Exactly 50 years ago this week Ford shattered the European racing world while upending Ferrari’s dominance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ford didn’t just win the world’s most prestigious endurance race in 1966, the company swept it, taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in a photo finish that remains one of the most vivid images in the history of competitive motorsports..
Now, five decades later, Ford is back in full factory force, campaigning four Ford GTs (numbers 66, 67, 68 and 69) that share quite a bit with a limited production street machine select buyers will start receiving in late 2016. The potential for the race and street car to again be associated with winning Le Mans is almost too much to hope for given this is Ford’s first year back since 1967 (the company won that year, too, and also in ’68 and ’69, though those last two wins were privately campaigned GT40s with no factory support). Also, the last time Ford competed at Le Mans it took three years for the automaker to win, after disappointing results in 1964 and 1965. Expecting a win on their first year back is probably a tad unrealistic.
And yet here they are, with Bill Ford Jr., Edsel Ford II and Henry Ford III seated among hundreds of supportive Ford fans, many of them owners of the 2005-2006 Ford GT, daring to dream the maybe-not-impossible dream. Will history repeat itself? Can Ford once again dominate on the world racing stage?
As a 2005 Ford GT owner I felt compelled to finally check the 24 Hours of Le Mans off my bucket list in 2016. Thankfully, I was not alone. A large contingent of 2005-2006 Ford GT owners were understandably intrigued by the prospect of Ford’s return to Le Mans. Better still, the automaker recognized this group’s passion and worked with the Ford GT Forum to create a 24 Hours of Le Mans race package, including full pit access, meals hosted by Ford family members, and a VIP suite offering front-row seats on the front straight.
Which brings us back to that nervous excitement permeating the pre-race and early race action. After arriving in Le Mans on Wednesday and getting my first look at the VIP suite on Thursday I was given a tour of the race team’s pit on Friday. Watching race technicians tinker with cars that are nearly identical to the machines Ford will put on the street a few months from now was surreal, as was imaging them on the podium at Le Mans in less than 48 hours.
Several aspects of Ford’s race effort surprised me, including the practice of “pre-heating” the Michelin race tires to 176 degrees before each tire change. This reduces the warm-up process when a car leaves pit lane, creating maximum adhesion as soon as possible.
After a parade of Le Mans drivers through the town of Le Mans on Friday evening, another parade took place on the race circuit Saturday, a few hours before the green flag dropped. This event included the three classic Ford GT40 race cars that won in 1966, followed by a new 2017 Ford GT Street car, 15 Ford GTs from the 2005-2006 era and a couple dozen Mustang GTs and Focus RS hot hatches. Ford’s high-visibility at Le Mans is undeniable, which only elevates the pressure on Ford’s drivers and team managers.
Thankfully, things were looking good before the race even started. The number 68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA GT earned pole position with the fastest time in the LM GTE Pro Class, besting the competition from Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ferrari and Porsche. In fact, the GT’s lap times were so good race organizers penalized the cars with 22 pounds of extra weight for the race, plus a restriction to their turbo boost pressure. Race officials also allowed the Aston Martin and Chevrolet Corvette teams to increase their performance after seeing the qualifying lap times. Isn’t the effort to make all cars perform the same on race day fun…
The 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans will not go down in history as the race’s most exciting start. A downpour just before the flag dropped had racers starting under caution behind the safety car, though within an hour the track dried and the field ran at full power. The Ford GTs, even with their added weight and reduced boost, were looking good, battling with the Ferrari 488s and Porsche 911s for lead position (except for the 67 car, which had transmission problems just before the race began and ended up over 20 laps behind the others).
Six hours later the story was much the same, with the 66, 68 and 69 cars oscillating between first, second and third place in their class, with only the number 82 Ferrari 488 keeping it interesting. The twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 in the GTs emits a distinctive exhaust note as they travel past the VIP suite on the front straight. It’s not as throaty as the V8-powered Corvette, but also not as whiny as the Ferrari’s V8s and the Porsche’s flat 6s. By midnight, 9 hours after the race started, the number 82 Ferrari is leading the 68 Ford GT, with GT number 69 about a lap back and GT numbers 66 and 67 well off the lead.
This pattern of the 68 Ford GT staying within a minute or less of the number 82 Ferrari remained consistent throughout the night and morning. In the middle of the night there was a penalty assessed against the number 68 GT for not displaying the right position number on the car, but the effect of the penalty was made up by the Ford’s performance in short order. Then, at exactly 10:30 a.m., Joey Hand takes the 68 Ford GT past the Ferrari on the Mulsanne Straight and holds its lead through the chicane and front straight, much to the delight of cheering VIP guests.
That was the last lead change for the LM GTE Pro Class. The 68 car remained in front for the rest of the race, with the 69 and 67 car slowly gaining ground on the Ferrari, placing the Fords in 1, 3 and 4 place. Of course the win is great, but there’s no denying how close to a 1-2-3 finish Ford came, exactly 50 years after the first one. C’est la vie, right?
But wait…what’s this? A penalty on the Ferrari for showing the wrong position number on the side of the car? The same penalty the Ford suffered (and was penalized for) the night before? Well, like all European racing the finishing order isn’t always as it first appears (again, just like in 1966). As of this writing there’s no conclusion regarding where the Ferrari will finish in relation to the Fords. But it’s possible Ford will get its 1-2-3 finish.
Either way, Ford gets its story book win, so congratulations to the company, the Ford GT product team and the Chip Ganassi Team USA racing crew. A lot of people dared to dream of Ford not only returning to Le Mans one day, but winning there. They don’t have to dream anymore.
Article courtesy of Forbes, contributor Karl Brauer