The best IMSA driver without a ride for 2020 is…
How does an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship racer who was arguably the best in class in 2019 – and whose erstwhile engineer ranks him with two modern-day IndyCar legends – end up still seeking a ride for 2020 as we head into November? David Malsher makes the case for Richard Westbrook.
It’s hardly a secret that IMSA’s WTSCC car count in the pro ranks is looking thin for next year. That’s no one’s fault; any motorsport series with high manufacturer involvement is beholden to forces further up each OEM’s management structure, and so it’s only natural that participation fluctuates on a regular basis.
But even with constricted fields of Daytona Prototypes and GT Le Mans cars next year, you’d still hope that someone, somewhere, would be smart enough to sign up Richard Westbrook. We recently voted him best IMSA GT driver in 2019 but it’s no real stretch to go further still: he’s among the top half-dozen of all the full-timers across all IMSA classes, and has been for some time.
That’s not an opinion likely to be disputed by his most recent race engineer, Brad Goldberg, an 18-season veteran at Chip Ganassi Racing with vast experience in IndyCar, the Rolex Grand-Am Series and IMSA.
Engineers are a faithful breed by nature, and so in the interests of team harmony they will almost always publicly defend their drivers. But following the end of CGR’s deeply impressive four-year program with the oh-so-sexy Ford GT, Goldberg will return to the IndyCar arm of the squad, and has no need to lavish praise on ‘Westy’. He just does.
“To be honest, of all the drivers I have worked with, and it’s a lot, Westy is top five along with guys like Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon,” Goldberg tells Motorsport.com. “The last two years he has risen to a new level. He’s fast, his adaptability is impressive, he knows exactly what to do and when, and he knows how to save tires, save fuel and control a race.
“Unfortunately, a lot of all this gets hidden because of BoP adjustments messing with the comparative performance of the cars from race to race.”
Ah, Balance of Performance, the curse of this sportscar age, the anti-genie that can’t be shoved back in the bottle because it keeps current participating OEMs engaged and entices potential new entrants.
The equalizing formula that could limit a Lamborghini to the laptimes of a Lincoln limo around Lime Rock is doubtless the work of geniuses, but it creates a frustrating moving target for the participants, is a point of regular rancor among fans, and makes it hard to assess the relative merits of the cars, let alone the drivers. Sebastien Bourdais, one of Ganassi Ford’s brilliant ‘extras’ for IMSA’s endurance races and for the four-car Le Mans assault has been wonderfully outspoken on BoP in the recent past.
Yet perhaps it’s because of – rather than despite – these regular tweaks to power outputs, torque curves, weight limits, etc. that Mark Rushbrook of Ford Performance, chassis builder Multimatic, Ganassi, Goldberg, Westbrook and his partner Ryan Briscoe can take extra satisfaction from the fact that, over the four years of the Ford GT program, no entry scored as many wins as their #67 machine.
The 2018 IMSA GTLM championship battle was between the #67 Ford GT and the #3 Corvette. Westbrook and Briscoe had to smile bravely as their faster entry ultimately lost out to the slower but more dependable leviathan, despite Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen failing to score a race win.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
As much as Goldberg heaps praise on Westbrook, so Westy – a modest man who calls it how he sees it and would likely cringe at the tone of this story – pays respect to the environment in which his talent flourished.
“I’m definitely a better driver than I was four years ago,” he says, “just from being a part of that organization. I used to wonder, ‘What does Chip Ganassi Racing do differently? Why have they been so successful?’ And now I’ve been part of the team for four years, I think it’s because they get the best from everyone, whether you’re an engineer, a driver, a mechanic, a strategist, whoever.
“The reason I’ve improved is that there’s so much focus on the drivers – we help choose development paths and the setups for individual race tracks, and then the engineers do their magic to try and make what we’re asking for actually happen.
"Some other teams, you turn up and just drive what you’re given, and your input outside of that isn’t necessary. Ganassi is the complete opposite and I think that comes from Chip and [team manager] Mike Hull being ex-drivers: they understand the importance of a driver helping to steer the team direction.
“You know, when I was last in Prototypes in 2015 I felt I was at the top of my game. But after four years with Chip I feel I’ve gone to a new level: I’ve got more tools in my toolbox, as they say.”
Westy was a pretty special Prototype driver too, as he proved with an achingly close run to the 2015 IMSA P title in the Spirit of Daytona Chevy.
Photo by: Action Sports Photography
And the momentum behind that rise in Westbrook’s capabilities is maintained by his self-motivation and a devotion to comprehending the complexities of racecars.
“He’s extremely hot-blooded, but great to work with,” says Goldberg. “Between race weekends we would speak daily if not more. He would always want post-race reports, all the data, the charts, the lap times and so on. He was totally engaged.
“He wanted to know more and more. He would ask and study how aero affected mechanical and vice versa, how dampers would affect more than just the ride, how curves and shapes could control heave and pitch. He’d ask questions about how torsion bars interact in droop, what gives most support in pitch and roll. The guy is just a giant sponge.”
Westbrook doesn’t shrug off the compliments, but says: “To be totally honest, it probably took two years for me to be where Brad wanted me to be, and part of what led to that was me realizing, ‘Hey, this team is gonna let me help develop the car and give them some direction, so I need to learn so much more now rather than just driving it.’
"I wanted to learn more and more how we could make the car quicker and quicker. And honestly I think we did that. I’m talking about me and Ryan; particularly in GT Le Mans, you cannot rely on just one driver.”
In fact, as well as Briscoe and full-time teammates in the #66 car Dirk Muller and Joey Hand, Westbrook was able to learn much from Scott Dixon, Bourdais’ equivalent in the #67. Brilliance in the cockpit was to be expected, but it was the dedication and input in engineering discussions that impressed Westbrook most: the five-time IndyCar champion never treats his sportscar forays like a busman’s holiday or an arrive-’n’-drive event.
“Having Dixon onboard was brilliant,” says Westbrook, “his feedback was so fresh. Sometimes the third driver on a team is treated that way and so he’ll treat the role that way: he’s the place-holder for the night-time stints or whatever. But Scott was a massive help for us and for Brad because he knew exactly what he wanted and said what he thought the car needed.
“It was so impressive hearing him the first time we worked together, and I took a lot from listening to his outlook, but then he was also extra-helpful in the last couple of years. In your third or fourth season of driving what is basically the same car, you can get stuck in a rut, looking at technical issues in one way, and that’s when you really appreciate someone of Scott’s quality and experience coming in with a different perspective.”
Well, some drivers aren’t as receptive as Westbrook because they think they already know it all: they adopt a ‘can’t do’ attitude, they cease to learn, and they plateau. Westy has the humility to accept that there is always room for further understanding, which is why he was always open to his engineer’s advice.
“If I wasn’t doing something right, as much as I hated it, I would listen when Brad would tell me, ‘No, it’s not the car. You’re doing this wrong!’,” says Westbrook. “Now, that’s really hard to accept as a driver – that you’re driving the car the wrong way! But it’s in everyone’s best interests to listen and learn if someone tells you that we can extract more pace from a particular setup direction if you drive the car a different way.
“Equally there were times when it was important for me to tell him as an engineer, ‘No Brad, that direction is wrong,’ and he would listen. That’s one of the reasons it was important for me to have learned the car and the physics of it; it meant I could speak in Brad’s language and he’d trust my judgment. It just worked really well; we both got a lot out of that honesty and directness.”
Those who have watched in awe as Chip Ganassi Racing strengthens its reputation as one of the greatest open-wheel racing teams of all time won’t be surprised that the same level of expertise and ambition is applied within the sportscar arm of Chip’s empire. Westbrook first appreciated it soon after his very first race for the team, the Ford GT’s IMSA debut in the 2016 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Goldberg, extreme right with phone in hand, in a rare 'not exchanging trash-talk with Westy' shot.
“We were 20 laps down after four hours, because we’d had an electrical problem,” he recalls. “For the next eight hours, every stint I was in, Brad was saying, ‘You’ve gotta hit this lap time, and hit this fuel number.’ I’m thinking, ‘Why is he making me do this? We’re way out of the running.’ I just wanted to go out there and lay down fast laps, and here’s Brad making me save fuel.
“But then three races later at Laguna Seca, I’m in the car with 1hr35mins to go and he says, ‘If you can get to the end of the race without pitting, then we should win.’ I think, ‘Oh shit, that’s not going to be easy,’ but all that stuff he taught me at Daytona, what he and Mike [Hull] wanted me to learn straight off the bat, is pretty much what led to that first win for the car a couple of races later.
"I totally knew by then how to fuel save while also keeping the lap times competitive because I’d had so much practice doing it during the 24-hour race. That’s just an example of how Ganassi works.”
Westbrook inevitably regards that as one of the highlights from his time with Ganassi, but there were several, including a near miss.
“The monkey wasn’t on our back that early in the program,” he recalls, “although it’s always good to get the first win out of the way, and relieve some pressure because that started a run of three consecutive wins.
“But I think Daytona this year… if the red flag had come out a lap earlier, that would have gone down as our best race ever, because we came from something like eight laps down and we slowly made our way back up. Every time there was a yellow, we got a lap back and then it rained and we found ourselves in the lead and pulling away.
“The red flag timing was awful, which is such a shame because that would have been an amazing comeback. It had been a really difficult 23 hours, but through hard work, and Brad and Mike making the right decisions, it was all coming back together.
"When I did my last Saturday stint, they said, ‘Go get your rest, we’re going to get the car back on the lead lap. The rain is coming.’ They know as a Brit I like racing in the rain!
“Sure enough, it was all in hand, we’d made our recovery drive, and then the red flag came out as we were coming down pitlane for fuel. If it had come out 30 seconds earlier, we’d have stayed out and won. And that would have meant we’d scored back-to-back wins at Daytona, which would have been incredible.
Bourdais, Muller, Hand, Ganassi, Dixon, Westbrook, Briscoe – quite a line-up of talent! Leading a Ford 1-2 in the 2018 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona was one of Westbrook's special moments, but he feels the near-miss at the same venue a year later should have been the greatest victory in the Ford GT's four-year history.
“So there are lots of good memories, and I’ve got to give props to our teammates. When we couldn’t win, we were genuinely supportive, and to see one of the Fords win at Le Mans in 2016 was great and took the program to a whole new level.
“The only thing missing from the program was a championship, obviously, and that will really hurt because, particularly in 2018, we did enough to win it in terms of speed and tactics.
"We got beaten by a very consistent #3 Corvette, but we were leading at VIR after an hour and then the clutch went, and we got pole at Watkins Glen and then the front antiroll bar broke after just three laps and we finished last. That put us a long way back and still we only lost by a few points. At least we can say we gave it 110 percent.”
Such was the case throughout his four seasons of racing in Ganassi’s Ford GT program. Underneath his polite public demeanor and teasing humor in private, Westbrook hates losing as much as he loves winning. His inner drive, his obsession with competition and the satisfaction he gained from being surrounded by like-minded individuals at CGR, is apparently easy to explain.
“The more you enjoy the racing, the more you think about it and dream about it, and there’s a lot to be said for enjoying going to work each day,” he comments. “I think it gets the best out of you and that’s definitely what I had with Chip’s team because I just wanted more and more out of the situation. I never thought, ‘Oh, this is great’ and just coasted: I wanted to extract everything I could. It was an amazing team to be part of and it was an unbelievable four years.”
"Thanks boss!" Westy is now well aware what makes Chip's team so good. Just think of the expertise he could thus take elsewhere... given the chance.
And yet despite that dedication to duty, it seems that logic has not yet prevailed and Westbrook is still seeking a ride for 2020. Erstwhile friend and teammate Briscoe will soon be confirmed as graduating to the Prototype division in the Wayne Taylor Racing seat vacated by Jordan Taylor, who is heading for the GTLM class with Corvette Racing.
But Motorsport.com has learned that, contrary to earlier expectations, Renger van der Zande will be staying put at WTR, the team unwilling to change both full-time drivers in one season. While Wayne Taylor’s desire for continuity is understandable, one would have thought that to continue the highly successful Briscoe/Westbrook partnership would also have reaped rewards – especially since Dixon is to be WTR’s endurance-race extra (Kamui Kobayashi will reprise his fourth-man role in the the Rolex 24).
If that door is closed, that leaves Westbrook with…?
“Nothing in IMSA at the moment,” he sighs. “At the moment it’s very tough, although I have a couple of opportunities and I am hopeful.
“I want to stay racing in America, and I’m really proud of my IMSA record. As well as the wins with Chip, the last time I was in Prototypes in 2015 with Spirit of Daytona Racing, we went into the last round of the season with a six-point lead but then had an issue with the car and missed out on the championship by one point. Still, we were up against some very good and well-funded teams, and so it was a really strong year.
“Well, like I said earlier, I feel like I’m better – actually, I know I’m better – as a driver than I was then, and I’d definitely like to go to Prototypes again and prove that. With the DPi v2.0 regs coming [in 2022] with hybrid engines, that looks really interesting.”
Goldberg agrees with Motorsport.com that it’s a sorry state of affairs when a driver of Westbrook’s quality is left pan-handling for a ride just two months before the official preseason test, the Roar Before the 24.
“Wherever he goes, his next boss need to call me,” he states. “Richard is a fiery Brit who wears his emotions on his sleeve. He is super-competitive and it takes an equal soul who is just as competitive to harness that emotion – but it’s worth doing.
"I mean, he may be the most gullible person I know, almost like an absent-minded professor, but he has a memory like an elephant when it comes to racing because he eats, sleeps and breathes it. It’s hard to rate drivers but for sure Westy is at or near the top.”
Anybody paying attention out there?
Hopefully good practice for adding a signature to a contract some time very soon…
Photo by: Nikolaz Godet
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