Harry Tincknell always appeared destined for sportscar superstardom, but few expected that it would be in a GT car. James Newbold shares how the Devonshire lad got his feet under the table at Ford ahead of the marque’s four-car assault on the GTLM class at Daytona.
With Allan McNish steering his career, it seemed only natural that Harry Tincknell would follow in his mentor’s footsteps along the prototype racing path. So it proved – after a moderately successful spell in Formula 3, Tincknell promptly won the LMP2 class at Le Mans at his first attempt in 2014. That, combined with standout performances for Jota Sport in the ELMS, drew him to the attention of LMP1 returnees Nissan, boldly going where few had dared to go in the modern era with a radical front-engine, front-wheel-drive design.
However, it was soon apparent that all was not well in the Nismo camp and that their ambitious goals would require some significant reassessment. The GT-R LM’s unconventional weight distribution made it a tricky beast for the drivers to handle and suffered major teething troubles in testing, leaving the engineers in a race against time to have the car ready for the start of the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship.
Those hopes were dashed when a failed crash test forced Nissan to postpone their debut until Le Mans and even then, running a non-operational rear-axle hybrid system. Lugging all that extra weight down the Mulsanne meant they were barely faster than the LMP2s and although Tincknell’s car somehow made the finish, despite striking a tyre in the middle of the night, the GT-R LM never made another public appearance and was mothballed at the end of the season.
Two years after making his debut in sportscars, Tincknell was once again at something of a career crossroads. He had a deal to continue in the ELMS with Jota on the table for 2016, but it would not include the big one – Le Mans.
After weighing up his options with McNish, Tincknell took a leap into the unknown and agreed terms with Ford to contest the first three races of the WEC, including Le Mans. Despite initial concerns that he wouldn’t take to the nuances of GT racing, the 25-year-old didn’t take long to make an impression on the top brass – the initial deal was first extended until the end of the season, then carried over to 2017.
The door to prototypes remains open in future – having added the ELMS title last year to his bulging CV, he certainly won’t be short of suitors – but Ford is his number one priority for the time being.
“I must admit that was a little bit surprised at Ford’s interest – I’d done one race in the GT-R [in Blancpain] where I ended up in the pitwall, so it was a pleasant surprise,” he told Racing.GT.
“But George Howard-Chappell, Chip [Ganassi] and Larry Holt, they’re really top guys and they saw how much passion and hunger I had through it all. Oli Pla had come across from the Nissan programme as well and he said a few nice words to help me out. I managed to get the deal done initially for the first three races and I’ve not looked back since.
“There were a couple of options to do LMP2 in WEC and at one point I had to make a slightly tough call, but I’m so glad that the GTE option worked out and I’m very happy to be a part of this programme. When you go to meet some of the employees that work on the production line, they know all about the programme and Ford are really using the PR that they’re gaining from it to their advantage, which is a really nice thing for us because we’ve got a lot of support and that drives us on.”
Although the Nissan project will be remembered as a glorious failure, Tincknell found the experience to be a useful insight into life as part of a large manufacturer operation.
“I’m very grateful for everything I had at Nissan, because even though the result wasn’t what everyone hoped for, it still launched me into the professional world of motor racing. I think my status changed a little bit from up-and-coming youngster out of single-seaters to manufacturer driver,” he said.
“Regardless of results on the track, it was a very, very good thing for me and I learned a lot from working in a big team, working with 80 people instead of six or seven at Jota, or with Carlin in F3. That was a massive turning point in my career.
“Doing the two programmes in America [with Ganassi] and in Europe [with Multimatic], it’s certainly a little bit different, but at the same time a lot of the same principles of working in a big team, going to the manufacturing plants and meeting employees, sponsor days and all the rest of it are very similar.
“It didn’t work out for Nissan this time but I’m sure that next time it will. They were very good to me when it was announced that they wouldn’t be continuing in 2016, so I’m massively grateful for their willingness for me to pursue the Ford stuff.”
Preparation for the Ford’s return to Le Mans, 50 years on from the marque’s historic victory in 1966, was a far cry from the haphazard Nissan project. Tincknell stood on the podium in only the car’s second outing at Spa, so it was with much anticipation that he arrived at La Sarthe, a circuit ideally suited for the GT’s trick aerodynamics.
But after qualifying a promising fourth, fortunes took a turn for the worse when a gearbox problem was discovered on the dummy grid. Having joined the race late, the No. 67 Ford was primarily used as a guinea pig to test different tyres, brakes and downforce settings for the benefit of the lead No. 68 car (“what goes around comes around – Ford also won Le Mans in ‘67, so being in the No. 67 car maybe this year will be our year!”) but as Tincknell explains, it wasn’t a total waste of time from a personal standpoint either.
“With Ford, the car is less complicated to run and had fewer teething problems initially. The car was out testing and it had a lot more mileage on it than the Nissan ever did before we got to Le Mans,” he said. “We were already starting from a much higher playing field, so it was massive disappointment in the moment that we realised it would take half an hour to fix.
“But once I got into the race, it was just about doing the best job I could for the team and in preparing for the rest of the season, because it was only my first season of GTs. I was nervous before the first test about whether I could be as good in a GT as I have proven in a prototype and I was still on a massive learning curve there, so just to get nine hours of running in the car was still a huge benefit.”
The fruits of his diligence were finally borne in the Asian double-header, as Tincknell and Andy Priaulx swept the Fuji and Shanghai 6 Hours, the former after a close battle with team-mates Pla and Stefan Muecke, which Tincknell rates as the hardest win of his career.
Any doubts as to whether he could cut it in a GT car were now firmly extinguished.
“I spoke to Gary Watkins [esteemed sportscar journalist] post-race and he had a surprised look on his face, because from the outside you think ‘Ford 1-2, 30 odd seconds up the road from the nearest Ferrari, were you not just told to back off?’ but there were no team orders, it was literally flat out for the whole race, quali lap after quali lap,” he said.
“I don’t think the cars were ever separated by more than four or five seconds until Oli’s spin, most of the time less than that. The whole time we were absolutely pushing like hell. Stefan and Oli are formidable opposition, you just have to look at their CVs and what they’ve done in the past to know that and in Fuji they pipped us to pole by half a tenth, so we knew it was going to be super-close during the race. The other thing we didn’t know was if that would be our only opportunity of the year to win, because we’d kept the same BOP since Le Mans but the tracks hadn’t suited us since then, so to get the win was amazing.
“Andy and I work really well as a team together, he’s obviously got masses of experience and I’m the younger guy coming in, but we worked really well. He’s teaching me a lot about feedback, he’s absolutely amazing at that and we always seem to go forward on race setup during a race weekend. Obviously I’m young, I’m hungry, I want to show what I can do and at the same time I keep him on his toes, so together we push each other forward – long may it continue.”
The pair will be joined by Ganassi IndyCar racer Tony Kanaan for Tincknell’s first crack at the 24 Hours of Daytona next week, with all four Fords in action for the first time since Le Mans. Tincknell describes the circuit as “like Rockingham on steroids” and is encouraged by their form at the pre-event Roar test, but knows that the Blue Oval certainly won’t have it easy, with everybody keeping their cards close to their chests.
“I think the Roar went well, we had a good programme to work through and I’m confident that we’ll be competitive,” he said. “A lot of the experienced GT drivers have so many laps under their belts around there, so I had some catching up to do, but I posted some competitive times over the three days and can’t wait to mix it with the best in the world in the race.
“But you can never be too complacent as the field is so strong and you don’t know how much the other teams have left in the tank. All of the manufacturers were within 1 mph or so, so I expect speeds on the banking to be very similar in the race. There will definitely be a big fight with Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari, and I’m sure BMW have got more in the tank for race week, that’s for sure!”