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Ford vs. Chevy Reheats On Roads Of Le Mans

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 15 2017

Corvette Racing will attempt to return to the poidum at Le Mans this weekend.

Kind of like the old days, eh? Ford vs. Chevy on the Big Stage. Except now, the Fords and Chevys are sports cars and are racing on a road circuit in Europe with mixes of foreign drivers behind the wheels of cars that are only nominally Fords and Chevys.

Still, a major point of interest for American road racing fans at this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans should be the C7.Rs vs. the GTs in the GTE Pro class at the 85th running of the world’s most important sports car race.

For the whole of the current century, Corvette Racing has been the top hope for American marques in the top GT categories at Le Mans. And eight times in 16 years, the team’s cars took top honors in those classes.

During those years, Corvettes’ chief competition came from foreign automakers like Ferrari, BMW, Aston Martin and Porsche.

It was kind of fun for the Corvetteers and their fans to beat those iconic automakers on their own side of the Atlantic.

“There is nothing like seeing our drivers on the top of the podium,” Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing program manager said, “watching the American flag go up and hearing our National Anthem play when we achieve our goals at Le Mans.”

But it all lacked the Yank vs. Yank component.

Until, that is, Ford decided to jump back into big time sports car racing by launching its GT

Ford GTs took Le Mans by storm last year. They’re going back for more this weekend.

program for the 2016 season. With Indycar/NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi at the helm, Ford GTs took the track first at the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. Then it was off to Sebring and finally that year, Le Mans.

For the race at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Ganassi and Ford took no chances as they entered four cars in the 34. The effort and logistics paid off with two podium finishes including the occupation of the top step of that podium.

“It was pretty incredible to win in an American car, for an American team owner like Chip Ganassi,” Joey Hand, who, along with co-drivers Sebastien Bourdais of France and Dirk Mueller of German, got the victory.

The much-hyped storyline for Ford’s return to Le Mans centered on the 50th anniversary of Ford GT 40s taking on and beating the hated factory Ferrari team headed by the loathed Enzo Ferrari.

Ford vs. Chevy became the most distant of subplots last year. It was Ford beating the Ferrari 488 of Risi Competizione, which finished second.

This year, with the Ford vs. Ferrari thing dealt with, Chevy vs. Ford becomes elevated.

Especially after last year’s Le Mans race – a race in which the Corvette C7.Rs finished seventh and 10th (DNF).

Both Chevy and Ford has something to prove this weekend.

For Chevy, it’s that 2016 was just a burp. “The further away you get from your last win at Le Mans,” Corvette driver Antonio Garcia said, “the more you want to win it again. It seems like a long time ago since my last win in 2011. Since those years, we had quite a few opportunities to win it; in 2014 we had a very good chance and finished second. Our main focus is to be up there and have a chance at the end.”

The team will once again bring two C7.Rs to France. The No. 63 Corvette will be driven by Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Jordan Taylor. The No. 64 will be driven by Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fassler.

Milner said, “There’s no doubt that if you don’t win Le Mans, the desire to win the next year gets even stronger. You kind of mentally ramp up for the race in the weeks before; you replay Le Mans in your head from the year before and from years past. That’s something I’ve done though my career… analyze what I’ve done and isolate the areas where I’ve not been strong and work on those for the next year. You don’t want to repeat mistakes if you’re in contention Sunday for a win.”

Ford, once again, will blitz Le Mans with four GTs. Two of them – the Nos. 66 and 67 machines – regularly compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship and are based in the U.K.

The other two, which usually wear Nos. 66 and 67 in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, will be carrying Nos. 68 and 69 at Le Mans. The No. 69 lineup is the same as it was a year ago with Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon sharing the ride. In the 68, Bourdais, who was injured in Indianapolis 500 qualifying, will be replaced by Tony Kanaan.

Ford’s impetus? Do it again.

“Everyone from all four of our car crews are looking forward to being back at Le Mans to defend last year’s win,” said team owner Ganassi. “It is always nice to compete when you know that you have four quality chances to win an historic event like the Le Mans 24 Hours. We had a fantastic 2016 with the Ford GT and we look to make 2017 even better.”

Looking to make the GT Pro race a Yank vs. Yank vs. Yank affair will be the No. 82 Ferrari 488 of  the Houston, Texas-based Rizi Comp team. This year the car will be driven by regulars Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. They will be joined by Pierre Kaffer.

“The BoP (balance of performance rules) for this event so far has all the players very close,” Risi race engineer Rick Mayer said. “There are no weak cars, teams or drivers in this class. This race has the potential to again be decided by a few seconds at the end of 24 hours. It will be more than just Ferrari vs Ford, the entire GTE-Pro field is super competitive.”

Their car is brand new but has been tested.

“We ran the car as it was delivered for the Pre-test,” Mayer said. “Between the test and the race week the crew went through the car and gearbox to alter, adjust and change various items to our preferences; pretty much every nut, bolt, hose, and wire was touched. The car was disassembled and reassembled, we are happy with the build of the car and confident for the race.”

On Thursday, Garcia put the No. 63  Corvette C7.R on the second row in the class, and Tommy Milner’s best lap in the No. 64 assured that both cars will be in the thick of the fight in this weekend’s twice-around-the-clock endurance classic.

Garcia’s best lap was a 3:51.484 (131.731 mph) lap in the opening moments of Thursday’s final session. The No. 63 Corvette, which also will see Magnussen and Taylor driving, finished qualifying just 0.647 seconds off the pole-winning car. Garcia and Magnussen arrived at Le Mans with the championship lead in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Le Mans class with two victories including the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Milner’s best lap was a 3:52.017 (131.420 mph) in the car he shares with Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fässler. Their gap to the front was relatively small considering the enormity of the track – about 8.5 miles in length.

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The 24 Hours of Le Mans starts at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday, June 17. FOX Sports and Radio Le Mans will offer live coverage throughout the race.

FOX Sports 24 Hours of Le Mans schedule (all times ET and subject to change):

·         June 17 – FS1 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM

·         June 17 – FS2 1:00 PM to 1:00 AM (June 18)

·         June 17 – FS1 1:00 AM to 9:30 AM (June 18)

o   The entire race is streamed live on FOX Sports GO

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 15 2017
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