Golden echoes

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.

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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

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