Of course, the team made up for that with a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of the race victory of the original Ford GT, and put together a solid 2016 season in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
For the 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona, Ford and Ganassi are serious about winning. How serious? Not only did they bring the two U.S.-based cars – the Le Mans-winning No. 66, and the team car, No. 67 – they brought the two Europe-based Ford GTs, No. 68 and No. 69.
And it appears they are ready for the challenge, qualifying first, second, third and sixth in the 11-car field Thursday afternoon.
On the pole was the No. 66 driven by Joey Hand, one of the drivers who won at Le Mans. “We feel like we’re more prepared this year,” he said. And how does he feel about the fact that his central competition may be his three teammates? “Well,” he said, “you just want to be the fastest bullet in the gun!” Hand’s best lap was 1:43.473 seconds, just ahead of Richard Westbrook’s 1:43.704 in the No. 67. Third was Olivier Pla in the No. 68, whose best lap was 1:43.987. Pla’s best lap was on the fourth tour around the circuit, which was lucky, as he later spun off the track and sat in the grass for most of the session.
Fourth was the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, with a lap of 1:44.121 by Toni Vilander. He said he well realizes the challenge the Ford contingent presents, but says, “We have a strong lineup of drivers, and we’re looking forward to the race. We won Petit Le Mans last year,” referring to the WeatherTech Championship 10-hour season finale at Road Atlanta, “And everything we have is the same or better. We’re the lonely riders – the only Ferrari in the class.”
The GT Le Mans class is mechanically much the same as it was in 2016, with one major exception. The No. 911 and No. 912 Porsche 911 RSRs run by the Porsche GT Team are all-new, with the most significant change being a shift from the traditional 911 rear-engine configuration to more of a mid-engine layout.
The rest of the cars – the Ford GT, Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, BMW M6 GTLM and the Ferrari 488 GTE are expected to benefit from having at least a year of competition behind them.
The Porsches were quick, but not quick enough: Patrick Pilet was fifth in the No. 911 car, and Kevin Estre was eighth in class in the No. 912.
In GT Daytona, it was Ferrari, Ferrari and Aston Martin. The front row in the class will be the No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3, courtesy of Alessandro Pier Guidi, whose best lap was 1:47.099. “Ferrari and the team did a great job for me,” Pier Guidi. “I’m here for them.” He was not able to make pre-season testing at Daytona, so the pole win was impressive.
Close behind – very close, in fact – was the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Alessandro Balzan who, with co-driver Christina Nielsen, won the 2016 WeatherTech Championship season GTD title. The veteran Balzan’s best lap was 1:47.117, which he set in a Hail-Mary last lap that nearly earned him the top spot. “Scuderia Corsa gave me a really good car for qualifying, Balzan said. “There’s a good energy here for the team.”
Third was the No. 98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage, driven by Marco Sorensen to a lap of 1:47.734. His Aston Martin was followed by the No. 59 Porsche 911 GT3 R driven by Matteo Cairoli, the No. 11 Lamborghini Huracán of Christian Engelhart, and the No. 29 Audi R8 LMS GT3 piloted by Connor De Phillippi.
The new Michael Shank Racing Acura NSXs were seventh and ninth. The similarly new 3GT Racing Lexus RCFGT3s were 13th and 20th. And the three Mercedes AMG GT3s – while not an all-new car, are new to the GT Daytona class – were 18th, 19th and 24th in the field of 27 entries.