By David Phillips IMSA Wire Service
With Earl Bamber, Sebastien Bourdais and Alex Lynn joining a returning Renger van der Zande for its expanded two-car Cadillac DPi assault on the 2022 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Chip Ganassi Racing added the speed and savvy that comes with a pair of overall and class wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts – not to mention four IndyCar titles – while retaining the services of an IMSA Prototype Challenge champion and Motul Petit Le Mans winner.
However, the drivers’ resumes only got their driving boots in the CGR door. In assembling a quartet to vie this year for the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) title while developing Cadillac’s challenger for the LMDh class debut in 2023, the team looked at more than race wins and championships.
“Drivers that we’ve always employed have followed what Chip believes,” says Mike Hull, managing director of CGR. “He wants to hire ‘big picture’ drivers; drivers with enormous talent who are totally unselfish with their teammates. Bamber, Bourdais, Renger and Alex all represent that very clearly.”
Given what’s on their plate, totally unselfish teammates are more paramount than ever at CGR. First, there’s the addition of a second Cadillac DPi to the program and all that entails, starting with developing chemistry among and between the driver pairings and crews, as well as with Cadillac. Then there are race wins and a championship to pursue even as CGR and Cadillac develop the new LMDh package.
It’s a dual challenge Bourdais embraces.
“We’ll be racing the full season with the DPi car and developing a new car, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “Obviously, I’ve done full IMSA seasons with Cadillac (in 2020 along with the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup races in 2021) and have a familiarity with the car. It’s a series I enjoy and a car I enjoy driving.”
Perhaps best known for his four consecutive IndyCar championships and 37 race wins, Bourdais also gained a wealth of experience developing and racing prototypes with the Peugeot, Pescarolo and Dome works teams at Le Mans and elsewhere.
“It’s something I very much enjoy, trying to sort out the character of the car, optimizing the performance,” the 42-year-old Frenchman says. “I’m from an engineering background and it’s fun to try to tie the (engineering and driving) together; try to feel what’s going on and find solutions.”
And lest we forget, Bourdais was a key player when CGR spearheaded the Ford GT effort in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class from 2016-19. Although they parted company at the conclusion of the program, CGR certainly didn’t delete Bourdais’ number from their contacts.
“I was so impressed with (Sebastien) from the very first test we did with him in the Ford GT project,” says Hull. “He has this unique ability to be right 99.8 percent of the time in reading the car. Not only can he read the car, he can set direction on the car very clearly. He is not only very precise, he is very direct. So, he fits us well because we’re very direct people. And his teammates pick right up on that, whether they agree with it or not. Then the communication channel is wide open.”
Like Bourdais, CGR’s interest in Bamber stems from the Ford GT days, though as one of the fiercest competitors (with Porsche) rather than as a teammate. The New Zealander left an impression, one enhanced by two episodes at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta last fall.
Although an impressive test for CGR in October secured a ride, Bamber confirmed that selection when he was pressed into service at Motul Petit Le Mans in place of Kevin Magnussen, who fell ill on race morning.
“He tested the car two weeks prior to Petit, but there was no plan for Earl to race there,” Hull recalls. “So, his audition was a 10-hour race in front of everybody including his fellow teammates and Chip. Chip said at some point, ‘Man, that Bamber guy is pretty good.’ And I said, ‘Chip, remember we talked about that. That’s why we hired him!’
“Earl is a really terrific, knowledgeable race car driver. It was evidenced by what he did for us at Petit, but we knew that before. By the mere fact that he’s won Le Mans twice in a prototype car (2015 and ’17 in Porsche 919 Hybrids) is certainly a good résumé item, but we need to continue to fill that résumé up. So that’s what we’re planning to do.”
He’ll get no argument from Bamber on that front.
“Chip Ganassi Racing is one of the teams that you want to drive for in your career,” Bamber says. “It’s refreshing to be here. I followed Scott Dixon (CGR’s long-time IndyCar driver and fellow Kiwi) through most of my junior career, and now it’s amazing to be able to work with Scott and just learn from guys like both the Mikes (Hull and team manager O’Gara) and obviously Chip. We fought against them for many years in GTLM and it’s exciting to now see the ‘other’ side and how they do things. It’s a place I can learn and grow as a driver.”
Bamber may well have put his finger on another commonality shared by CGR’s choice of its WeatherTech Championship lineup.
“Hiring a race driver, it’s about the match-up at a moment in time,” Hull says. “You have to forecast that moment in time when you’re hiring drivers to where they potentially will be with their contribution at the end of a program or at the end of their contract before talking about contract extension. Not where they’ve just come from or what they’ve just achieved; it’s what they can achieve with our team going forward.”