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Marshall Pruett Takes A Look Inside Ford’s Driver Selection Process For 2016

The Chip Ganassi Racing-Ford combination is less than three months away from phasing out its single-car Ford EcoBoost DP effort in IMSA’s Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Ford’s Prototype will make way for its new GT chassis, and with the transition from a single DP to four GTs, the CGR-Ford sports car program is about to go on an epic hiring spree.

With two Ford GT’s committed to IMSA’s GT Le Mans class and two more for the World Endurance Championship’s GTE-Pro category, drivers from every series imaginable have lobbied for one of the prized factory seats.

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Doing the math, the pair of IMSA Ford GTs will require four full-time drivers and at least two additional drivers for the longer races on the schedule. They’ll have the same needs in the WEC where four full-timers across two cars and two more for the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be sought.

That’s eight openings for season-long drives with four more enduro slots to fill, and the sheer volume of driving opportunities presented has given Chip Ganassi and CGR managing director Mike Hull plenty of impressive names to choose from. According to Hull, the championship-winning team will follow a familiar pattern while paring down the list of candidates to find their 12.

“We’ve always relied on Chip (below at the Le mans press conference launching the programme), first of all, to look the candidate in the eye and see the intangible that is there.

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“He is such a great talent scout when it comes to that. That has a lot to do with the decisions we do make about drivers that drive our racecars in any series. Over the years that intangible element has made a difference for us.”

Before Ganassi gets to his final decisions, the CGR-Ford program will filter candidates through a set of criteria it feels will provide the best shot to win at Le Mans.

“First, the driver has to have the spirit of cooperation,” Hull continued. “They have to define what a teammate truly is. Then, to me, it’s someone who excels in an ego driven environment, but is humble. The king of ego won’t last in our system. They have to be absolutely unselfish and they have to be willing to give to their teammates, to give in their discussions with the engineers, and give all they’ve got on the racetrack. Anyone who thinks they’re going to become the center of our universe doesn’t understand how Chip Ganassi Racing works.”

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There’s no need for Hull to mention the need for raw speed and refinement, it’s a given. Decades of working with fighters like Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya, Dario Franchitti, and Scott Dixon has brought another element to the driving game that CGR-Ford will use to narrow its GT roster.

“And third, and this isn’t necessarily ranked below the other priorities, they have to be a closer,” Hull declared. “We want drivers who’ve proven wherever they have driven before that they know how to close the deal. Because you can have the greatest race organization in the world with the greatest resources, the greatest people, the greatest management, the greatest owner, the greatest sponsors, and if you have to teach somebody how to close the deal in that defining moment of the race, it’s very difficult to build that within them. Let’s face it; many drivers are capable of winning, but not all are capable of racing and willing their way to victory. Demonstrating they’ve raced and won under intense pressure is a trait we’re looking for.”

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first win at Le Mans, and with that milestone in mind, the auto giant commissioned the new IMSA/WEC GT program as the vehicle to bring the Blue Oval back to La Sarthe.

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Ford will also pursue respective GTLM and GTE championships during the two-year GT project, but when it comes to clearing CGR-Ford’s final hurdles, a lack of character or experience at the legendary 24-hour race could eliminates some of the hopefuls.

“A manufacturer wants somebody who can do all of those things I’ve mentioned plus represent them extremely well on and off the racetrack,” Hull said. “If you’re representing us, or a manufacturer, having integrity is a given.

“If we’re lucky enough to find drivers that meet all those requirements, and have already raced in this category, whether it be in WEC or IMSA, we’re into the bonus round. To have already gone to Le Mans and raced there is another important step. Any team embarking on a new venture is looking to keep the learning process as short as possible. It makes going to Le Mans for the first time as a team with a group of drivers who’ve never been there an extraordinarily tough situation to overcome.”

Hull estimates at least 40 drivers have lobbied for a Ford GT job. The majority of the world’s best drivers are currently employed, and between those who’ve come to CGR-Ford looking for a change in 2016, and the drivers CGR-Ford placed on their preferred shopping list, Hull has been busy navigating their options.

“We’ve had a lot of quality come to us from inside the GT category, and from outside in open-wheel, and I’d say all of them have been of the highest quality,” he explained. “We haven’t had anyone inquire that lacked the credentials. It’s almost been self-policed. I think they understand who we are and what we expect for serious consideration. And from our end, we’ve never been about going to the ends of the earth to pull a driver from their current situation.

“When we talk to a driver, if they say they already have a contract, that’s fine. We just have to go on to the next driver. If there’s a window of opportunity to hire them for the future, we’re going to sit down and talk to them.”

CGR and Ford, along with Multimatic, which will run the WEC program under the CGR-Ford banner, will continue to whittle down the list until they’ve built their ultimate driving squad.

“First, if we take IMSA, we would want to have four really good race drivers permanently driving for us that are supported by two additional drivers that are long-distance drivers to fill out what we need to do,” Hull said. “So we have made a list based on priority of who we would like to hire, which then allows us, let’s say, we’ll talk to number one, number two, number three, number four, number five, right down the list, based on what we think is important and what Ford thinks is important.

“It’s a two-way street here. We have to have the manufacturer and Chip Ganassi Racing aligned on the important nature of the drivers on the list and how we define that priority together.”

With their list in place, CGR-Ford has been busy behind the scenes, and with their first Ford GT due to arrive in six weeks – around the same time the IndyCar season concludes – Hull says there’s no rush to sign its complete fleet of sports car drivers.

scott-pruett“Well, we do have a list of drivers that can drive our cars for us,” he remarked. “We have Scott Pruett (pictured watching the Le mans press conference) and Joey Hand that can do a lot of the testing while their TUDOR Championship season is still active. The IndyCar race season ends on August 30, and guess what? We’re going to get a car delivered to us around that time.

Between our IndyCar drivers, many of whom have extensive sports car experience, and our sports car drivers, we’re going to have a car and we’re going to go testing with an incredible group of people.”

Adding CGR-Ford’s full catalog of new drivers to the testing program will have to wait until their respective racing seasons have concluded.

“We’re more than happy to work on the additional drivers that we will need in 2016 while they fulfill their agreements, and we’ll be ready for them when they step into a car to start testing for us when their seasons are over,” Hull confirmed. “Our intention is to run quite a bit of durability and longer distance running along with tuning to get our cars right to start at Daytona in January.”

The low-slung Ford GT could hinder taller drivers from earning a contract, but the car’s cockpit won’t require pint-sized jockeys.

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“We were talking about that the other day and we were joking a little bit,” Hull said with a laugh. “We were thinking about getting a limbo pole and figuring out who could get under it. The reality is the cockpit is fairly accommodating. We won’t worry so much about the height, we’re going to worry more about the first part of that list, that one, two, three, four part criteria to see how those guys then fit into our categories, and then secondarily fit into the cockpit.”

With CGR-Ford’s selection formula fairly well defined, one final topic – the possibility of grooming young drivers in a testing role – was discussed by Hull. If next-generation drivers play a part in the Ford GT program, it will likely have to wait until the 2016 season is in the books.

“When you have an experienced driver in the car like Joey Hand or Scott Pruett or anybody else of that caliber, they are going to be fast when they drive the car but they’re going to give you the kind of feedback that you need in a category of racing that is absolutely carnivorous,” he said.

“If we plug a young guy into the car, it’s a lot easier if it’s someone like Sage Karam who is fully developed. But when you’re trying to develop a car, develop the tires with Michelin, develop the engine and drivetrain, suspension tuning, electronics mapping…you’re not helping the program by also trying to develop a driver alongside those needs.

“You’d love to have three or four drivers from Indy Lights or elsewhere to groom, but I don’t think you have the luxury of doing that at this early point in the program. We’re confident in the direction we’ve chosen for hiring drivers, and we won’t rule out working with some of the kids coming up in the sport, but the timing, at least at present, has us focused on the ones who’ve been through the wars and shown they can get the job done in the ways we need.”

Marshall Pruett