Racing against the clock: Onboard with Ford at Le Mans 2017
In a world with hybrid technology, autonomous racing cars and all-electric racing series, Le Mans is still one of the most important, relevant and prestigious events in the motorsport calendar. Since 1923, it’s been a race that brands want to win, and in the 1960s a fierce rivalry developed between Ford and Ferrari at the Circuit de la Sarthe. In 66 and a year after in 67, it succeeded, and half a century on, Ford wanted to repeat that feat at the 2017 race.
In the end it wasn’t to be, with Ford’s Harry Tincknell coming second after a race that saw the Ford team struggle through extreme heat, tricky regulations and the small matter of 24 hours of flat-out racing. Ford invited Alphr to join the team for the entire weekend, and I observed everything from its preparation to the way it operated in the race itself.
Battling the Balance of Performance
I spoke to two hugely important members of the Ford team, Harry Tincknell, one of the drivers, and Dave Pericak, director of Ford Performance. And on the Friday before the race, he wasn’t that confident of the team’s chances. The reason? The balance of performance.
One of the best things about the GTE Pro class Ford that races in is the sheer variety between entries and the close competition between the teams. However, this doesn’t happen by accident: it involves a complex set of fluid regulations called the Balance of Performance (BoP). Designed to level the field for exciting closing racing, it involves each team submitting data then receiving a set of regulations it has to follow. In theory, every car is balanced by the end of it.
However, Pericak tells Alphr that Ford has been dealt a rather harsh hand by the BoP. “No-one likes BoP – the only guy that likes BOP is the guy that wins the race,” he says. “Some of it I don’t even think is calculation. Last year’s race was very close, as you know, so they said ‘hey, what a great race. We’re going to take Ford and Ferrari and we’re going to set the BoP for Le Mans at the end of last year because it was such a close race’. And that didn’t happen.”
In the Balance of Performance calculated specifically for the Le Mans race, the Ford GT had 20kg of ballast added, and also lost 10kW of turbo-boost pressure. That meant it would be slower on the straights, and on the corners too.
“Both of those together are significant hits to us, and that’s why you see us performing where you are right now. It would’ve been big enough to put 20kg on us, let alone take the boost away,” says Pericak. “We came in[to] this last year being the lightest car, and now we’re the heaviest car with the least amount of boost – and that’s a fact.”
Making the best of it
Motorsport is often about balancing different factors, and Le Mans is no different. Less downforce gives a higher top speed, and because the Circuit de la Sarthe has one of the largest straights of any track, the gains can be huge. However, the more downforce you take off, the slower the car is on the medium-to-fast corners.
“There’s not much we can do other than work on our setups a bit and see if we can’t get the guys to push a little harder,” says Pericak. “But at some point we’re taking so much downforce off to go fast, the cars are becoming undriveable. So it’s just trying to find that balance and go as fast as we can.”
“[The drivers will] be in the edge the whole time. We’re pushing the limits of their ability to keep the car on the ground,” adds Pericak. “There’s also a zone where you can take wing off, and go ultimately faster theoretically, but because the driver confidence isn’t there you end up going close. So then you end up putting more wing in, and they get more confidence. So there’s a sweet spot there.”
What else could Ford do?
Alongside aerodynamic tweaking, Ford also had two other factors on its side: its tyres and the amount of cars available. Last weekend saw a heatwave throughout Europe, and a quirk with the way the Ford GT uses its tyres meant the scorching weather played into Ford’s hands.
“We have a hard time putting temperature in the tyres,” explains Pericak. “If your car’s easier on tyres, you’re not generating heat in the tyre, so it takes a while for the tyres to switch on.” Instead, the high heat would help switch on Ford’s tyres sooner, giving them more grip than usual after a pit stop or caution flag.
What’s more, Ford’s use of several cars could’ve presented an advantage. With four cars on track, and a constant stream of telemetry from each car to the garage, Ford could pool its data together and work out the best strategy for the race.
“In last year’s race, our 67 car had its initial issues at the start, and it went down several laps,” explains Pericak. “That car became our test car in the race, and that team was fantastic in understanding that was the role. There was no way they could claw back the laps, so instead of giving up, we turned it into a test car. Anything we wanted to try we tried it on that car first before we put it on the other three.”
So what happened?
By the end of Sunday, things had gone significantly better with Ford than it had expected. After holding fourth spot for the majority of the race, an unexpected pit stop by Porsche promoted the #67 Ford car into third place with less than an hour to go – but it still wasn’t over. With just minutes before the end of the race, the leading #63 Chevrolet car ended up in some serious trouble, allowing both the Aston Martin and the Ford to ease past into the top two spots. That mean, after 24 hours of racing, the heavier 67 car with less power had finished second, while the other Fords finished 6th, 7th and 11th.
However, in the WEC championship, Ford has been able to extend its lead, and build on its win from the first round in Silverstone.