The team will race a competition version of the Ford GT mid-engined supercar launched at the Detroit motor show a year ago, run by the famous US-based Chip Ganassi racing outfit. The first WEC outing will be at Silverstone on 17 April.
Priaulx, who as well as his four international touring car titles has already won the Nürburgring 24 Hours, the Sebring 12 Hours and stood on the podium at Le Mans, will be joined by the German endurance racing driver Stefan Mucke, Frenchman Olivier Pla and Franchitti, who drove a Ganassi Ford to victory at Sebring in 2014, the Blue Oval's first outright win at the US event since 1969.
Priaulx told Autocar that he made "a sporting decision" to join the team when he saw how serious the effort was. "They aren't just coming to celebrate 50 years of the original GT40 winning at Le Mans," he said. "They want to win."
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The Ford Ganassi WEC team is based at the new motorsport headquarters of Multimatic, a major Ford team partner. Multimatic will also build the road-going Ford GT at its Toronto headquarters. Around 250 examples will be contructed per year, although Ford hasn't revealed how many years production will continue for. Build of the first road car has to be completed by the end of the year to ensure the car complies with race homologation rules.
The racing team will follow a nine-race programme in Europe, Asia and the Middle-East. Its team principal is Multimatic’s much-experienced George Howard-Chappell, who has already led teams to Le Mans victories three times.
“It doesn’t get any more competitive than Le Mans, but that is what makes winning it so special,” said Howard-Chappell. “Everything has to be perfect and even then you need luck on your side. The Ford GT has been built to return to Le Mans and best in the world.”
The WEC programme will run concurrently with a similar, recently announced two-car IMSA team challenge in the US, but the four cars will come together at Le Mans in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT40’s famous one-two-three result in 1966.
“Make no mistake - we are racing to win,” said Dave Pericak, Ford Performance global director. “To compete at this level you need the best car, the best team and the best drivers, and we have selected Stefan, Olivier, Andy and Marino to drive the Ford GT to take on the best in the world.”
Ford, whose 1960s race sports car race project was founded after then company boss Henry Ford II failed in an increasingly acrimonious bid to buy Ferrari, went on to win Le Mans four times in succession.
The race-going version of the Ford GT, which will compete at Le Mans next year, has previously been seen testing in an official video from Ford.
The video shows the GT's development team testing the racer ahead of its official unveiling back in June 2015, where executive chairman Bill Ford, chief executive Mark Fields and product development president Raj Nair were present. The car's first outing at Le Mans 2016 will mark 50 years since the original first won the classic endurance race.
A return to sports car racing allows the company to both promote its new Ford Performance sub-brand and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original GT race car placing first, second and third at the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours. Ford went on to win the race for four years in succession, from 1966-1969.
Talks to return Ford to top-flight motorsport are understood to have started in 2013. Joining Ford and Ganassi in the project are Multimatic Motorsports, Roush Yates Engines, Castrol, Michelin, Forza Motorsport, Sparco, and Brembo.
The racing GT features new bodywork which increases the aerodynamic effect compared with the road car, new lightweight carbonfibre materials and a chassis which is described as “exceptionally rigid but light”.
Mark Fields said the racing car would act as a “hotbed for technical innovation”. Some minor components made using 3D printing will be incorporated into the design of the GT race car. “The process allows us to produce and test new components rapidly,” added Fields.
The Ford Performance sub-brand, which aims to bring 12 new performance vehicles to market by 2020. Other road-going models in the programme include the Ford Focus RS, the Shelby GT350 and GT350R, the F-150 Raptor, the Focus ST and Fiesta ST.
Speaking at the car's launch in 2015, Bill Ford said: “We’re back at Le Mans and we’re back with a supercar.
“Ford’s history in racing is legendary, across many circuits and across the globe. We’re back with a car and a partner that we feel great about. The first time I saw the early rendering of this vehicle, I was in love.”
Raj Nair added: “As we developed the Ford GT, from the outset, we wanted to ensure we had a car that has what it takes to return Ford to the world of GT racing.
“We believe the Ford GT’s advances in aerodynamics, light-weighting and EcoBoost power will make for a compelling race car that can once again compete on a global stage.”