The Return of the Ford GT to Le Mans

2017 Ford GT Rebuild

At the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, Ford shocked everyone when they revealed the 2017 Ford GT. This stunning new supercar, expected to cost around $400,000, packs 600 horsepower from a Ford EcoBoost V6 engine that was developed directly from the engine in Ford’s Daytona Prototype racecar. The racing heritage is important, because the GT wasn’t developed to be a garage queen – it was developed to race, and win, at 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ford’s history at Le Mans is the stuff of legend. Back in the 1960’s, the dominant name in sports car racing was Ferrari. Ford, on the other hand, was becoming an “also-ran” and losing its market share to cars that were sleeker and faster. It was a trend that Ford’s new CEO, Henry Ford II, wanted to reverse.

Henry Ford II had heard that Ferrari’s founder, Enzo Ferrari (a man often described as arrogant), was interested in selling his company to Ford. Ford undertook multi-million dollar audits of Ferrari only to have Enzo back out at a very late stage of negotiations, after learning that he wouldn’t be allowed to control the company racing program.

To say Ford was angry would be an understatement. In order to put Ferrari in his place, Ford gave his engineers a blank check with only one goal: beat Ferrari – and Enzo – at their own game. Ford set their sights on winning 24 Hours of Le Mans.

24 Hours of Le Mans is a 24-hour race held in France each year. Teams race through the night, swapping drivers every few hours. Winning cars must be fast, reliable, and economical. Tires also play a huge role in deciding the race. Michelin tires have a long legacy at Le Mans – they won the first race in 1923, and have been on every winning car there since 1998. Michelin tires used at Le Mans are returned to the company for examination. Michelin uses data gleaned from the racetrack to improve and evolve all their products, from ultra high performance tires like the Michelin Pilot Super Sport to long-lasting all-season tires like the Michelin Defender

2017 Ford GT Rebuild

But let’s go back to the 1960s: for the first half of the decade, Le Mans belonged to Ferrari – their 250 Testa Rossa, 250 GTO, and 250 LM were unbeatable. Ford was up for the challenge, so they teamed up with chassis builder Lola and racing legend Carol Shelby to develop a car called they called the Ford GT40. GT means Grand Touring (a racing class at Le Mans), while 40 was the car’s height in inches. 

The Ford GT40’s first two seasons were not successful due to reliability issues, but many lessons were learned. In 1966, the Ford GT40 took the top three spots at Le Mans, marking the first victory of an American team there. The GT40 went on to win the race for the next three years. Ferrari failed to make a major comeback at Le Mans, and shifed their focus to Formula One racing instead. 

In recognition of this racing legacy, Ford decided to build a new GT. Just like the famed GT40, the new GT will be entered in the Grand Touring class at Le Mans. GT cars must be homologated, meaning that in addition to the race cars, a certain number of road-going GTs must also be built and sold to the public. The race cars are even required to have a certain amount of luggage space. And this is why a new 2017 Ford GT has been revealed. It’s a road car, based on a race car that was built to win. 

2017 Ford GT Rebuild

In a throwback to the 1960s, Ferrari has recently been competitive in the Grand Touring class with the 458 GT and 488 GT, so Ford has a lot of work ahead to come out on top at Le Mans. They’ll also be competing against very successful programs from Corvette Racing and Aston Martin, so victory won’t come easily. 

Sadly, at the Ford GT’s first outing, the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, the car was plagued by gearbox issues and finished in 31st place. The next test will be at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March 2016, and then Le Mans in June. Just like with the GT40 in the 60s, there’s a long road ahead for the GT. We wish Ford the best of luck.

Photos by davejdoe and Werner Bayer

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