Richard Westbrook says Ford’s number one priority for 2017 will be improving their durability after a successful first season for the GT across both sides of the Atlantic.
Westbrook and team-mate Ryan Briscoe won three times on their way to second in the IMSA Sportscar Championship, while team-mates Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand were victorious at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The car has also enjoyed success in the FIA World Endurance Championship, where Harry Tincknell and Andy Priaulx led home the Blue Oval’s second 1-2 finish in as many races last weekend in Shanghai.
However, while Westbrook needs no convincing of the GT’s pace, he explained that its vulnerability to contact is an Achilles heel that Ford is determined to address.
“Performance-wise we’re really good, but it’s no secret that our car is quite delicate – it’s probably more designed for WEC in mind where there’s less contact,” he told Racing.GT. “I think we can toughen up the car, that’s what the guys are doing over the winter. You see the Corvette go straight on into the wall at Turn 1 in Sebring, then reverse out and drive back to the pits – we’re not in a position where we can do that just yet.
“What we need to do is make the car raceable in America, where the tracks are a lot harder on the car and obviously there’s a lot more contact. That’s something we can improve on, but performance-wise we haven’t got much to worry about. We’ve all got to bear with that horrible thing called BOP but it is what it is – all you can do is keep improving your car.”
After a difficult baptism at Daytona, Westbrook was delighted with the progress made through the year by the Ford-Chip Ganassi Racing alliance and pleasantly surprised to find himself in championship contention until the final round at Petit Le Mans, when a damaged waste-gate pipe cost him, Briscoe and Scott Dixon several laps.
— Ryan Briscoe (@Ryan_Briscoe) October 2, 2016
In the end, third was enough for his former Corvette Racing team-mates Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner to secure their first title in IMSA competition, but Westbrook argues that there is no shame in Ford losing out to such an experienced outfit as Pratt and Miller in their first year.
“It’s difficult to really sum [the season] up with one emotion because it was a bit of a rollercoaster,” he said. “It started off so badly and then we had a really good mid-part of the season either side of Le Mans, which really catapulted us into a championship-winning position.
“I think when you’ve got a real shot at winning the championship in the last few rounds and you come away not winning it, you always leave disappointed. But if I really look at it properly and say ‘this is where we came from at Daytona’ with all the problems we had there, a brand new car and a brand new programme, racing against the likes of Pratt & Miller, Porsche and Risi, we should all be really proud to come second.
“Honestly I think it did exceed expectations. It’s difficult for me to speak for the guys above, but I thought it would be a long shot to be fighting for the championship. If you’d said to me at the start of the year that you’ll be going to Petit Le Mans with a very good chance of winning the championship, just us and the Corvette, I would have taken that definitely! We’ll get our heads down over the winter and come back even stronger.”
As their relative championship positions suggest, Westbrook and Briscoe were most often the stronger of the two Fords in IMSA. While Mueller and Hand went winless, Westbrook and Briscoe swept Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Mosport, although Westbrook suggests that the reality was much more equal.
— Richard Westbrook (@RWestbrook1) July 4, 2016
“All the drivers have done a really good job and we’re all pretty much evenly matched, but what we’ve found with this car is it’s very sensitive,” he said. “It’s got quite a small operating window and it’s easy to fall out of that operating window, so sometimes we got it right, sometimes they got it right.
“Over the course of the year, I think we seemed to have a good championship run but don’t forget the No. 66 car showed really good pace in America as well, they maybe seemed to have a few more issues that set them back. At Le Mans they were on fire, I have to say. They were the standout car all weekend and they thoroughly deserved to win – it’s not as though me, Ryan and Scott can say we had the victory snatched from us.
“On balance I think both sides of the garage can be really happy. We take heart from the fact that we had such a good championship year and obviously they can take heart from the fact that they won the big one. I think it’s a good situation, everyone goes into the winter feeling pretty happy with themselves.”