Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon have raced against each other in IndyCars more times than either would care to mention over the past decade, so it was only apt that from the extensive pool of Ford Team Ganassi drivers, it should be the two Antipodeans that find themselves sharing the No. 69 Ford GT at the 84th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
It will be Briscoe’s third and Dixon’s first experience of Le Mans, with third driver Richard Westbrook a comparative veteran of five Le Mans starts, four of which came with Corvette Racing.
Briscoe too has recent Corvette experience, having been part of the line-up that won back-to-back races at Daytona and Sebring last year. However, the Aussie failed to make the start at Le Mans last year after Jan Magnussen’s accident at the Porsche Curves, so was more than relieved to have safely qualified for the race, second in the GTE-Pro class behind team-mate Dirk Müller.
“We’re talking about the race on Friday, so I made it further than last year!” joked Briscoe, who raced two separate stints with Ganassi in IndyCar. “It’s quite different, at Corvette I came in as just the third driver where you need to get comfortable and we know what we’re doing, but here I’m one of the more experienced guys at Le Mans, even though I don’t have all that much experience here.
“Corvette are extremely experienced in this sort of racing, plus they were working with a car that was already proven. Here we’ve a brand new car and a team that’s never done Le Mans before, so we’re learning all the time about the little things like having to switch off the car during pitstops and re-firing it when you go.”
2009 Indy 500 winner Dixon may be new to Le Mans – and has only completed the equivalent of one race stint having missed the Test Day to compete in the Dual in Detroit at Belle Isle – but he does have significant pedigree in sportscar racing, having twice won the Daytona 24 Hours with Ganassi. He was also part of the line-up that finished fifth at the rain-affected Sebring 12 Hours earlier in the year.
— Scott Dixon (@scottdixon9) June 17, 2016
“I’m kind of the rookie out of the whole team, but I think it helps that I’ve worked with a lot of these guys for ten or fifteen years, whether it’s been the IndyCar or the sportscar programme,” Dixon told Racing.GT.
“Then you add Briscoe to it, he’s a team-mate and somebody that I’ve raced against for a very long time. Actually it’s similar with Richard, I’ve raced against him for the last three or four years at the Daytona 24 Hour, so it’s nice to have a lot of familiar people around and it definitely helps with the comfort zone.”
“In this form of racing, driving the car is the easy part, I think having good chemistry with your team, engineers and team-mates is always the most important thing,” Briscoe adds. “Scott’s the master of that, he’s an unbelievable team player and he was always my first pick to have on board with us in these long races.
“We know each other really well, respect each other a lot and that’s always very healthy where you’ve got to share the car. There’s no rivalry between Richard, myself and Scott, we’re not trying to outshine each other. The team chose us because they believe in us and they let us know that, which gives us confidence just to go out and focus on the important things.”
Yet while Ford are still in the very early stages of their programme, this mattered little during qualifying as the Blue Oval swept four out of the top five positions. This was despite the fact that they had never previously done a low-fuel qualifying simulation, so Briscoe didn’t actually know what times were possible until he crossed the timing beam with a 1:51.497.
“We’d had a tonne of yellows, so we’d done six or seven laps on used tyres – I was actually surprised that we did the laptime that we did,” he said. “I’d already given up on going for the pole and I was talking halfway through the lap just like ‘the tyres are dropping off’.
“We didn’t even have a predictive laptime, so I didn’t know where I was how fast I was going during the lap, then I crossed the line and I saw 51.4 and thought ‘shit, I think that’s pole!’
“I knew we had more in it and someone would go quicker if put new tyres on because the track was just getting faster. That was a good lap for the tyres we were on because they were pretty old at that point, but if we’d put another set of tyres, I would have given it a shot for sure!”
Of course, everybody knows that one lap pace will count for little in the ultimate endurance test that is Le Mans, not least Ford themselves.
“We’ve been working on the consistency as much as possible,” continues Briscoe. “What you want at Le Mans is to be able to double-stint tyres and not have to change every stint. I feel like we’re pretty good on tyres, but I don’t know exactly how we compare to other cars at the moment. I think we’re going to have to learn as we go in the race, just to see.”
Despite an unprecedented late change to the Balance of Performance that sees a reduction in boost pressure and an extra 10 kg added, simple maths suggests that with four cars entered, Ford must go into the race as something very close to, if not outright favourites. Dixon has been relishing every moment of his first taste of La Sarthe, but will this fairytale story have a happy ending?
“As a driver you just want to be close enough on times as quickly as possible which I think we did,” he said. “I’ve found it very enjoyable, my eyes are wide open and my ears are listening all the time trying to take in as much information as possible. It’s a lot of fun.”