It could be the most famous American race car in history. From 1966 to 1969, the Ford GT40 turned the 24 Hours of Le Mans into its personal playground, scoring a one-two-three finish in 1966, and winning every year until the rise of the mighty Porsche 917 in 1970.
It could be the most famous American race car in history. From 1966 to 1969, the Ford GT40 turned the 24 Hours of Le Mans into its personal playground, scoring a one-two-three finish in 1966, and winning every year until the rise of the mighty Porsche 917 in 1970. But the car was more than just a successful racer; it was an impossibly sexy, brutally fast car that captured the imagination of millions, legitimized American racing on a global level, and has become one of the most sought after classic cars in the world, with well-sorted examples commanding upwards of $11 million at auction.
Its looks are so timeless that when Ford released the GT supercar in 2005, it looked nearly identical to the 1960s car. But unlike the original, the ’05-’06 revival never officially went racing (though it was campaigned by private teams). This January, however, Ford unveiled the next-generation GT, a 600 horsepower supercar with its release set to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the GT40’s historic Le Mans finish. But this wasn’t another stylized riff on the original car; this all-new GT was designed from the ground up with one thing in mind: To return to Le Mans half a century after Ford’s historic victory and do it all over again.
With less than 24 hours before the start of the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans, executive chairman Bill Ford, CEO Mark Fields, and product development chief Raj Nair were on hand at the legendary French circuit to steal the spotlight and unveil the race-spec GT, a car that they hope will pick up exactly where the GT40 left off. Details on the endurance racer may be scarce for now, but its looks (and its sound) alone are already more than enough to make millions of racing fans look forward to next year.
What made the original GT40 such a legend is that it was an embodiment of brash, iconoclastic American brawn unlike anything that came before it, something that Ford hopes to recapture with this new car. In 1963, Ford was in the final stages of buying Ferrari, but Enzo Ferrari demanded he keep control over its racing division, and pulled out when Ford refused. Livid, chairman Henry Ford II authorized a racing project to embarrass the Ferrari team in European endurance racing – a tall order, considering Ferrari won Le Mans every year from 1960 through ’65. But by 1966, Ford’s GT40 had vanquished its Italian rival and became the most dominant endurance racer in the world, a trend that would continue through the end of the decade.
Half a century later, Ford is again the outsider looking to break up a European dynasty. Audi has won 13 of the last 15 races at Le Mans, and last week, Porsche set the fastest qualifying lap time in the circuit’s modern history. Sure, the new GT looks great, but Ford still hasn’t released many concrete performance figures, it’ll be months before we see the car in competition, and it’ll take more than good looks and sheer power to compete against the best endurance racing teams in the world.
Luckily, Ford has assembled a crack team for on-track support. The company has partnered with Chip Ganassi Racing and Felix Sabates to run two teams of four cars in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship next year. With their track records (over 25 years of victories in CART, NASCAR, Grand-Am series, and the Indianapolis 500), Ford has found some of the most formidable partners in the world to help it retake Le Mans. The GT’s first race will be at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, and while there’s no word on who will be driving, the race will give fans a long-awaited preview of what to expect at the world’s most famous endurance race next June.
So here’s what we know right now: Ford will be back at Le Mans in 2016, the GT road car’s 3.5 liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 good for 600 horsepower, that the racer’s aerodynamics already make it look like a winner standing still. For racing fans everywhere, Ford’s big comeback is an exciting development that’s sure to make the 2016 season even more enjoyable. Whether or not the GT can help Ford regain the spirit of the ’60s is still anyone’s guess.
Cheat Sheet | James Derek Sapienza