Ford GT40s at Le Mans

| 9 Feb 2016

Half a century ago one of the bitterest but most-shortlived rivalries in motor sport came to a head at Le Mans, the 24 Hours hosting an epic showdown that promised fireworks, but delivered mainly history and controversy.

The Ford GT40 had been built with only one purpose in mind – to put Ferrari’s nose out of joint and in the process to rub Enzo’s nose in it. It is well documented the the acrimony that spurred the Blue Oval’s sports-racer programme stemmed from Il Commendatore’s sudden (and sullen) rejection of Detroit’s advances, having initially responded in kind to its flirtation. 

In retaliation the furious Ford boss Henry Ford II bought into the Lola Mk6, a Ford V8-powered mid-engined sports racer from Eric Broadley’s energetic Huntingdon concern. Broadley was persuaded to up sticks to Bromley (initially, later Slough when Ford Advanced Vehicles was formed) and develop the Mk6 into the GT40 in conjunction with Ford engineer Roy Lunn and Aston team manager John Wyer.

The first cars were ready to race in 1964 and did not cause Maranello many sleepless nights, retiring on debut in the Nurburgring 1000km and then a trio failing to last the distance at La Sarthe. Tall Texan Carroll Shelby took over the faltering programme after Nassau at the end of November and victory came swiftly, at the Daytona 2000 in February, before that season, too, descended into a farce.

Going into 1966, therefore, Enzo and his cohorts must have been feeling pretty confident, with a sextet of consecutive victories at Le Mans under their belt and an expensively financed rival that was conspicuously, embarrassingly floundering.

But the 7-litre MkII GT40 was a different proposition and swept all before it. The signs were ominous from the outset, with a 1-2-3 at Daytona in its new 24-hour format, followed by another clean sweep of the podium at Sebring in March. 

At Le Mans the frankly half-hearted Ferrari challenge disintegrated – the first Maranello car to finish was Maranello Concessionaire’s 275GTB/C shared by Piers Courage and Roy Pike – leaving Ford to batter its way to victory, taking the first three sports, the third-placed Holman & Moody car (piloted by Ronnie Buckram and Dick Hutcherson)10 laps ahead of the fourth-placed Porsche 906 of Jo Siffert and Colin Davis.

Yet it was 12 laps further ahead that controversy raged, Ford’s attempts to orchestrate a dead heat between the Shelby cars of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, and Ken Miles and Denny Hulme, stymied first by some typically byzantine work from the ACO and then by the loyal but embittered Miles defiantly dropping back just before the finish to ensure a win for the Kiwi pairing.

With a Ford 1-2-3, the closest finish in Le Mans history and a first outright win for an American team, 1966 was a watershed year despite all the shenanigans. So, overlook the relative costs of the operations, the technical gulf between the cars, the Ford’s huge capacity advantage and the fact that an armada of GT40s was battling a handful of Ferraris and, 50 years on, relive the day that the American blue collar upstarts gave a bloody nose to the Italian aristocrats.

The first Ferrari across the line was the Maranello Concessionaires 275GTB/C of Piers Courage and Roy Pike, though it finished some 50 laps behind the McLaren/Amon GT40. Graham Hill and Brian Muir (pictured) didn’t have quite such a good day: their Mk2 GT40 retired after just 110 laps. 

The Courage/Pike 275GTB/C is harried by the Ronnie Bunkum and Dick Hutcherson GT40 Mk2, which went on to finish the race in third position. 

Though Ford locked out the top three finishing positions, a greater number of GT40s failed to make the distance. Sir John Whitmore’s Alan Mann Racing Mk2 was one such car, which retired after just 31 laps. 

One of 12 Ford GT40s entered in the race is stripped down during testing. 

Ford’s instruction to stage a publicity photo at the finish cost Ken Miles dear. Despite McLaren allowing Miles to cross the line first, the ACO judged that the Kiwi car had started from further back in the grid, and therefore travelling 8 metres more than the second car. Ken Miles was denied his triple crown as a result, after winning at Daytona and Sebring.

Though it ultimately retired, the Graham Hill/Brian Muir GT40 lead the race from the start. 

Ford’s new Mk2 GT40 offered a number of improvements over the outgoing model that gave it a massive advantage at La Sarthe, most notably a monstrous 7-litre V8 in place of the old car’s 4.7-litre unit. 

Both Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren had driven for Shelby American at Le Mans in 1965. In stark contrast to their success in ’66, both drivers’ cars retired, Amon’s at 89 laps and McLaren’s at 45.

Innes Ireland and Jochen Rindt campaigned one of Ford’s older Mk1 GT40s under the FR English banner. Their race had only just begun when they were forced to retire after eight laps. They weren’t the first out though: that dubious honour belong to Nino Vaccarella and Mario Casoni’s NART Dino 206S, which gave up the ghost a lap earlier. 

Ford wasn’t the only team with faith in its latest Mk2 GT40: a number of other teams also entered the cars. The most successful outside of Shelby American was the Holman & Moody car, which came third driven by Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson. 

The pits come alive as the winning GT40 rumbles to a halt following 360 punishing laps of La Sarthe. 

Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon’s 7-litre GT40 crosses the line first to head a Ford 1-2-3, thanks to Ken Miles dropping back into second place.