He almost certainly isn’t the biggest name in Ford’s crack FIA World Endurance Championship line-up. Indeed, he’s a Le Mans rookie who has spent the duration of his career racing in the US, achieving the majority of his success in the Continental Tyre Sportscar Challenge series for production-based models, but 29-year old Billy Johnson might just be the shrewdest addition to a squad bursting at the seams with internationally-recognised talent.
The only American driver on the team’s WEC programme and one of only two – Joey Hand being the other – who will race the car on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s 1-2-3 finish in 1966, Johnson brings more than just his Californian charm and a bit of old school patriotism to the programme.
With experience of developing every type of Ford product – including the GT – and an intricate knowledge of the Blue Oval’s preferred working methods, Johnson is a vital link to Ford’s other motorsport arms and build partners in a team that was ostensibly put together from the ground up. In short, Johnson is the essential company man, and now has his chance to shine on the big stage.
“I’ve been driving for Multimatic for a few years now racing the Mustangs and also helping to develop the GT350R-C together with Scott Maxwell, who is a really decorated driver and has been with Multimatic since the beginning. That’s been whole bunch of fun, but then to have that transition to being a part of the Ford GT race car has been fantastic,” said Johnson, who will share with Stefan Mucke and Olivier Pla.
“This is an exciting time for Ford and it’s been a blast to be involved in so many different aspects of Ford products from race cars to street cars and I’m very thankful to have been a part of this programme from the testing on to these first three races.
“Everybody involved is at the top of their game from the engineers to the mechanics and everybody up to the executive level – Chip Ganassi’s resume speaks for itself. It’s a great environment, great bunch of people and the product is reflecting that.”
Johnson has had to knuckle down and scrap to get to this point. From humble beginnings in Formula BMW USA – where he raced against the likes of James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Tommy Milner and new team-mate Hand – Johnson set about making a name for himself in the SportsCar Challenge series, which opened doors to race with Ford Performance royalty Jack Roush in select NASCAR road course outings. There, he earned the ire of Max Papis and went toe-to-toe with the best in the business, leaving Roush suitably impressed. In 2013, he entered Johnson into his first ever oval race at Loudon, New Hampshire, where Johnson kept his head above water and ran competitively in the lead pack before finishing on the lead lap.
By his own admission, it’s a world far removed from the World Championship of sportscar racing, but it certainly served its purpose – after the sink or swim experience of pack racing at Loudon, Johnson isn’t fazed by the prospect of tackling Eau Rogue or the Porsche Curves for the first time.
“Until the last restart I was the lead Ford, the lead Roush car and the three other people making their X-finity debut at that time all went laps down, so that was really neat,” Johnson recalls. “Actually the GT350 that I race in the Continental Tyre Series is heavier than a stock car and it’s on smaller tyres, which makes a very unique formula for a race car. It’s a completely different world to the Ford GT and the GTE series, which is about the pinnacle of sportscar racing.
“Being the only American is a huge honour, it’s a really big deal and definitely there were a bunch of drivers worldwide and especially Americans who were fighting for this opportunity. There had been some conversations and possibilities, but with the magnitude of the programme being as huge as it is, nothing was set in stone. I was just doing everything I could on the development side and when it was announced, I was blown away.”
— Ford Performance (@FordPerformance) May 4, 2016
Ford aren’t hanging around with their latest creation, which last weekend took a first competition victory at Laguna Seca with Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe, less than 12 months after it first turned a wheel in testing. Johnson’s feedback on the car is overwhelmingly positive and whilst its BoP in the WEC has so far been unfavourable, Johnson is confident that the fundamentals are in place for the car to deliver the results Ford craves.
“There’s a learning curve to the development of any brand new car, it doesn’t matter what it is, there’s going to be teething problems and learning processes that go along with it, but right from the get go, the first time I drove the car it was just fantastic to drive,” he said.
“It was a friendly, good-handling car that doesn’t have quirks or weird stuff going on, and that’s very important. Beyond that, it’s the typical development; there has been a lot of progress and learning things on the car, seeing what works and what doesn’t work, what it likes and generally making things more reliable and faster.
“But the important thing is that the car is inherently a fantastic piece of engineering. So far it’s been a great ride with Ford and I’m enjoying every moment of it.”