PRUETT: Ford’s GT decision a harsh reality check

Images by Scott LePage/LAT

PRUETT: Ford’s GT decision a harsh reality check

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PRUETT: Ford’s GT decision a harsh reality check

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In the latest episode of endurance racing’s No. 1 drama “What Will Ford Do Next?,” the plot thickens as the Blue Oval finally makes a hard choice after months of indecision.

Of the five scenarios for Ford outlined by RACER a few months ago, the prevailing wisdom — in that fleeting moment — had the brand’s IMSA and WEC efforts with its GT model being extended for two more years as an IMSA Daytona Prototype international program was explored in the background.

With DPi headed toward a refreshing of its rules for 2022, which will include a modest, spec hybrid-electric system for all manufacturers to use, Ford’s contemplated GT-to-DPi succession plan made sense. Its initial four-year contract was winding down, it needed something to keep Chip Ganassi Racing busy, and a continuation of the GT effort in IMSA’s GT Le Mans class and the WEC’s GTE-Pro category was a no-brainer.

And then, in the two months that followed, a sense of frustration began to set in. Awaiting direction from the ACO and WEC on its 2020 Hypercar regulations, the French sanctioning bodies failed to deliver over and over again, leaving Ford and many other manufacturers in a state of directional limbo.

Racing on an international stage in the WEC, the absence of clarity with the series’ new top class, which piqued Ford’s interest, began to erode its confidence in building a short-term bridge with its GTs to get to a Hypercar class that might not materialize. Why spend untold millions on a one-way ticket to nowhere?

If you’re a fan of the Ford GTs, and are looking for an entity to blame for its upcoming exit from the WEC once June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is complete, the ACO and WEC await your venom.

Where the dire lack of clarity on the ACO/WEC side led Ford to opt out after 2019, dissatisfaction with where IMSA’s DPi 2.0 rules are positioned for 2022 pushed the brand’s motorsports leadership to underline October’s Petit Le Mans season finale as the last factory outing for its GT program at home.

In the most recent DPi 2.0 steering committee meeting, held by IMSA earlier this month at Mid-Ohio, Ford Performance IMSA/WEC program manager Kevin Groot is said to have made it abundantly clear — with significant sound and fury — about the Blue Oval’s misgivings for what will replace the current DPi formula.

Will indecision over how to introduce hybrid power to IMSA prove a breaking point for Ford there, too?

In front of the series’ technical directors and the other eight manufacturers in the room, an impassioned Groot drove a proverbial stake in the ground on Ford’s behalf: IMSA’s upcoming low-power hybrid system, one that’s received near universal buy-in to date, would push the company away from DPi 2.0.

At a projected 40kw (53 hp), the spec hybrid-electric system IMSA has penciled in as the main technology upgrade from DPi 1.0 simply isn’t enough to attract Ford’s marketing department or, most importantly, its research and development division.

Groot’s immensely clear message, I’m told, was for IMSA to get serious about hybrids, raise the power level and performance capabilities to something more than the bare minimum, and Ford would return to the 2022 planning meetings. While some manufacturers are looking for the smallest, cheapest way to incorporate a hybrid system into DPi — to effectively check the box of saying the car is a hybrid, and little more — Ford wants the exact opposite.

Acutely aware of Ford’s emboldened stance, IMSA will need to decide whether low-power/low-cost hybrid is in its best interest of the DPi masses, or if a rethink on making a bigger embrace of hybrids, something that offers more than the equivalent of a push-to-pass energy boost, to keep Ford in the conversation — and other manufacturers, potentially — is the smarter play.

Based on the Mid-Ohio meeting, no changes to the DPi 2.0 formula will equal no Ford in 2022, and therefore, no interim extension program with the IMSA GTs.

On a related topic, IMSA’s owners at NASCAR are also looking heavily at going hybrid for its next set of Cup Series regulations. A recent meeting among manufacturers and team owners, I’ve heard, included serious discussions on implementing a similar spec hybrid system as early as 2021.

With its longstanding ties to NASCAR, which direction would Ford spend its money if it had to choose between Cup and IMSA to promote its range of hybridized road cars? That, too, is a no-brainer. On America’s racing radar, NASCAR, even with its declining fortunes, is the only series that makes marketing waves.

Possible future shocks in NASCAR could pose a threat to Ford’s GT program from an unexpected quarter…

It’s also the likely cause behind Groot imploring IMSA to give Ford a bigger, more powerful, and more unique hybrid solution to pitch his bosses. Without that high-power differentiator to Cup, selling Ford on IMSA could be impossible if NASCAR and NASCAR’s sports car series end up with more or less the same token hybrid strategies. To add to the fun, IndyCar is considering some form of hybrid component when its new engine formula lands in 2021, also of the low-power variety.

IMSA, once expected to be the domestic leader in hybrid adoption, could be last to the party if NASCAR and IndyCar go forward a year before DPi 2.0 hits the ground.

Separate from the fuzzy future for the WEC’s top class and IMSA’s not-powerful-enough hybrid leanings, Ford’s desire to wait as long as possible to call an end to its factory GT program was done in the hopes of finding something that would keep Chip Ganassi Racing under contract. In light of the issues it’s found with the French and American sanctioning bodies, releasing the team from its obligations was done, from what I’ve learned, to give it adequate time to search for new opportunities.

I’ve also heard that if the missing WEC clarity is found, or the under-powered DPi 2.0 hybrid direction is altered in a timely fashion, CGR would be Ford’s first call. Canvassing the current and future DPi landscape, Ford would be wise to minimize the gap between contracts for CGR; I know of three manufacturers that would welcome an alliance as early as 2020, if not for 2021.

Uncertainty also will affect the array of aces in Ford’s corner. Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

Finally, spare a thought for CGR’s factory Ford drivers. I’m confident the team’s peerless squad of mechanics and engineers will be busy next year, running cars for another brand, at minimum. But having the plug pulled, especially on the IMSA side, with so few top-tier seats likely to open up next year, will make it hard for Ryan Briscoe, Joey Hand, Dirk Muller, and Richard Westbrook to slot in among their GTLM rivals, or in DPi, where rides with Acura, Cadillac, Mazda, and the CORE autosport-run Nissan effort are anything but plentiful. Most of what’s been found involves four-race endurance roles at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Petit Le Mans.

Within a week of the Mid-Ohio DPi meeting, my phone started lighting up with calls about the Ford factory drivers being alerted to the program’s conclusion and their immediate efforts to seek new homes. That was followed by an immediate request for them to hold off on the employment search, as a new glimmer of hope to stay with the team appeared. A week or so later, the hold was rescinded and the upcoming end to the GT program was confirmed.

On the WEC side, in a matter of days after BMW confirmed its M8 GTEs will fall silent after Le Mans, the series has lost four GTE-Pro cars from the 2019-2020 ‘super season.’ Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche will race among the depleted numbers in the absence of BMW and Ford.

In North America, BMW is expected to stay, which is huge for IMSA. Added to Corvette’s ongoing presence, plus Porsche’s anticipated return, it should have six full-time cars to keep GTLM in a viable state.

What’s harder to ignore is in the span of a week, IMSA and WEC have gone from having three shared manufacturers in their factory GT racing categories to just one with Porsche.

It tells me that the ACO and WEC need to get their act together and either commit to Hypercar or, as RACER recently revealed, possibly scrap Hypercar in favor of DPi 2.0 and give manufacturers like Ford something to build around in the coming years.

Knowing how DPi 2.0 could serve two sports car championships, upcoming decisions on hybrid power could dictate more than just Ford’s interest to stay and play.

LMP1 is on life support. DPi is thriving, to a degree. GTE-Pro/GTLM is on shaky ground. LMP2 is booming across the Atlantic and dying in the U.S. GT3/GTD isn’t allowed in the WEC, but comprises IMSA’s most populated class. BMW’s done in WEC in a few weeks, Ford’s done altogether in October. Hypercar feels about as real as Bigfoot riding a unicorn. And, if all I’ve learned is accurate, the ACO might uncouple itself from the WEC and realign directly with IMSA.

Welcome to the state of endurance racing in 2019. It’s a confusing mess which, in the case of BMW and Ford, has delivered its first big casualties.

 

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