Thursday, 2 July 2015

"I think I had an opportunity both days to win" - Jeff Ward Enjoys Impressive Red Bull GRC Debut

Last time out at Daytona Tanner Foust and Sebastian Eriksson may have shared the wins, but it was another driver who really stood out from the crowd.

Competing in his first ever Red Bull Global Rallycross events, Motorsport Hall of Famer Jeff Ward was remarkable. Finishing second in his first ever qualifying session, the Glasgow-born star then went on to take a pole position, a heat win and a best final position of fourth later in the weekend.

Although the Daytona double header was Ward's rallycross debut, the sport is something that Ward has been looking at for a number of years.

"I've been looking at the series; I tried to do the X Games a couple of years ago and talked to Ken Block, other people, (Travis) Pastrana, and just never got the opportunity," Ward recalls. "It was just kinda new and to get in with a team you had to do one of the races or something to get invited even though I raced supermoto there and won gold medals, I still had to go through a process so I just didn't do it."

However, with Ward's former Indy Racing League team Chip Ganassi Racing entering Red Bull GRC for 2015 and his friend Brian Deegan looking for someone to fill his seat at the team when other commitments take him away from the series, Ward finally had the perfect opportunity to make his rallycross bow.

Filling in for Deegan at Daytona, Ward was instantly on the pace, something which was something of a surprise considering his lack of seat time in the team's M-Sport built Ford Fiesta prior to the race weekend. Just a short spell in a local car park was all Ward had to get acclimatised to the 600 horsepower car before the Daytona weekend.

"It was just a parking lot with trash cans and I went out, it was super slick and dirty and kind of dusty and I did probably 40 laps on a 20 second lap time or something," he said. "The biggest thing I had to learn was the starts, there's like ten different things that go on to get that thing to start so that was the biggest thing I did most of the day there."

"It just got me comfortable in the car a little bit," he continued. "There was nothing more I could bring over to the race except what the power was and all the shifting and braking; it was basically just a shakedown".

Despite the minimal time spent behind the wheel of the Fiesta, tarmac and pavement experience in IRL and time honing his dirt skills in the Lucas Oils Off-Road series put Ward in good stead, as did advice from new team mate Steve Arpin who offered the 54-year-old some tips in the build up to the race weekend.

"Steve was great. He helped me with the launch, and gave me all the little ins and outs of what to do when you're out there," said Ward. "I had him tell me 'hey watch for this guy because he'll do this', he gave me a couple of heads up on the aggressive guys who are gonna stick it in there and get your door and do some stuff but I'm used to that in the Pro-2, it's the same thing."

All of that combined to produce results that were perhaps surprising for a newcomer, but for someone who's won every motorcross title there is, as well as open wheel races and missing out on an off-road truck title by a mere point, they went to show his versatility and talent behind the wheel of whatever is thrown at him.

Never out of the top two in qualifying, a heat win and final finishes of sixth and fourth made Ward look like a seasoned rallycross competitor. In fact, those results had the potential to be even higher.

"I think I had an opportunity both days to win. On the start (of the first day final) when the two guys (Patrik Sandell and Ken Block) took themselves out I got the lead but I was in the wrong gear then I got hit hard and stalled my car so I dropped almost to dead last," Ward remembers. "The next day I just got a bad jump on the start and I dropped back to sixth or something, but I did pass my team mate on the last corner for third on the outside and then I got docked rough driving."

That final pass in the final race of the weekend proved to be as controversial talking point that left spectators, commentators and the Ganassi pair of Ward and Arpin baffled.

"I'm thinking if that's a racing incident when they (Sandell and Block) took each other out, but passing on the outside with no contact, and then getting hit by the car that you passed on the left rear panel is rough driving, I wanted them to explain it, they didn't explain it."

In fact, it was just before the podium ceremony that Ward and Arpin discovered their positions had been swapped. But despite missing on a stunning top three in only his second final, Ward didn't dwell on the incident too much.

"I said it's fine with me I'm not in the series and I told him (Arpin) when the stewards came after," he added. "I'm not going to complain about it because it gives my team mate more points and he's running the whole series."

Brian Deegan will be back in the car for the 4th July weekend event at MCAS New River, meaning Ward's next rallycross outing will be at the series' return to the US capital, Washington DC. With effectively two race weekends now behind him (Daytona being a double header event), Ward is looking forward to improving and once again fighting at the sharp end.

"I think I'll have more confidence now. I think I'll be a little quicker and the track I'm sure will be different," he said. "Now I'll be able to change the car a little bit and try some stuff with suspension and try and get some grip and do a couple of things now I at least know where the baseline is."

With talks underway to add Los Angeles to his meagre Red Bull Global Rallycross schedule, Ward is hoping that his strong debut performance will allow him to run a full season campaign in the near-future.

"We just have to sit down and see what's going on next year with Ford, if it's a factory effort, if the money's involved or what it's going to take to put it together with funding and all that," Ward said regarding a potential full-time seat.

"It definitely helped me get something going for the following year and I'm sure the next races I'll do well as well so it's not like I'm going to get slower."

Read the full interview with Jeff Ward HERE

Images:  Chip Ganassi Racing, Larry Chen, Red Bull Global Rallycross

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