Why The Ganassi Effect will prove crucial in IMSA’s DPi swansong

The Twelve Hours of Sebring proved that while Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cadillac venture has success in sportscar racing’s LMDh era as its long-term goal, the team is still pushing the boundaries of the DPi-V.R – and that may well earn it the IMSA Prototype title in 2022. David Malsher-Lopez explains.

Why The Ganassi Effect will prove crucial in IMSA’s DPi swansong
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“It’s another world,” one driver told me on signing with Chip Ganassi Racing. “We all know their track record is amazing, and we know their determination to win. But to be honest, it’s their human resources that are just incredible. So many smart people there. And they’re not just smart, they work so hard. Total dedication to achieve success.

“The first test with them, I found there were curbs I could use that I couldn’t even think about touching in ‘my’ car – the same basic car! – because it would have bounced out of control, lost a bunch of time. But Ganassi had come up with a shock and damper solution that means the driver is working with the car, not fighting it all the time. I thought, ‘This is just shocks and dampers: how many other little things have they done to improve the car?’ I realized what we’d been up against this whole time. It’s not a money thing; it’s about knowing how to spend it to make the car the best it can be.”

That was an off-the-record conversation, so I can’t reveal who said it about what car in which year… but honestly, it could have come from any Ganassi newbie over the past quarter century. And the words came back to me during the closing stages of last Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Earl Bamber pursued Richard Westbrook in the JDC Miller Motorsports entry – both Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, two sportscar aces of comparable ability and experience… but Bamber in the #02 Caddy was (twice) able to reel in ‘Westie’ and clinch victory.

The day before, Sebastien Bourdais in Ganassi’s #01 Cadillac had delivered a brilliant pole position, but this was at a track Seb likes and believes is one of his strongest, and he’s a driver who could still win IndyCar races in the right car. In other words, him laying down a DPi record-breaking qualifying time was not a shock, and he may even have been able to take pole in an Acura ARX-05, which we all know is less suited to Sebring than the Cadillac. So it was Bamber’s pace in the closing stages of the race, despite two somewhat embarrassing setbacks in his final stint, that truly demonstrated The Ganassi Effect.

“It definitely was an eventful race,” said Bamber some 60 hours after his triumph with full-time co-driver Alex Lynn and last-minute extra Neel Jani. “I think we rolled off the truck and knew that the #01 and the #02 were strong; we had a really good test there.”

He then heaped praise on Danielle Shepherd who, having worked on two championship-winning entries in IndyCar – Scott Dixon in 2018 and Alex Palou last year – was transferred to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship program last off-season to become a race engineer as Ganassi expanded its presence from one Cadillac to two for ’22.

“Danielle did a great job and got us some track position,” recalled Bamber. “I remember after my first stint I said to her, ‘If you can get us in the lead or near the front we’ll drive away, and she managed to do that in my second stint where I managed to create quite a good gap. Alex [Lynn] managed to hold that gap, and I managed to give it away again with a drive-through [penalty for hitting an LMP3 car] and I managed to spin myself again [bouncing off a GT car] after I got back in the lead! I think it gave Chip and Danielle and everyone three more heart attacks than what they need to win this one.

“Without such a good car from Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac that we came in with, it wouldn’t have been as easy to recover from those two mistakes. I have to say hats off to them for giving us such a great car, and now it gives us really good momentum and confidence going into the sprint-style of races that we can do it…”

Bamber, Jani and Lynn celebrate with the man himself, Mr. Chip Ganassi

Bamber, Jani and Lynn celebrate with the man himself, Mr. Chip Ganassi

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

And that, along with Bamber’s utter confidence that he could drop the opposition if he was put in the lead, hit the nail on the head about what a difference CGR makes to the Cadillac program.

Last year, when Ganassi managed to win one half of the IndyCar double-header at Detroit thanks to Marcus Ericsson, and later that day at the same venue, added an IMSA triumph thanks to the efforts of Renger van der Zande and Kevin Magnussen, it was only right that Chip was saluted for his achievement. It’s impossible not to be in awe of his competitive nature. His heart and soul are poured into his racing team without distraction and he never dabbles in a branch of the sport just to earn money to be siphoned into other projects. He wants his squad to be winners, and if he perceives that circumstances won’t allow that, he won’t merely participate and go through the motions. He sets exacting standards, then employs the right people to achieve that desired level. What aspiring driver, engineer or mechanic wouldn’t want to work for a team like that? How many of Chip’s peers would love to emulate him?

And yet it’s still possible to underestimate the CGR squad. In 2021, its solo Cadillac supplemented that Belle Isle triumph with three runner-up spots and a third place finish, yet still van der Zande finished ‘only’ fourth in the championship, beaten by another Cadillac, an Acura and a Mazda. Expanding to run two cars this season was understandable for two reasons – 1) building up the team structure before running two of the new Cadillac LMDh cars in 2023, and 2) grabbing strong personnel as early as possible at a time when IndyCar and IMSA are booming and pitlane talent for premier series is at a premium. But would the growth of the sportscar squad dilute the overall quality of the team? The team’s misfortunes at the Rolex 24 made one wonder…

Such doubts proved unfounded at Sebring, which most participants will tell you makes tougher demands of cars and drivers in 12 hours than Daytona in 24. And, as noted those Ganassi cars were fast. Who’d have thought there was still so much juice to be squeezed from a design now into its sixth season? I asked Danielle if her experience working in IndyCar, with tight regulations over development areas and an (even more) aged car had helped her find performance in the DPi-V.R.

“IndyCar is a spec series, but with the homologation rules and everything in IMSA, that’s kind of the new part of it for me and it is quite restrictive,” she replied. “So I feel it’s more working with the strategy and with the drivers and that side of it where the gains come, instead of car development.

 

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

“It’s a six-year-old car, so… quite a bit of the development has already been done. The homologation has been set and nothing is being adjusted this year. It’s kind of in its box. And so it’s working with strategy and other things like that where the engineering side comes into it, for this year at least.”

And that was accomplished with aplomb. Any number of drivers will say that the swing in temperature and subsequent shift in track conditions across 12 hours at Sebring Raceway means it’s near-impossible to find a car setup that works throughout the race. At some point you just have to deal with what you’ve got and hope the car comes into its optimal operating window at a crucial juncture of the race, which is why several teams will aim to have their cars running best in the cool of the night, ready for a shootout to the checkered flag. Ganassi had apparently found a way to be quick in all circumstances.

“Obviously, the 01 car was strong there last year even though they weren’t able to capitalize last year with the collision at the end of the race,” said Shepherd, “so we had a strong baseline to start with. While we were focusing on the night, we were trying not to compromise the daytime hot running.

“I think it was just a balance and I was adjusting things as we went through the race, adjusting tire pressures and making sure we were trying to keep in the range and keep the car balance the way we were. So, it was slight adjustments from my side along with the good baseline car that we started with, and just keep it in the window the whole day.

“It stayed pretty warm the whole time [but] the track did cool off at the end, so we tried to set ourselves up that we were ready to go. With the way Sebring is, you try to maintain during the day to try to capitalize at night. That was our philosophy as well, just because we’re racing for the win when it’s slightly cooler conditions – even though it wasn’t cold by any means.”

Although it’s no longer a surprise to see women in prominent positions within racing teams, it remains a rarity rather than the norm, so there is still work to be done. To this end, Chip Ganassi Racing has partnered with PNC Bank, primary partner on Scott Dixon’s IndyCar, to host internships for females interested in motorsports.

Shepherd could be a fine role model, it seems. Asked what kind of a leader she is, Bamber replied: “She definitely likes to push the limits and I like that she’s not afraid of making some bold moves sometimes. That’s what is important in racing – to test the extremes. She doesn’t leave any stone unturned before going to the race to make sure she gives us the best car, and I think that’s what makes her strong.

Memories of a troubled Rolex 24 at Daytona are now receding. It's now all about charging hard for championship glory.

Memories of a troubled Rolex 24 at Daytona are now receding. It's now all about charging hard for championship glory.

Photo by: Chris duMond / Motorsport Images

“We had a great car in practice and then in final night practice she was still tweaking away at it, trying to make it even faster than what we had. That’s the mentality. She wants to continuously improve, and that’s what I like about her character on that. And she does keep us on the straight and narrow!”

So even had Ganassi’s cars not rolled off so strong for opening practice last Thursday, we can be reasonably sure they would have been fighting for the win come Saturday night. The team remains unmatchable at turning a bad situation to good over the course of a race weekend. Heck, we saw that in IndyCar at St. Petersburg last month: nowhere in first practice, much improved in qualifying and then, come the race, defending champion Palou was barely half a second from claiming victory. That’s depth in quality.

Knowing they’re racing for such a top-notch and supremely competitive operation also tends to extract the best from the drivers. The full-time #01 Cadillac driver line-up – comprising Bourdais and Renger van der Zande – can hardly be faulted, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there were one or two question marks over the #02 drivers. Notwithstanding the fact that Lynn won the Sebring 12 Hours with Jordan and Ricky Taylor on his IMSA debut in 2017, and had also successfully raced Orecas in Europe, his focus in recent years had been Formula E and, in sportscars, Aston Martin GTs. Could he pick up where he left off in IMSA Prototypes? And Earl Bamber had twice won Le Mans (and the 2017 WEC championship) in the works Porsche 919 Hybrid prototypes, but had spent the bulk of the last three years in Porsche 911s. Again, could he be an ace in IMSA’s top class? That question was somewhat answered by his pace as a last-minute substitute in Petit Le Mans last year.

Speaking of 11th-hour subs, Kevin Magnussen’s sudden departure for the Haas Formula 1 team left Ganassi with a vacancy urgently needing to be filled. The fact that it could land a driver of the quality of Neel Jani says much about Ganassi’s reputation; the fact that Jani helped deliver a brilliant victory will have done his reputation a power of good.

As ever, Chip Ganassi knows exactly what he’s doing when assembling driver line-ups, and actually it’s their varied backgrounds which Bamber believes is their strength.

“[The driver line-up] is really strong because it brings together different drivers from different forms of motorsport,” he said. “Alex came from Formula E, I come from the Porsche GT and LMP1 program, and you have Sebastien from IndyCar and Renger from a sportscar background. So, I think the combination of all four drivers definitely forms a very strong package of knowledge and experience of those categories…”

One can certainly see how that will pay off as development of the Cadillac LMDh car ramps up for 2023, but in the mean time, the final DPi-reg IMSA title is up for grabs, and Bamber is well aware of the task ahead.

“It’s going to be such a tough season,” he said. “If you look at the qualifying at Sebring, it shows the level of the category and the level of the teams at the moment. It’s going to be those small gains that are going to win or lose. I don’t think that you’re going to see one car one second faster. It’s going to be pit calls, strategies, the guys in pitlane. It’s going to be a real team effort that’s going to win this championship this year.”

In which case, it could well be The Ganassi Effect that proves decisive.

 

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

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