|The Ford GTs, Corvettes, Porsches and Ferraris are towards the back with the third tier class|
LE MANS, France, June 7, 2016— Ford Chip Ganassi Racing has assembled a truly international line-up of some of the world's best endurance racers for Ford's return to the Le Mans 24 Hours. We spoke to the drivers ahead of Le Mans to get their thoughts on the monumental challenge that lies ahead.
#66 – Billy Johnson (US), Stefan Mucke (GER), Olivier Pla (FRA)
#67 – Marino Franchitti (GB), Andy Priaulx (GB), Harry Tincknell (GB)
#68 – Sebastien Bourdais (FRA), Joey Hand (US), Dirk Muller (GER)
#69 – Ryan Briscoe (AUS), Scott Dixon (NZ), Richard Westbrook (GB)
How do you prepare for a 24-hour race like Le Mans?
TINCKNELL: It's a difficult race to prepare for, as it's 24-hours and you could be in the car at any point over that period. I try to get all the physical preparation done in the months leading up to Le Mans so I can have as relaxing a week as possible in the run up to the race. I get as much sleep as possible and make sure all my kit is prepared, not just race kit but things like making sure I have films to watch when I need to chill out. It's an intense week with all the media sessions, autograph sessions and drivers' parade so it's important to be able to switch off. It's very easy to get caught up in the razzamatazz of the event, but then you wake up on race day and you're already tired. That happened to me in 2014 so I learnt my lesson!
BRISCOE: Physical training, mental training, simulator training, all of it is important. Something new for me is that we have access to the Ford Performance racing simulator in North Carolina (U.S.). I'll have been there a few times before Le Mans. I feel like as far as the physical and mental preparation goes, I'm not really doing anything specific for Le Mans, besides just trying to keep in good shape and being well-prepared with the team.
Which part of the circuit do you enjoy the most?
Mucke: I think everybody will say the Porsche Curves as they are pretty special. You can win or lose a lot of time on the entry into the Porsche Curves. The set-up of the car needs to be perfect and when it is perfect it is such a good feeling to race through there, especially if you are in the car for ‘Happy Hour', that magical time from 5am until 7am during the 24-hour race.
WESTBROOK: The Porsche Curves. You've just been out in the woods in the open air for so long and the tyres have cooled off quite a bit, then you suddenly come into the most daunting areas in all of motorsport. It's incredibly fast. At Le Mans, you run very low downforce and being in those quick corners, changing left to right with not much downforce, is really daunting. When you get it right, it's a really special feeling.
Which part of the circuit is the most difficult to get right?
BOURDAIS: It depends on the car but the least forgiving is that last section once you get into the Porsche Curves. It's high speed, high commitment and there's no room for error. That's the high pressure point. There's a lot of time to be gained or lost, but it can go seriously sideways quickly.
Which is hardest: the physical or mental side of endurance racing?
Mucke: Definitely the mental side. Le Mans is a big challenge because as well as the 24-hour race there is a long and busy week leading up to it. The mental tension builds up during the week and from day one you just want to get in the car and race. We are all physically fit through training and racing so that is no issue for any of us. The tough thing is keeping your focus and concentration. The other thing to mention is that Le Mans has very long straights so you have to not let your mind drift, especially at night when you can be out there and you hear nothing from the team. This is because they are quite rightly letting you get on with the job, but sometimes I will go on the radio to say "Hello, is anybody there?" just to make sure!
Because Le Mans is all about finishing you can start to hear noises on the straights and then you worry that there is a problem so you have to blank that out and concentrate on your braking points.
TINCKNELL: 100 per cent mental. If you find it a physical challenge you're not fit enough. You have to get all that done before you get there. You can be as fit as you want, but when someone wakes you up in the middle of the night and you have 15 minutes to get prepared to jump in the car and do 200 mph down the Mulsanne straight, you've got to be mentally sharp.
What are your expectations for the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours?
PLA: Ford is coming back to Le Mans to do well and to win if we can. We have to be humble though and remember this is the first Le Mans for the Ford GT and our competitors have been doing this for many years. We will do our best and if we can do it we will!
HAND: I really believe we have a chance to win. I think the preparation we've done is really good. Everything has to go right. It's not like Daytona, where you can get laps back. I expect out of four cars, at least one or two will be contending there in the last hours of the race. I go in, I'm a realist. I really think we can win, and I really think my group of people can win. From my engineer, Sebastien, me, Dirk. I'm going there to win.
BOURDAIS: I never enter a race with expectations because it doesn't matter what you want to do. You give yourself the chance to win by being a professional and surrounding yourself with people who know their jobs and do them very well. Then you do your job and the race decides. The race kind of picks its winner. All you do is your job to the best of your ability and hope for the best after that.
How do you think it would feel to win the Le Mans 24 Hours?
PLA: I have done it eight times now and never won it, so I really want this. It must feel great but I need to win it first and then I will tell you!
PRIAULX: It would be mega to win it, especially for Ford on the 50th anniversary. I led the race for 23 hours in 2011 and we lost it in the last hour due to an electrical problem, so for me it is unfinished business. To do what we have set out to do with Ford would be incredible. It would be one of those stories that you just can't write a script for.
MuLLER: I think it would make me cry, that's for sure. I think that would be huge. That would be one of the biggest things ever. I think that feeling would beat winning a championship, which is normally the biggest thing you want to achieve. Especially with this programme, winning Le Mans would be just mind-blowing.
What do you love the most about racing the Ford GT?
PRIAULX: (Speaking at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium) I had a moment this morning, sitting in this beautiful GT car with the Spa track ahead of me and I thought how lucky I was to be here. The car looks phenomenal, it's a pleasure to drive and you just know when you join a programme at this level how special it is. The passion is there and we are all very motivated.
FRANCHITTI: I love the way it feels; through my hands, through my backside, the way I connect with it. Since the first time I drove it the car has felt very natural, almost as if it is an extension of me. I never have to fight this car. It all works beautifully.
WESTBROOK: I love the concept of the car, the low centre of gravity. I think it's the same philosophy they had way back in the 1960s and it's incredible that same philosophy works now. I think back then the car was way ahead of its time. I think the fact the designers have been able to put a modern take on that car is pretty special.
Describe the Ford GT race car in three words.
PLA: Impressive. Fast. Winning.
Mucke: Awesome racing machine!
TINCKNELL: Sexy. Smooth. Receptive.
JOHNSON: Gorgeous. Technical. Aerodynamic.
HAND: Sweet. Sexy. Cool.
MuLLER: The. Best. Ever.
BOURDAIS: History. Sexy. Efficiency.
Who has been your biggest rival in motorsport?
Mucke: Ferrari. If you look at the WEC races from the last few years when I was with Aston Martin, Ferrari was always the biggest rival. It looks like nothing has changed on that front but now it is Ford vs. Ferrari!
PRIAULX: I've had massive rivalries with Gabriele Tarquini in Touring Cars. He was a tough competitor. We're great friends now though. Interestingly I have had some great battles with Dirk Muller over the years in World Touring Cars. He lost three world titles to me (grins).
BRISCOE: It depends on the year and the situation. Antonio Garcia, he used to race me in go-karts (1997-late 1990s). I've not raced against him since then until now. (Garcia now races for Corvette).
What's the most frustrating experience you've had in motorsport?
Mucke: Losing the WEC championship in 2012 at the last race when our engine blew up.
TINCKNELL: Missing out on the LMP2 title last year. We were the quickest car, we won the most races, but we didn't win the championship due to a few little errors.
MuLLER: Winning Le Mans, being on top and driving home with the trophy by your side, then having your team manager tell you the car didn't pass tech!
BOURDAIS: (My biggest frustrations and disappointments have come) at Le Mans. Coming short three times and finishing second. That's tough to swallow. I think as far as disappointments go, these are equal — in 2001, when we were on the podium and blew up the engine with two hours until the end, and when we finished P2 with Peugeot in 2009. There was no way in any shape or form the race should've gotten away from us, and it did.
Who is your hero?
FRANCHITTI: Derek Bell. When I was a kid he was racing at Le Mans in the Rothmans Porsche and that left a huge impression on me. I met him at a Formula Ford race soon after that and I still have the photo. He's a great champion and a great guy.
TINCKNELL: Mika Hakkinen. Always has been and always will be since I was five years old. He was the reason I wanted to start karting. I was lucky enough to meet him in 2013 in Macau and they say you should never meet your heroes, but he was a top guy.
MuLLER: It's definitely Michael Schumacher. Not only is he a friend of mine, but the way he approached his racing weekends. Not purely the speed. How he made it through doubts and came back stronger. That really impressed me. He took every chance to get better. He'd be questioning everything.
WESTBROOK: I would say someone like Jacky Ickx, because he competed at the top in so many disciplines. Same with Dan Gurney. He won in everything. Also, what they did in the Ford in the 1960s was certainly impressive.
BOURDAIS: Only one, Senna. I was at an age when I could idolise someone and he was an inspiration to a lot of drivers. The charisma he had…it came through in what he was doing –approaching racing and the way he was driving.
What's your favourite Ford?
PLA: My yellow Mustang!
Mucke: It's a MK1 1973 Ford Capri. I bought it a few years ago and we have just finished restoring it. It is orange and has a 3-litre V6 engine. I had my first drive in it just before Spa and it was great!
JOHNSON: The 2016 Ford GT. It is an honour to be one of the test drivers for the road car and also the race car from the start. I love driving that car.
MuLLER: Focus RS as a street car. Ford GT as a race car.
Tell us something about you we don't know.
PLA: After a race meeting I like to go for a ride around the mountains at home on my Harley-Davidson. No need to push, just cruise.
TINCKNELL: If I'm not at a motor racing event you will more often than not find me at a horse racing event. My family has been involved in horse racing for the last 25 years. We have a stud farm where we breed our own race horses. We had a winner recently and that was a horse bred by my grandparents, trained and owned by us, so that was great. Going to the Cheltenham Festival each year is always a great experience. Le Mans is one of the biggest tests of man and machine and I think the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National are the biggest test of man and animal, so it's fantastic to be involved in both of those. Maybe one day when I stop racing I will get more involved in horse racing.
WESTBROOK: I stopped racing for six years. When I got to the final step below Formula 1 and I couldn't make that final step for whatever reason, I didn't really know where to turn.
BOURDAIS: I knew how to ride a motorcycle before I knew how to ride a bicycle. My dad taught me when I was two or three years old. He used to put me in front of him on his motorcycle and put my hands on the handlebars.