The Ford GT’s Long Road Back to Le Mans
Back in 1966, Ford was a wide-eyed nine-year-old spectator at Le Mans when the company scored a historic 1-2-3 finish with the original Ford GT, then known alternately as the GT40 and Mark II. “I never saw a more thilling thing in my life,” he said. He wasn’t the only one: Ford’s overwhelming performance that damp and dreary afternoon in central France marked the apogee of American participation in international motorsports.
Ford’s return to Le Mans after a half-century hiatus is a sign of how much the automotive landscape has changed — and how much it has remained the same — since 1966. In competing at Le Mans with a racing version of its factory hot rod, Ford is following the path blazed by thundering Dodge Vipers in the 1990s and bright-yellow Chevrolet Corvettes ever since. But at the same time, the decision to compete in the GT class rather than fighting for overall victory against factory prototypes from Audi, Porsche, and Toyota demonstrates how much Ford’s corporate ambition has shrunk over the past 50 years.
In the early 1960s, in an effort to overhaul Ford’s bland image and appeal to younger consumers, a hard-charging, high-flying Lee Iacocca persuaded Henry Ford II — Henry Ford’s autocratic grandson, popularly known as “The Deuce” — to embark on the Total Performance racing program. Working with unprecedented funding, Ford engineers developed the four-cam V-8 race motor that dominated the Indy 500, and the big-block 427-cubic-inch beast that devoured competition in NASCAR.
In international terms, Ford’s biggest impact was felt in sports-car racing, especially the classic enduros at Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring. The Ford of the 1960s was very much a corporate Goliath, and it lavished budgets and engineering resources never before seen in racing to smite smaller, nimbler cars from Ferrari and Porsche. In 1967, a ground-pounding Ford GT Mark IV designed and built in Dearborn, driven by all-American heros Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt, and managed by in-house snake charmer Carroll Shelby, crushed its rivals at Le Mans while leading 23 of 24 hours, and the Deuce promply pulled the plug on the sports-car program. (A privately run GT40 also won the race in 1968 and 1969.)
Ford circa 2015 has neither the will nor the inclination to get sucked into a no-expense-spared cage battle for overall victory in the prototype class in a form of racing that hardly registers with American consumers. Instead, the company has chosen to promote the brand by competing in the production-based GT class against companies such as Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Aston Martin and General Motors.
That said, the street car was designed from the beginning with the racing version in mind. “It doesn’t look beautiful because of the aerodynamic characteristics,” said Multimatic Motorsports technical director Larry Holt, who has the long, frizzy white hair and the manic energy of a classic rock band front man. “But there was unprecedented cooperation between the aero engineering guys and the Ford stylists.”
The cars will be campaigned by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, which already runs prototypes equipped with Ford EcoBoost engines in the North American-based Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Two Ford GTs will compete for the Tudor title while Ganassi said he plans to establish a second team in Europe to contest the FIA World Endurance Championship. All four cars are slated to race at Le Mans in 2016.
The Ganassi team has no experience in European sports-car racing. “We’re excited,” team manager Mike Hull said, “because it puts us in a corral we’ve never been in before.” Actually, Chip Ganassi himself raced at Le Mans in 1987, DNF’ing in a Sauber. He said that the possibility of returning as an entrant was one of the main reasons he signed with Ford to run its Tudor series Daytona Prototype program in 2014. “We’re coming here to win,” he said.
Although the press conference was light on technical details, Ford eagerly trumpeted the potential of the racing-spec EcoBoost engine, a twin-turbo, direct-injection V-6 that will probably be limited to about 500 to 520 horsepower. The car revealed at Le Mans was a runner that’s already been shaken down at several racetracks.
No drivers were identified, but Holt acknoledged that longtime Multimatic driver Scott Maxwell and current Ganassi DP ace Scott Pruett have aready tested the prototype. Pruett, in fact, attended the press conference, watching unobstrusively on the fringe of the media crush. “I’m one for one here,” he said, referring to his class victory in 2001, driving a Corvette, in his only appearance in the race.
Plans call for the Ford GT to be homologated in September and raced for the first time in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January. Winning the first time out is unlikely, but neither does prolonged failure seem like an option. Before Le Mans in 1966, Henry Ford II famously sent the executive running the racing program a notecard on which he’d written in hand, “You better win.”
No doubt, the same command will be in effect come 2017 or 2018.