REKINDLING A GT LOVE AFFAIR Ford is back in sportscar racing and Briton Andy Priaulx is part of the attack. By Matt James
here is a spring in Andy Priaulx’s step again. The three-time World Touring Car champion has joined the Ganassi-led Ford GT campaign and, after only three months with the programme, he knows big things are on the horizon.
“From the moment you walk in to the garage, you get a serious message of intent about this whole project,” says the Guernsey man, who had previously spent 15 years as a factory BMW driver. “I wouldn’t say it is a money-no-object programme, but you know there is a commitment and a determination. That is hugely exciting.”
Priaulx will make his race debut with the Ford Chip Ganassi operation at Silverstone, teaming up with Marino Franchitti and Harry Tincknell in one of the 3.5-litre turbocharged machines,
FORD GT:THE FIRST TIME ROUND
Borne out of Henry Ford II’S frustration at failing to buy Ferrari, Ford’s 1960s GT programme was not initially a success.
Although known widely as the GT40, there were myriad variations of the car, starting with the British-based Ford Advanced Vehicles-built 4.2-litre GT of 1964. Aerodynamically unstable at first, the Ford led on its Le Mans debut but all three entries retired.
While FAV and John Wyer worked to cure the problems, Ford started looking into the possibility of using a seven-litre engine in a new version, which would become known as the MKII.
Wyer soon lost the works project to Us-based Carroll Shelby, though continued to develop and build the smallerengined cars. Against a limited field and with a revamped 4.7-litre machine, the Shelby squad won the Daytona Continental, but thereafter things did not go well.
Shortly before Le Mans in 1965, the decision was thus made to run the relatively untried MKII. Once again, Ford set the pace. And broke, leaving Ferrari to win.
An incensed Henry Ford II upped the ante and the programme became a money-noobject exercise, the MKII being developed further. Finally Ford started winning, taking the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours in 1966.
The death of Walt Hansgen at the pre-le Mans test was a blow, but Ford still arrived at the 24 Hours as favourite, with eight MKIIS – run by Shelby, Holman Moody and Alan Mann Racing – ranged against just two four-litre works Ferraris. It was no contest and Ford finished 1-2-3.
Development of the MKII continued alongside that of the new J-car. This would become the MKIV, a more sophisticated and lighter car than the previous models.
Miles was killed in a J-car testing accident, but a new car nevertheless looked needed when Ferrari unleashed the 330 P4 and filled the podium at Daytona. The MKIV arrived for Sebring and easily won on its debut, so four – plus three MKIIBS – travelled to Le Mans.
Although Ford again made the running, a series of mishaps, including a crash that eliminated three cars, meant Ferrari remained in contention. But Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt kept their Shelby MKIV together to take victory.
The big bangers were banned for 1968 and Ford withdrew, but that was not the end. The MKI remained eligible as a ‘production’ sportscar.
With the crack JWA Gulf squad running 4.9-litre cars, Ford battled Porsche for the 1968 title. And snatched success thanks to Le Mans victory by Pedro Rodriguez/ Lucien Bianchi.
Porsche’s 908 outclassed the ageing GT40S in 1969, but there was still time for two more enduro successes. Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver won at Sebring after the Porsches broke, while Ickx defeated Hans Herrmann’s 908 in one of the closest Le Mans finishes of all time to end the Ford GT’S first era on a high.
Publicity stunts are nothing new. Sports events have thrived on them for decades. A big name doing something unusual drives public interest, creates social media storms and also has the potential to introduce an event or an activity to a new audience.
Nissan is no stranger to PR stunts. Neither is Sir Chris Hoy. However, after just a few minutes in the company of Britain’s most successful Olympian, you realise his deal to contest this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours with the Algarve Pro Racing LMP2 team is far from a soulless PR gig. Hoy will start his season in the European Le Mans Series opener at Silverstone this weekend, handling the team’s Ligier JS P2 alongside Briton Michael Munemann and Andrea Pizzitola.
The six-time Olympic Gold medallist, and 11-time world champion, is now a fully fledged racing driver. Hoy knows this sport. But more importantly, he loves it.
Had it not been for his ultra successful cycling career, Hoy would have strapped himself into a competition car years ago. The 40-year-old is keenly aware of the cynicism that has surrounded his motorsport career, and knows some will look upon his Le Mans debut as a sheer marketing exercise. But it is far more important to him than that.
“I’m acutely aware of how lucky I am to be given these chances,” says Hoy. “The general media can see it as a PR stunt and say ‘yeah we’ll make a big thing of it now, but there will probably be an excuse somewhere down the line and he’ll never actually do it’. In my mind there has never been a chance that I wouldn’t do this because I want it so badly.
“I’ve always loved motorsports. When I was six I got a Scalextric kit and I remember asking my dad why one of the cars had lights on it. He said it was because it was a Le Mans car and it had to race through the night. From that moment on I’ve been aware of and followed Le Mans. It’s the greatest race in the world and it feels surreal that I’ll be on the grid with the best drivers and teams in the world in just a few weeks.”
Hoy took his first steps towards motorsport by indulging in track days in 2008. His cycling career was winding down and, after his retirement from competition in 2013, Hoy found himself with spare time and a hunger to try something new.
He signed up to the Radical SR1 Cup that year as a total novice. At the time he was keen to point out his move wasn’t a replacement for his cycling career. It was done because Hoy wanted to keep racing in some capacity in something he enjoyed.
Since then there have been campaigns in British GT with a Nissan GT-R GT3 in 2014, and last year yielded the inaugural LMP3 drivers’ title alongside Charlie Robertson in the ELMS.
Hoy’s outlook on his racing has changed as the levels have become increasingly professional. It’s become a bigger and bigger part of his life, but he says it will never totally replace cycling. Hoy still actively mentors the next generation of Team GB track cycling athletes.
“Motorsport isn’t a replacement for cycling because I can’t do it seven days a week,” he says. “Cycling used to be all I did, all day every day; motorsport can’t be that. It is a big part of my life, but it’s not everything in my life. When I put my helmet on it is everything for those moments, but when I’m not in the car I have other concerns and commitments too [Hoy also has a range of childrens’ books and his own bicycle range].
“One of the joys of motorsport is the fact that I got to become a rookie again. I went from being at the very top of a sport, and when you’re there the scope for improvement is so marginal – we’re talking finding 0.050 seconds over a four-year gap between Olympics. But when you go into something totally new the improvements are much easier to find and you see genuine progress with every session. That’s been one of the most gratifying aspects for me.”
Hoy says his experience of competing at the highest level in cycling has given him transferable skills for motorsport: “There are advantages from my cycling that some drivers may not benefit from. Simple things, like mental preparation. The biggest thing is being able to focus on the things you can control and block out the stuff you can’t.
“For example, you can’t barrel into a corner at Le Mans, find your reference point and then think ‘hang on there’s a bloody great wall over there, what if I get this wrong, what if a wheel falls off right now?’ You have to simplify things and worry only about what you control. We all get nervous and have doubts. I had the exact same feelings before I raced bikes, that mixture of nerves, adrenaline, anticipation and often doubt. But you learn not to dwell on them or engage with them and not let them affect your performance. In a way that feeling is nice, because I never thought I’d experience it again after I retired from cycling.”
Hoy’s ELMS campaign last year was the perfect learning ground for his Le Mans attack. The time in the Ginetta-nissan LMP3 helped him adapt to prototypes after the GT-R.
“I find the prototype much more intuitive to drive,” Hoy explains. “The GT cars were quite unpredictable for me, purely as it’s a different style of driving. I’d gone from this little 500kg Radical to a 1300kg GT-R. I was smashing the brakes and waiting for the ABS to do its thing before getting going again and I found it quite difficult to read what the car was doing.
“With the prototypes it’s real fingertip stuff. It’s very physical but the car communicates what’s going on to you better. Maybe it’s because I started in Radicals, which have little downforce and move about a lot, like a go-kart. But when you drive the LMP2, correctly, it does what you want it to and you feel more connected to it on the limit.
“Le Mans will be a huge challenge. I got a taste of it when I drove the test day in the LMP3 last year. The car wasn’t much faster than the GT cars and a lot slower than the LMP2S, so you drove in the mirrors a lot and it was quite daunting as the sheer speed and grip of the LMP1S coming past you is insane. They’re on a different plant. With the LMP2 you’re more in the mix and can look forwards more.”
Hoy has also picked out some of the key things to work on for June: “Handling traffic will be crucial. It’s about understanding the principles and being very clear what you’re doing. If there’s a P1 car behind you, you stick to your line until it’s past you. Or if you’re going for a corner you have to commit and go for it and be very clear with your intentions on-track. There’s undoubtedly a lot of work to do between now and Le Mans, but I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t feel ready for it.” ■