The Feud that Created America’s Greatest Race Car
Around the time that cable TV came to India in the early nineties, Michael Schumacher, the legendary Formula 1 driver was racing in a Ford and ended up winning his first two titles in that car before switching to Ferrari in which he won 5 more titles. That Ford vs Ferrari saga was reignited by the recent Christian Bale-Matt Damon starrer Ford v Ferrari. This article in Popular Mechanics gives a backdrop to the nuances of Ford’s build out of the GT40, something that motorheads will especially enjoy.
“These two guys were larger than life,” says A.J. Baime, author of Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. “Here you have arguably the most famous and powerful CEO in America, Henry Ford II, up against Enzo Ferrari—the most narcissistic man to walk the earth, but deservedly so, because he was a genius. You couldn’t write it better.”
The clash of these titanic egos would propel Ford to design America’s greatest race car: the GT40. An unstable engineering mashup of California hot-rod ethos and high-speed NASCAR expertise, the GT40 failed to finish Le Mans in 1964 and 1965, but bold testing innovations and a never-before-seen brake strategy had them primed for 1966. Weeks before the start at Le Mans, Henry Ford II handed race program boss Leo Beebe a handwritten note: “You better win.”
….The 1966 GT40 Mark II is more comfortable than you might expect. Designed for long-distance driving, the seat is soft and ventilated. Forward visibility is excellent. Somehow there’s plenty of interior room, considering the tiny exterior dimensions. If Le Mans circa 1966 amounted to a frantic 3,000-mile road trip, this seems like the car you’d want to do it in. But the moment you fire up the mid-mounted 427-cubic-inch V-8, you’re reminded this is a race car, capable of modern race-car speed—more than 200 mph—in 1960s analog form. No power steering. No power brakes. No electronic safety systems. A hundred miles per hour in third gear feels like you’re in a sidecar strapped to the Space Shuttle and you’re not even halfway to top speed. The guys who ran these things down the Mulsanne Straight at 210 mph, at night, on 1966-spec tires, after driving for four hours straight, must’ve been brave. Or crazy. Or a heady mixture of both.
…“They spent a lot of money, but that was no guarantee you’d win a race,” says Preston Lerner, author of Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans. “[Ford] also had to bring in the right people to win. They had to have the mechanics, the race organization people, the drivers. It could’ve been a glorious failure.”
And in 1964 and 1965, it was. Ford’s new race car was fast, but they couldn’t figure out how to make it last for 24 hours. Gearboxes broke. Head gaskets blew. The aerodynamics were a mess, too, with cars developing so much lift they’d see wheelspin at 200 mph. After two aerodynamically unstable GT40s crashed during testing in 1964, one test driver, Roy Salvadori, quit. “I opted out of that program to save my life,” he said.
And the brakes were a constant problem. Ford engineers calculated that when a driver hit the brakes at the end of Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight, the front brake rotors would spike to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit within just a few seconds, causing the rotor to fail. Trying to slow a 3,000-pound car from 210 mph, every three-and-a-half minutes, for 24 hours was a new problem in racing. “Dan Gurney told me that everything he did driving that car was about saving the brakes,” Lerner says. “At the end of the Mulsanne, he’d back off well before the brake zone and coast down so he wasn’t scrubbing 180 mph all at once.” Carroll Shelby told Baime: “We won [Le Mans] on brakes.”
…Over the span of a few years, Ford had unveiled the Mustang, won at Le Mans, and vanquished its fuddy-duddy image. Some of the GT40’s engineering lessons might have translated to Ford’s street cars, particularly the computer-driven durability testing, but Ford considered the Le Mans program a marketing exercise rather than a quest for innovation.
Manufacturers are still willing to spend big on internal race programs. During Audi’s recent reign of dominance at Le Mans, the company spent about $250 million per year on its race team, and Ferrari reportedly spends $500 million each year on its Formula One program. It’s hard to say if those massive budgets translate to car sales, but most Audi customers probably haven’t heard of the R18 e-tron quattro, the last Audi to win Le Mans. Racing is still integral to brands like Ferrari, but mainstream companies like Audi and Toyota struggle to justify the high price tag.”