Modified Mustangs & FordsNews & Views
Ford’s GT Drivers Tell Us What it’s Like to Drive Le Mans
We Sat In A Smelly Trailer And Talked Racing. Totally Worth It.
We met up with Richard Westbrook, Dirk Müller, Joey Hand, and Ryan Briscoe—the drivers of the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs—in the paddock of the 2016 Long Beach Grand Prix before the GTLM race. Finding a quiet spot at a racetrack is like finding a bag of chips in a stoner’s house on April 21st, so the five of us (and several public-relations handlers) all crowded into the tiny lounge on the No. 66 race hauler and sat down to talk about Ford’s plans for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Race car drivers grab every opening as a place to make a move—to maneuver and grab the lead. As it turns out, this applies in a group interview as well as on track. The resulting recording from our time in the hauler was both hilarious and nearly impossible to transcribe, as the guys completed each other’s sentences and all talked at once, full of enthusiasm about taking on Le Mans in the new Fords. We’ll do our best to sort it out for you.
The recording starts with all four drivers apologizing for the cramped quarters. Someone pushes aside a couple of helmets that were sitting on the table and there’s the sound of shuffling as we squeeze into the bench behind it. “We even have Dixon and Bourdais’ stuff in here,” says Briscoe, moving a helmet bag. “Does it make you feel like they’re here?” we ask. “Makes it smell like they’re here,” says Müller, and everybody laughs.
The Ford GTs racing in America run the numbers 66 and 67, but when they head to France in June they’ll join up with the European team, and have to change to numbers 68 and 69. “I was really hoping I’d get the 69,” says Hand, and again everyone laughs. Don’t pretend you don’t get the joke. Hand is teamed with Müller in what will be the No. 68 car, and Westbrook and Briscoe have the coveted No. 69. All four drivers have raced at Le Mans before, but when we asked who had the most laps it took a bit of math before anyone was sure.
JOEY HAND: I’ve only been there once.
RYAN BRISCOE: Me too.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I’ve been there five times.
DIRK MÜLLER: I think I’ve been there three times.
HOT ROD: You’re not sure?
DIRK MÜLLER: I’m sure.
HOT ROD: So Richard has the most laps.
JOEY HAND: (to Richard) Unless you crashed on your outlap, then you have the least laps.
RYAN BRISCOE: Yeah, or if your car crashed in qualifying and you never started the race. [In 2015, Briscoe was driving for Chevrolet and the Corvette C7.R wrecked in qualifying and had to withdraw before he had a chance behind the wheel.]
At this point on the recording there is the sound of fumbling and wrinkling paper as Müller leans over and points out that we have all the years mixed up in our notes. Once we’ve got things sorted to his satisfaction we get back to work.
HOT ROD: What’s the rookie experience like at Le Mans?
JOEY HAND: I think for me, and it’s what I thought about Daytona too when I was going into Daytona, I guess you don’t really get it until you get there. You can watch it on TV, and everybody can tell you it’s the biggest, coolest experience ever, and that there are so many people, and I’m like, yeah, yeah, whatever, I’ve seen a lot of people before. Then you go and you’re like, huh! That’s a lot of people. There are a lot of really dedicated fans all over the racetrack, you know? I mean you see them at the McDonalds, halfway down the Mulsanne, (cause, yeah, I was there). You see ’em everywhere. It’s just crazy. I was lucky in my first go there that I was on the podium. That’s what everyone said, “Oh man if you get on the podium it’s just the most amazing thing.” They flood the pit lane and the straightaway and Dirk and I were actually there together on the podium. It was raining and still people were just everywhere, as far as you could see, down the straightaway, across pit lane, just people, people everywhere. For me the experience of the venue was not something you could explain, and that’s not even talking about driving the racetrack. [In 2011 Hand and Müller, along with Andy Priaulx, drove a BMW to a Third place finish in the GTE class at Le Mans.]
HOT ROD: So let’s talk about driving the racetrack.
JOEY HAND: It’s a fast track so you run a car that’s really trimmed out. Everyone is trying to go down the straightaway [fast] so you don’t have a lot of downforce to the car. You don’t run that set-up anywhere else. So the first time you get in the car, you may be used to the car that you’re driving, but now it’s a different feeling car because of all the stuff that you do for Le Mans. You think of Le Mans as just these long straightaways, some chicanes, and some corners that look cool. When I went there I’d just been driving on a simulator but when you go there, and not even talking about rain or mixed conditions, when you go and try and put a lap in, I was white-knuckle, I mean, I was throwing down. It’s not like you can put an easy one in, it’s like Whoo, Whaaa, [he gestures with his hands to mimic the movement of scenery past a windscreen] everywhere. It’s a throwdown.
HOT ROD: That a technical term?
JOEY HAND: [laughing] Yeah, it’s a technical term. I mean, you’re hustling, you’re working. There’s not a corner that ends up being easy. Like for example, you’re going down a straightaway, you get to a chicane, it’s not like the chicane is easy and this corner isn’t. Every corner seems to be work, right? I guess I went naïve, I was like, “Oh the chicanes, I guess I’ll rest over here. I know I’d heard the Porsche curves are tough but yeah, whatever, and then I did my first laps, and I was huffing and puffing. I was breathing, it was like, Whew-Hew.
RYAN BRISCOE: Can’t rest even on the straights.
HOT ROD: Did you have a similar first experience?
RYAN BRISCOE: I did a few laps on a simulator and um…
DIRK MÜLLER: [snickers] Ryan, how was your first time?
RYAN BRISCOE: [waves him off] How was it? I did it in a P2 car. I just remember the straights were so much longer than I thought they were going to be, and the speed…it feels very fast. For me the biggest thing to get your head around through race week and everything was just the schedule. You’re finishing driving at midnight and that’s where you really appreciate the fan base, because you come out of the car, you debrief and you’re out in the paddock at [1 a.m.] in the morning and it’s just packed with people, and it’s the middle of the night! You’re like, this is crazy. [Briscoe drove a Honda prototype with Scott Tucker and Marino Franchitti in 2013, and was slated for the ill-fated ’Vette in 2015.]
RICHARD WESTBROOK: It’s interesting what Joey was saying, cause it is such a long track with these long straights. The best piece of advice I got about Le Mans was to relax your hands on the straights. When you think about it you’re like, oh my god I’m really clenching the wheel hard on the straights, why am I doing that? Yeah, just relax your hands, cause you can wear yourself out even though it’s wide open on the long straights. I don’t know why, but you tense up. [Westbrook drove for Chevrolet in GTE from 2011 through 2014 and podiumed with BMW in 2010.]
RYAN BRISCOE: Also it’s a public road so you have a lot of crown in the road, so the car doesn’t want to go in a straight line.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Exactly! It’s narrow, it’s so narrow and you got all the traffic.
JOEY HAND: You got P cars (prototype cars) coming fast.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You have to look ahead, you have to look behind. You’ve got to choose your lane coming down the straight. Like Ryan said, with the crowning of the road you can’t drive in the middle down the straight, cause it is a normal highway, it’s grooved either side. I’ve had quite a few laps at Le Mans, but it will feel like going as a rookie when we go back.
RYAN BRISCOE: The hardest thing is remembering if the first chicane turns left, or does it turn right?
RICHARD WESTBROOK: [laughing] Don’t get it wrong!
RYAN BRISCOE: Really though, when I was learning the track I’d be going down the first straight and I was like, s**t, does this turn left or right at the end? I could never remember.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Really! It’s not like the track at Sebring where, when you aren’t racing there you’re testing there.
RYAN BRISCOE: My first few laps I was kinda lost.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You go there once a year. When you aren’t at Le Mans you aren’t testing there.
All speak together, basically some variant of “Yeah, you get one test day.”
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Whenever you go back there everything all feels new. It’s not like wham, you’re back into it straightaway. You can’t drive it any other time, it’s closed for 350 days of the year and the rest is public roads. It feels new for everyone. It’s very difficult to go there, turn up and bang, make it feel like home. It’s a bit like Bathurst. That’s the same sort of deal. [Bathurst is an Australian street circuit, which are public roads when not being used for racing.]
HOT ROD: What is it like as a veteran, to go back to Le Mans?
DIRK MÜLLER: I think Le Mans is special, but it always starts with what Joey was saying. You’re running so little downforce. It’s such a different car to what you’re used to. That’s already such a big change and then Le Mans is everything. I mean, it’s long straights, so you have high speed but at the same time you’re watching the mirrors, the LMP1 cars come by like a rocket, so you’re observing your mirrors all the time and then you see the houses standing next to the Armco [barriers]. I’m always looking at that sign, what is it… “something place” on the left side, you have so much time to think about all the weird things as you’re going by. [Müller raced for Porsche and BMW in GTE and GT classes.]
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You use a café as your braking marker!
DIRK MÜLLER: Yeah and it’s crazy, you know? What you see.
JOEY HAND: I saw some people on their porch one year.
DIRK MÜLLER: So the trick is to really stay focused. That was always the toughest part for me. I mean, you have so much time on the straights but then just one point to brake, and if you miss it, you go straight. If you’re lucky you don’t crash your car on the tire chicane. So you have that one spot where you have to brake and at that same time you have hairpins like the Mulsanne hairpin. Straight on you have the roundabout so you’re thinking, phew, everything has to be right here.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: That’s why it’s so tough in the night. For choosing your braking points, cause it does get dark going out there.
DIRK MÜLLER: Then at the same time you have like, Indianapolis [corner] and you have so much time on approach to Indianapolis and it’s so quick, like oh my god! That track really takes everything out of your body. Then coming back to the infield, the pit in, you see the big wheel there...
JOEY HAND: Ferris Wheel.
DIRK MÜLLER: Yeah and always at night I’m like where am I going? I see only lights and I don’t know where to turn in. It’s kind of challenging.
JOEY HAND: And then it rains.
DIRK MÜLLER: And then it rains!
JOEY HAND: Or in the case of us, when we were there in 2011, it was wet on the finish of the lap and it was dry on the start of the lap and we had to stay on slicks because the rains would be wore out on the dry part but you could just barely hang on on the slicks in the wet. I mean, Le Mans really opened my eyes to how intense you have to be. After that race—and that was a tough finish of the race, I stayed in the car for a while, conditions were tough and when I was done, my eyes were popping out of my head, I had white knuckles, I gave it everything I had—and I slept for a good three days after that. It really drains you. On top of that, you only have three drivers. At Daytona you can do three drivers and it’s not so bad.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Daytona is not a sprint. At Le Mans there is no safety car that you can rely on, so it is a sprint race for 24 hours. You’ve got to go. At Daytona you know you’re going to get a safety car in an hour and you’ll be bunched up again.
DIRK MÜLLER: At the same time, you need to be spot on. If you miss one chicane or you’re too early, if you miss the braking point just a little late in, you lose so much time, you can’t make it back up. Every single corner you need to be spot on or you’ll lose your lap time.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Yeah, you can lose two minutes in the first hour and you’ll never make it back up.
JOEY HAND: In 24.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: At Daytona you can lose 10 laps and make it back.
HOT ROD: How does Le Mans now compare to vintage Le Mans? In the 1960s it seemed like there was much more attrition and now it seems most of the cars finish, so you can’t count on the competition falling out for mechanical reasons.
DIRK MÜLLER: That is a significant change. In the past your goal was to bring the car home and to slow down the speeds, not use the curbs.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Drive it at 90 percent.
DIRK MÜLLER: And it has changed to drive at 100-percent for 24 hours.
RYAN BRISCOE: You just expect the car to last.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: If you’re not quick enough you might as well not be there. You’ve got to be qualifying all through the race. And it puts pressure on other people. If you’re leading the race you’re putting pressure on them to catch you up and then you can put them into a mistake. In that respect, there are no more long distance races. They used to do the race with two drivers but they weren’t like this. Now we do three hours and you get out and you’re like, I need to go to sleep. You’re done. You’ve been qualifying for three hours. Not to take anything away from what they did, I mean, what they did was so dangerous, like they were risking their lives full time for 24 hours.
DIRK MÜLLER: Full commitment.
RYAN BRISCOE: We live in a much safer world of motor racing now.
JOEY HAND: We run out of race parts, we change ’em. We do a lot of things to make sure the car will go the distance at max attack. The brakes are one thing, you can’t go 24 hours on them, so you go, you change ’em and go again.
HOT ROD: How do you prepare yourselves for a 24-hour event?
DIRK MÜLLER: By the time you approach the start you’re already tired.
RYAN BRISCOE: It’s weird!
RICHARD WESTBROOK: What Ryan was saying earlier, it’s such an unorthodox schedule, like you’re doing all your practice sessions in the night, but then race day, warm up is at like, stupid-o-clock in the morning. Suddenly it’s like, whoa, I’ve got to get up early.
JOEY HAND: I just wing it and then I drink whatever energy drink we’re sponsored by.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You just prepare for it like we do every race, you’re in tip-top shape, you’re primed and you’re ready to go. I don’t think there’s anything we do differently for Le Mans than for any other race.
JOEY HAND: The preparation prior to the event is the same. All of us have our own fitness regiment that we do every day when we’re home but you can’t over prepare for what you’re gonna do at Le Mans. You might know pretty early on who’s gonna start the race but after that it’s not 100 percent how it will play out, so you don’t want to be ready to drive at midnight and then you end up driving at four in the morning, you know? It could change a lot. Especially on this program, they tend to do what’s best, you know, in the moment. If we need to run somebody longer because it’s wet, or it’s getting in the dark, they’ll do what’s best. We won’t necessarily stick to a prepared plan, we’ll do it on the fly, so you don’t want to be too prepared for a certain time.
RYAN BRISCOE: A lot of it also comes down to the team and the preparation the team has. You need to be able to rely on knowing that someone is going to come out and get you when they need you so that you can go back to the bus or whatever and feel confident…
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You gotta be able to relax.
RYAN BRISCOE: …in being able to fall asleep. A lot of that comes from your prerace meetings and knowing you have the right people in place to organize that sort of stuff. You end up with a routine, get out of the car, get some food in you, maybe get a massage and then try to get two to three hours of sleep.
HOT ROD: Are you all able to sleep?
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You have to, even if it’s half an hour.
JOEY HAND: I know I struggled with that.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: It can make all the difference.
JOEY HAND: It was difficult. Conditions are, at Daytona we normally have a bus or something, it’s still loud but the one time I was at Le Mans I was in like a steel container the size of this room.
HOT ROD: You slept in a shipping container?
JOEY HAND: Dirk and I in a cot.
DIRK MÜLLER: I think we were straight below a speaker.
JOEY HAND: We were really struggling.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Have you ever done a 24-hour and not slept?
JOEY HAND: I don’t think I have, but I didn’t sleep a lot at Le Mans.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I always think it’s going to happen, that I’m not going to sleep because I’m too wired from the last stint and there’s not enough time but I always just nod off, and it’s just enough to keep you going.
RYAN BRISCOE: I slept so much at Daytona, I was so fresh on Sunday.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I slept loads at Daytona! I don’t know why.
RYAN BRISCOE: ’Cause we had four drivers?
JOEY HAND: What?! We had three!
RYAN BRISCOE: Oh yeah, we had three.
JOEY HAND: I slept like two hours.
RYAN BRISCOE: You know what, we were out of it. That’s why. We weren’t in contention any more.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Oh yeah. But if you’re leading and you get out of the car then it’s difficult. You want to see where your car is.
DIRK MÜLLER: You hear your car. I think we all hear our car. And if you hear you’ve gone back…
RYAN BRISCOE: So many times I’ve gone to sleep at Daytona and woke up to hear bad news, so you’re almost afraid to sleep.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: It’s important to sleep even if it’s just 10 minutes. Something to reset the brain.
HOT ROD: Do you drivers have specialties?
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I think we’re all here because we’re good in all conditions.
DIRK MÜLLER: I think that’s the bonus, that we’re all at a very high level.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I think if one of use didn’t like the night, didn’t like the rain, we wouldn’t be here.
JOEY HAND: People who do well with other people is an important part to this kind of racing. You have to have people who can get along with other people, especially with your teammates because there’s so much compromise in this kind of racing.
HOT ROD: Do any of you guys speak French?
DIRK MÜLLER and RICHARD WESTBROOK: Un petit peu. [A little bit]
JOEY HAND: Not a lick. I barely speak English.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: You can say Bordeaux [wine].
JOEY HAND: Only because I’ve marinated in it before.
HOT ROD: There are two French drivers on your four-car team. Do you think it makes any difference to have a French team member at Le Mans? There are rumors of politics at that race…
JOEY HAND: The French guy’s in my car! [Sébastien Bourdais]
DIRK MÜLLER: Yeah, we’re good! We have the local yokel, he’s from the town.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I don’t think it’s ever been a problem.
DIRK MÜLLER: Joey and myself, we’re gonna have an easy week there, an easy two weeks, nobody will talk to us.
JOEY HAND: As far as press goes, yeah! I can’t wait for the parade, we definitely have to keep Bourdais on the outside of the parade so small children and women don’t jump across us to get to him.
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I think it’s important to have someone on the team that can communicate with the organization, but it’s never been an issue with us. I’ve never driven for a French team.
HOT ROD: Are you going to learn French?
JOEY HAND: I could say yes but I’d be lying. I spent three years in Germany and all I can say to Dirk is, “Vas ist dass?” And some bad words. And I don’t even have a good list of those.
RYAN BRISCOE: I’m still learning American.
HOT ROD: Have you seen the WEC cars yet?
RICHARD WESTBROOK: Not in the flesh, but they are going to be the same as our cars. Seeing four cars altogether, we haven’t seen that yet.
JOEY HAND: And knowing which one to get into…someone will have to point me there with like, a GPS tracker.
DIRK MÜLLER: Turn left…
HOT ROD: So, are you ready?
RICHARD WESTBROOK: I think you’ll always want more time to get ready, especially with a new program, but we don’t have more time.
JOEY HAND: Things are happening fast. The first couple races it was about, let’s finish. Now we’re looking at trying to get some pace out of the car. What do we need to do from a set-up standpoint to chase the racetrack? We need to start moving towards making it fast. We’re seeing new things at the different tracks, at Daytona we saw rain, at Sebring we saw rain and high heat, here [Long Beach] we’re seeing bumps. All that stuff is good data we just need to keep compiling this, drawing trends. In January we’re like, oh, we got time…
DIRK MÜLLER: It’s coming quick.
JOEY HAND: It’s exciting.
DIRK MÜLLER: [leans back over the notes]…I think I did four Le Mans. Yes. It’s definitely four.
JOEY HAND: I’m 100 percent I did one.
The 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans will be June 18th and 19th. It’s not too late to buy a plane ticket to France.