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Opinion

How American racing’s greatest rivalry has gone global in the WEC

OPINION: There’s been plenty of excitement about the new era of sportscar racing, with an influx of manufacturers injecting interest into the World Endurance Championship. And it has also brought a new dimension to the rivalry between two of US racing’s top squads

#2 Cadillac Racing Cadillac V-Series.R of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, Richard Westbrook

Sport is built on rivalries. Think of Liverpool versus Manchester United. Federer versus Nadal. Senna versus Prost.

In motorsport, it’s harder to pick out defining rivalries between teams given the constantly changing competitive landscape. But not so in the US, where the tussle for supremacy between two of IndyCar’s most successful operations has taken on a new dimension in an altogether different arena this year.

Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have been the dominant forces for the past 30 years and more. It’s now been over a decade since anyone else has won the IndyCar title. Ganassi’s tally since breaking through with Jimmy Vasser in 1996 now stands at 14 championships, but could soon equal Roger Penske on 15 if, as seems likely, Alex Palou maintains his enormous advantage over Josef Newgarden in the final three races.

And since 2000 when Ganassi first conquered IndyCar’s showpiece race, it’s fairly even in the Indianapolis 500 wins stakes too. Chip’s team has five, with Penske adding nine wins at the Brickyard to its pre-millennium tally for a total of 19. Fittingly, this year’s race was a showdown between the two squads, Newgarden just pipping Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson.

And now the rivalry is now staged on three fronts, as they combine the World Endurance Championship with North America’s IMSA SportsCar Championship, each alongside grandee manufacturer partners lured back to the top class of sportscar racing by the cost-effective LMDh ruleset. Ganassi teamed up with Cadillac to run two V-Series.Rs under the Cadillac Racing banner, one in each series, while Penske Porsche Motorsport runs four factory 963s split evenly across both.

“Did we plan it that way? No!” chuckles Ganassi managing director Mike Hull. “We don’t ask each other what we’re doing next, we just happen to be in the same location at the same time, so we’re going to compare ourselves to them, they’re going to compare themselves to us.”

Ganassi and Penske gave been the pre-eminent teams in US open wheel racing for the past 30 years, with the two squads winning every IndyCar title in the past decade

Ganassi and Penske gave been the pre-eminent teams in US open wheel racing for the past 30 years, with the two squads winning every IndyCar title in the past decade

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Doing so is only natural, concedes PPM managing director Jonathan Diuguid, who worked in IndyCar as recently as 2021 as Scott McLaughlin’s race engineer.

“We always have a consistent benchmark [in Ganassi],” he says. “If we’re not executing, we don’t have anybody else to look in the mirror at other than ourselves. Having Ganassi there to say, ‘that’s a group that’s able to do it, so why can’t we?’ – that’s important. They’re the team we’re always competing against for marquee wins and championships.”

Each side of the divide derives great satisfaction when it’s their turn to come out on top. And both recognise the rivalry’s benefits for driving the respective organisations forward, the relentless nature of the competition breeding a mutual aversion to complacency that Diuguid says is “pushing us all to be better”.

To Hull, it’s “a compliment” to be compared with Penske, having strived over the years “to be considered in the same sentence”. But he’s equally wary of letting it become an all-consuming distraction because “we don’t want to get in the way of ourselves in the process of understanding how to get the most out of today”.

"It suits both of us to have open, healthy discussions about balancing the two technical platforms. There’s healthy open communication to say 'hey, how do you guys see it, how do you guys feel the balance is'" Jonathan Diuguid

“It’s gratifying, but at the same time, you don’t want it to swallow you,” Hull says. “It’s more about what we achieve every day. And I’m sure they look at it the same way.

“They don’t think about beating Ganassi, they think about ways to be the best they can be to win today; whether today is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or the race weekend. And that’s what they do.”

What could have been: A forgotten F1 racer’s Ganassi cameos split by seven years

This is a new era for a rivalry Diuguid describes as “a healthy competition, but it’s a respectful one too”. Both have distinctive records in sportscars, but have only spent one season playing together in the same sandpit.

Penske’s LMP2 arm cleaned up in the American Le Mans Series with Porsche’s RS Spyder between 2006 and 2008, but only went up against Ganassi’s multiple championship-winning Grand-Am arm in 2009, when Bob Stallings Racing beat both to the punch. Penske waited until 2018 before returning to sportscars with Acura’s DPi project, by which time Ganassi was running Ford GTs in the GTLM class and therefore was never in the same race. Penske romped to IMSA titles in 2019 and 2020, then departed at the end of that year just as Ganassi made its top class comeback with Cadillac in 2021.

Penske and Ganassi have competed in sportcars at the same time before, but only ever in the same class during the 2009 Grand-Am season

Penske and Ganassi have competed in sportcars at the same time before, but only ever in the same class during the 2009 Grand-Am season

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

This year Penske has won twice in IMSA (denied a third at Watkins Glen by a skidplank infraction), Ganassi once, but the going has been tougher in the WEC with a third apiece their best results; for Penske in Portugal and Ganassi at Le Mans. The situation here is complicated by Balance of Performance, more specifically the competing technical platforms that rulemakers the FIA and Automobile Club de l'Ouest have to equalise.

Cars built to the Le Mans Hypercars regulations have hoovered up the wins so far and as sole members of the LMDh club in the WEC – which will swell to five members in 2024 when BMW, Alpine and Lamborghini enter the fray – the two US racing heavyweights have found common ground as they seek to optimise their platform. Both are clear that fighting for the honour of the best LMDh manufacturer isn’t enough.

“We’re there to win and be successful,” Diuguid says. “Porsche and Cadillac have invested heavily both in the LMDh platform and also our programmes, so it’s really important that it succeeds for both of us and we’re all pushing hard.

“It suits both of us to have open, healthy discussions about balancing the two technical platforms. There’s healthy open communication to say ‘hey, how do you guys see it, how do you guys feel the balance is’ and we can have a common and consistent feedback to the sanctioning bodies that benefits the series as a whole.”

The unexpected cooperation extends beyond lobbying too. As both are simultaneously setting up new facilities in Germany, practical assistance isn’t off the table. Diuguid adds: “We look to help each other out too when we get in tight situations, whether it’s composites or glue or whatever we need at a given time.”

But that can only last for so long given the depth of competition, while the steep learning curve both are on with the new breed of LMDh machinery will eventually even out. The added complexity due to the hybrid element, as Hull puts it, “requires extra thinkers” to unlock potential and both squads have taken to alternating staff between the respective programmes, but Diuguid recognises there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

He's part of a senior leadership structure of four that is attached to both PPM projects, which he believes is significant in making best use of the “many crossovers”.

“It’s really important for us to maximise the four cars that we have running all over the world because the technical specification is so close, because the [Michelin] tyres are the same,” he says. “Any time one of these cars runs, we can learn something.”

Diuguid oversees both the WEC and IMSA arms of Porsche Penske Motorsport, and knows every time a car runs in either series it could yield crucial information to aid its battle against Ganassi

Diuguid oversees both the WEC and IMSA arms of Porsche Penske Motorsport, and knows every time a car runs in either series it could yield crucial information to aid its battle against Ganassi

Photo by: Porsche

As a result every weekend counts, and so to Diuguid the intensity of the rivalry and the desire to come out on top isn’t diluted by having more actors around the table and the involvement of BoP. This remains the great elephant in the room, with manufacturers prohibited by the regulations from explicitly talking about it.

Even if the fight is not as straightforward as in IndyCar, where each has the same basic Dallara chassis and are only differentiated by their choice of engine partner (Honda for Ganassi, Chevrolet for Penske), both sides recognise there can be no excuse for not accessing the best potential of the respective packages.

“Regardless of the BoP or where you are in a given weekend, it’s still up to the racing teams to execute,” says Diuguid, “and I think that’s the one consistency that we can expect from our team and also from Ganassi.”

Somehow it’s only fitting that two of the best US outfits are on hand to elevate what has all the makings of the best sportscar racing spectacle seen for years. “This is the tip of the iceberg for the next few years,” says Hull. It’s all the more so for the two rivals’ involvement.

As the only two factory LMDh squads in the 2023 WEC, the rivalry and respect between Ganassi and Penske is amplified

As the only two factory LMDh squads in the 2023 WEC, the rivalry and respect between Ganassi and Penske is amplified

Photo by: Marc Fleury

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