The final laps of Ford’s factory GT program in Europe will be turned on Sunday at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A swift four-year program has come and gone for the automotive giant, its team partner Chip Ganassi Racing, Ford GT manufacturer Multimatic, engine supplier Roush Yates, and all of the vendors who’ve written new chapters in the brand’s glorious history in France.
Speaking with Ford Performance boss Mark Rushbrook, star driver Joey Hand, and Ford CGR managing director Mike Hull on the eve of the project’s farewell to Le Mans, the three men touched on a variety of memories during more than an hour of conversations.
For Rushbrook, who was at the leading edge of the GT’s birth as a road and race car, the project has been a major part of his day-to-day life.
“What I saw coming into this job as the Motorsports Engineering Manager back in December of 2013, it was already an idea,” he said. “It wasn’t approved at that point in time, but it was an idea. And that was part of my reason to accept the job, was knowing that there might be the possibility to work on a Ford GT program, on a racing program, and going back to Le Mans. So the official concept was there already by the end of 2013, and we worked through and got approval in 2014, and it was just tremendous to be a part of that and putting together the blocks of what would ultimately become the GT Racing Program, and great partners like Multimatic, and Chip Ganassi Racing, and Roush Yates Engines to be able to have it become a reality.
“It’s something that, because at that point in June of 2015, it’s something that we had been working on for over a year and a half, but we couldn’t openly talk about it and had to keep it secret for so long. But still many people knew that we were doing it, or thought that we were doing it, but we could never confirm it. So in some sense it was a big relief to finally be able to tell the world what we’d been working on, and what they had suspected, and that it was true, and that we would as a company and with great partners be coming back the following year in 2016 to race the new Ford GT, and try to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the ’66 win.”
With the 50th anniversary as the first milestone for Le Mans, the team’s memorable 1-3 finish, with Hand and teammates Dirk Muller and Le Mans native Sebastien Bourdais standing on the top step of the podium in 2016, set the standard for which the Ford CGR outfit hopes to repeat this weekend.
Coming into the 2019 event, Ford has its first customer GT in the field, purchased by owner/driver Ben Keating. While Ford will say goodbye to its factory program at Le Mans, Rushbrook and Multimatic are working hard to identify more Keatings to buy and race the GTs as privateers.
“Yeah, there’s been great interest in the cars and in racing them,” he said. “But just like it took time to set up the initial program, [there’s] the importance of the right partners and the right people. That’s where we’ve been going slow, to make sure that we find the right pairings. Because we believe these cars, we’re biased obviously, but we believe these cars are very, very special and want to make sure they have the right home and the right way to continue on track in the future. So, stay tuned. More to come.”
As a young IndyCar prospect, Hand dreamt of driving for Chip Ganassi. More than a decade later, in the realm of sports cars, he’d get his chance in IMSA with Ganassi’s Ford Daytona Prototypes. The 2015 DP union predated the GT program, giving the Californian an inside track when the changeover took place.
“I always wanted to be, ever since the IndyCar days when I was chasing Chip and Mike Hull around Laguna Seca, watching [Alex] Zanardi, [Jimmy] Vasser and [Juan] Montoya drive there,”he said. “I mean, I was always … I’ve been chasing the Ganassi thing for a while. So, to drive on that team was basically a dream, but I never knew … when I was young I didn’t know why exactly that team was so good. And when you get into the program, you recognized really quick that it’s about the people.”
After Le Mans, Hand and the IMSA Ford GT team have a few months to complete back home as they pursue the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans title. The people he’s come to befriend at Ford CGR and its many partners will be the biggest loss once the project ends in October at Petit Le Mans.
“It’s very strongly about the people and you recognize that, holy cow! There’s guys here, not just a couple, but most of the place, you have guys at Chip Ganassi Racing that they didn’t just end up at the top of the heap at the shop. They evolved. Like Mike Hull. He was a former Formula Ford mechanic years ago, and he worked his way up. And now he’s running Chip Ganassi Racing, and has been for a while,” Hand continued.
“It’s one of the most successful race teams in the history of racing. And that’s the kind of guys you have. My car chief, Tyler Rees, has worked his way up, and was on the IndyCar program, then came back for the Ford GT program. Michael O’Gara, he’s been all over. It was pretty smart of Ford to, first of all, hook up with Chip Ganassi Racing. But then there’s a lot of parts to this that a lot of people don’t know about.
“Multimatic was the main designer of the car, with Larry Holt and his crew. And then, Ford Performance is involved, but then so is Roush Yates engines. So there’s so many little things you could have a lot of difficulties with working with, for four or five huge entities. But … it’s the guys you would have over for a barbecue, because it truly is. And I keep telling guys, you come to California, my house is open. We’re going to do something at Hand Splash. We’re going to barbecue some Smash burgers at Hand Splash.”
As a sports car champion and winner of every major endurance race, Hand has driven for multiple auto manufacturers, and hates to think of the day where his Ford CGR crew won’t be in charge of the cars he pilots.
“It really is a mega team. The team that you want to be on, because I’m all about the comfort, right? And I’m a big believer that comfort brings results. And it doesn’t just mean the car’s working for you, and all that. It also means that, when you get out of the car, you feel like everybody is on your side,” he said.
“No matter if you did a good job, or not so good job. And that’s the way these guys are. They’re more uplifting than any program I’ve been with. They’re always, like, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, man. We’re going to get ’em.’ If you say, ‘Hey, I need something in the cockpit changed,’ there’s no, ‘Oh, man, we got to work.’ No. It’s like, ‘Is that going to make us faster? Great. Let’s do it. Perfect. No problem. Do it.’
Looking a decade or two ahead, Hand believes the Ford CGR program deserves the same kind of reverie the factory Ford GT40s from the 1960s receives.
“It is a great group of guys, and you couldn’t write it. But when you do read some of the history, you’re not far off from what happened in the ’60s, to be honest,” he said. “Couple groups came together, couple key players. A lot of good people, and huge success. So, yeah. It’s a group of people that I would love to run my career out with, that’s for sure.”
Just as Hand had visions of competing for CGR, Hull’s dreams, dating back to his Southern California childhood, included Le Mans. Having an opportunity to assemble and steer the effort to France and vie for victory has, like so many involved in the four-year project, been filled with wonderment.
A legendary team at home in North America, Hull has enjoyed bringing CGR to unfamiliar territory—where its name carried no weight—and making its presence known.
“When we went to Le Mans the very first year with all four cars running in the race, I don’t know that the competition thought too much about us,” he said. “It was just the first year of racing there, and I’m sure they thought, ‘Those guys are going to have a lot of issues, particularly the people from the United States because they don’t understand how to race here. They’re going to go through all the teething issues that they go through in the first year based on the experiences that they’ve had over time.’ So I think we were probably overlooked, which helped us.”
The questions regarding CGR on its winning 2016 debut weren’t reserved for its rivals.
“When the race was over, there was a great comment from Chip, and it was from one of the Ford family members. He said to Chip, ‘I didn’t think we could win.’ Like the first year, right? Chip said, ‘I did.’ That may not seem like a big deal, but we worked really, really hard to be ready. Frankly, we thought, and it’s very accurate, it’s a very huge mountain to climb for an IMSA team to go to Le Mans, and it would be a very big mountain to climb for a WEC team to come and race at IMSA at the beginning, simply because of the way the race itself is administered and what you have to do to race, in this case, at Le Mans.”
Having won The Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on numerous occasions, CGR’s knack for race strategy required a rethink at Le Mans, which has added to its depth of knowledge.
“What Le Mans does is it rewards raw speed for 24 hours, the least amount of time in a pit lane,”Hull said. “Racing in the United States is about that, but it’s somewhat regulated because [in the case of a full-course yellow] the pit lane closes in the United States, which allows everyone to pack up, and it allows lapped cars to get their lap back. Whereas at Le Mans, you don’t race like that. It’s really a terrific place to race because if you have a fast car and you’re flawless, you’re going to be at the front at the end no matter what. If you fall behind at Le Mans, there would need to be a lunar eclipse for you to catch.
“So the only way you’re going to catch up is for the people that are leading to fall out of the race. So you race as hard as you can at Le Mans if you’re behind, even if you’re on the lead lap, in hopes that your competitors have an issue so that makes up the time deficit.”
With one final run at Le Mans for the Ford GTs, Hull will revel in the experience.
“It’s a totally different way to race, and I love it because you just race your car as fast as you can,”he continued. “You have drivers who rotate through the car who understand that basic concept, and if they’ve grown up racing in IMSA, it’s way, way different than what they’re used to doing.
“So that part, in itself, winning in the first year, the American team winning in the first year, to me was extraordinary because it goes against a lot of the things that we do in preparation for a race in North America in sports car racing. I think we’ve done a really good job with that with both the WEC team and the IMSA team, and we’ll go to Le Mans with that same attitude and see what it gives us this year.”
Enjoy the full conversation with Rushbrook, Hand, and Hull below: