and a good program to work for him, and we’re working together as partners. That’s how we go racing all the time – as partners at the pro level.

“We know that these [GTs] are special cars that it’s a very special program. And I don’t think we want to just sell cars to just anybody in the sense that knowing that they’re special and knowing that they belong on the racetrack, that’s the kind of home we’re looking for, for these cars so that they can be seen by you and many fans around the world on the racetrack as they are intended to be seen. Part of what we’re sorting through right now with several discussions and process to find the right homes and the right tracks for these cars to continue racing.”

Whatever step Ford takes next in IMSA, it’s a safe bet that it will be in tandem with Ganassi. Image by Dole/LAT

Consider two additional key factors: It’s believed Ford’s current roster of drivers were asked to remain faithful as the auto giant works out its next steps in sports car racing. That’s a polite way of saying ‘Although we don’t have anything firm to offer as of yet, there’s no need to start searching for new opportunities with other teams or manufacturers.’

On a similar front to its drivers, the Chip Ganassi Racing team is the biggest asset for Ford to keep under contract. From GTs to prototypes, CGR has been among the first calls made by current manufacturers and those working on future plans to inquire if the championship-winning team can be hired away.

Ganassi has been clear in stating his desire to get back to vying for overall wins in IMSA, and that means DPi, so if the schedule for DPis has indeed been moved out to 2022, keeping CGR in the family with a two-year extension to race the GTs is the obvious mechanism to make it happen.

The most recent chatter to come in has this exact situation being presented as the most likely scenario for Ford and CGR. Keep the Ford GTs in motion through 2021, and at least on the American front, where DPis are legal, return to prototype competition in 2022.

Beyond Ganassi affirming CGR’s presence in IMSA next year, the rest is subject to all manner of changes before 2020 arrives. At minimum, having Ford back in IMSA’s GT Le Mans class, and the WEC’s GTE-Pro, with factory GTs, would be a blessing as both classes are mired in questions of short-term sustainability. Losing Ford, and possibly BMW, from GTLM, would leave IMSA with four GTLM entries. A similar, albeit slightly higher number, would also bring a panic to GTE if both were to scuttle their efforts.

If Ford does indeed hit the pause button on DPi until it meets a more electrified marketing criteria, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at a time when GT racing needs all the factory entries it can find. The introduction of a few Ford GT-wielding privateers, in GTLM and/or GTE-Am, would also be another positive step to settle the waters.

Until Ford makes the call on where its sports car racing strategy will take the GTs, and hopefully a DPi, we’re left to wait and see if two more years of GTLM/GTE, which has the strongest odds, is the answer. Or if, somehow, the funding to go prototype racing without a hybrid system can be found. Either way, Rushbrook shares in the anticipation of formalizing the brand’s future in endurance racing.

“We love being in motorsports all around the world and all the different series,” he said. “We definitely love the sports car world with IMSA and WEC. And what I can say is we are as busy as ever if not busier than ever through the end of last year and definitely into early this year working out what those different options are for continuing in some form or another.

“So definitely not ready to announce anything, but a lot of different balls in the air to find the right programs going forward, and hopefully we can say something to you soon.”

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