Ford’s huge attack on Le Mans this year carried remarkable similarities to its efforts 50 years ago. David Greenhalgh soaked up the retro vibe trackside.
The racing histories of both the Ford Motor Company and New Zealand were foremost in many minds at the Le Mans 24 Hours this year. Ford’s crushing 1-2-3 victory in 1966 was mentioned continuously. Nothing unusual about a manufacturer trying to leverage off past glories – except that Ford had more reason than most to be proud of its history. Its late 1960s assault on the Le Mans 24 Hours stands with the 1930s Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union grand prix projects as three of the most dramatic and remarkable corporate campaigns in the entire history of the sport.
There were certainly strong echoes from that day 50 years ago; for a start, the four Fords had racing numbers #66, #67, #68 and #69 to commemorate the four wins. More significantly, the sheer level of corporate commitment was just as evident now as then. In 1966, Henry Ford II famously gave his racing manager Leo Beebe a handwritten business card before the race which simply said “You better win”, and Mr Ford was again present the next day to see his cars do just that.
This year, the drivers were taken to Dearborn to meet the Ford senior executives. Ryan Briscoe said early in race week that he wasn’t aware of a single corporate
heavy who would not be at the race, while codriver Richard Westbrook commented that “the executives will be here for the race and that’s good support for us, they’re fully behind what we do, and that’s why they chose us for this programme.” One of the strong appeals of prototype/GT racing is that car companies are designing and engineering a product carrying their name, Briscoe reflecting that “the manufacturer competition is very important just because it’s the heart of racing”. The Ford presence in the paddock was certainly a match for the huge setups favoured by the LMP1 marques, adding to the general feel of a clash of automotive giants.
Secondly, as Le Mans cars tend to age much more gracefully than their F1 counterparts, Ford had the luxury of being able to create a vehicle for its comeback which carried authentic hints of the old car. Briscoe commented, “It’s a very similar approach maybe for different reasons. We need a supercar that can go to Le Mans and compete. It’s a brand new concept, it’s not like they’ve just dollied up a Mustang or something. They’ve designed this Ford GT to really resemble the old GT40, the lines, the tail lights, the front headlights, there are key design elements that really resemble the GT40, but at the same time it’s something that’s completely unique.”
Thirdly, as in 1966, Ford assembled a very cosmopolitan collection of drivers. There were three Australians and three New Zealanders chosen for Ford’s 16-man armada in 1966, although the results achieved by the two countries could not have been more diverse: the three Kiwis achieved the best possible result (two winners and a second-place) while none of the three Aussies (Frank Gardner, Paul Hawkins and
Brian Muir) even reached the flag.
As it turned out, this year’s Ford lineup (and indeed the contest for the outright win) wasn’t going to allow a Kiwi to win without an Aussie also doing so: Ryan Briscoe noted, “We’ve got very much the Commonwealth car with [Englishman] Westbrook, Dixie [Scott Dixon] and myself. I’m really excited to have Scott in the car, there’s that Chris Amon/Bruce McLaren connection and we’ve been mates for a long time, we were teammates at Ganassi back in 2005, and we’ve stayed very close ever since. There’s a very strong bond between the three of us.”
Indeed, the Kiwi link was travelling proudly alongside the Ford history throughout the event. The 1966 win was easily the best day in the history of NZ motorsport to that time, which Brendon Hartley acknowledged with photos of ’66 winning duo McLaren and Amon on top of his helmet for this year’s race: “I’d had the idea for a while that I wanted to do something on the helmet, and when I spoke to Chris I was surprised how happy he was for me to do it, and also the support from Bruce’s family.”
Scott Dixon agreed. When the Ford programme was announced “immediately for me it was something I wanted to be part of because the race itself was something I’d dreamt of doing but the Kiwi tie was a nice sort of twist to it. As you can tell, there’s a lot of emphasis on this and you really only get one shot with the 50th anniversary and doing it right.”
But there was one major difference in the motor racing landscape between 1966 and 2016. Fifty years ago, there were certainly regulations restricting what a manufacturer could do, but back then it was a far briefer and more liberal rule book.
While cubic inches are of course not the whole story, the seven-litre Fords certainly looked like they were playing the sledgehammer to the fourlitre Ferrari P3’s nut (as indeed no less a luminary than John Wyer commented at the time).
And yet history was even repeated on this front too. GTE racing had been generally thought to be about a manufacturer revising its road car to run within the ACO’s Balance of Performance. But this requirement was a trifle inconvenient for Ford, which decided to skip the limitations inherent in this approach, and (with the consent of the ACO and gracious competitors) simply build a racing car, with a road car to come.
The BoP duly featured heavily in the agitation about the Fords at Le Mans. Indifferent speed on the Test Day, two weeks before the race, miraculously transformed itself into serious pace in qualifying, so not surprisingly the Fords found their wings clipped by the ACO before the start. But it didn’t stop them producing a very strong 1-3-4-9 performance in the race, while accusations were rife from their rivals about Ford having earlier sandbagged for a favourable BoP. The 1966 triumph was partially marred by the uncertainty and distraction created by the mysterious form finish – but 50 years later, the controversy faced by Ford went to the very heart of how it had approached the race.
Ford built on the link by getting some of its old warhorses involved as well, as Briscoe explained: “It’s been really cool to learn about (1966) and meet people who were involved such as Mose Nowland. He was telling stories about the drivers and the car and how it ran, just really special to sort of go back in time and now be reliving it in the modern era with a modern car as we try to rewrite history; it’s extremely cool.”
Strong echoes indeed.
Brendon Hartley Left: Ford’s garage at Le Mans in 1966. Above: The Amon/McLaren GT40 en route to victory. Above right: Hell hath no fury like an automotive giant scorned. Graham Hill or Brian Muir leads the Ferrari 330 P3 of Mike Parkes/Ludovico Scarfiotti. Fifty years on, beating Ferrari was still the aim. Bottom left: Brendon Hartley’s tribute to his fellow Kiwis, Amon and McLaren.
Ryan Briscoe Scott Dixon