The Story of How Ford beat Ferrari at Le Mans

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Carroll Shelby's Personal Vendetta with Enzo Ferrari

During the 1950's Shelby drove for Aston Martin, Austin-Healey, Maserati, and briefly, for Ferrari. In 1958, Shelby made a personal promise to spurn Enzo Ferrari after the death of his good friend Luigi Musso at the French Grand Prix. Ferrari was known for pitting drivers against each other and playing mind games to keep competitive natures high. Shelby blamed Ferrari personally for the death of fellow drivers. By the start of the 1960's Shelby began work on his Ferrari 250 GTO killer, the Shelby Daytona Coupe.

The Battle of Le Mans, Ford vs. Ferrari

Around the same time that Ferrucio Lamborghini was unveiling its first purpose built sports car, Henry Ford II was trying to improve sales via Motorsport. Ford wanted to improve its image by being a winner on the race track. The only problem was that Ford didn’t know anything about building 200 mph race cars, but Ferrari did.

In 1963, Henry Ford flew to Maranello, Italy, to close a $16 million dollar deal with Enzo Ferrari and buy his company. Ferrari was struggling financially at the time and Mr. Ferrari had agreed to sell. So, armed with a militia of executives, Henry Ford II met with Mr. Ferrari who was accompanied by just one local town attorney.

All seemed well until Mr. Ferrari discovered in the contract that he would have to give up his race team. The main thing Henry Ford II was interested in. Tempers flared, curse words were spoken in Italian, and Enzo Ferrari (with attorney) stood up and left the meeting. Just like that, the deal was off leaving the heads of FoMoCo stunned in disbelief. When they arrived back in Detroit, Henry Ford II was fuming with rage at Ferrari. He called an emergency meeting with his team of head executives and uttered the famous words, “Build me a car that will crush Ferrari at Le Mans.” Money was no object. Ford purchased a small British car company outside of London to use as their home base to build the Ferrari killer.

Having a stressful job is one thing. But, image your boss telling you to build a car capable of 200 mph. A car that can change gear at 9,000 RPM, drive flat out for 24 hours without exploding, and beat a Ferrari in the process. Oh, and you have less than 10 months to build it. No pressure.

The first two Ford GT40 concepts were built within 8 months. Powered by a 4.2 liter V8 and standing at 40 inches tall in order to slice through the laws of physics. How did it drive? It was a death trap, even by race car standards. The GT40 was fast but uncontrollable at high speeds. The GT40 could peel out at 170 mph! Unfortunately, Ford never found out exactly why the first GT40 was so unstable because it crashed at 160 mph during testing. Then, the spare GT40 they built was also totaled. Both cars, 8 months of work, destroyed in 2 days of testing. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was just two months away. Again, no pressure.

Amazingly, at the start of the 1964 Le Mans, Ford showed up with three GT40’s ready to race. Ford had their hopes in high gear that they would blow the doors of Ferrari that year. Sadly, all three race cars either crashed or were on fire by the end of the race. Ferrari won 1st, 2nd, and 3rd for the fourth year in a row. Henry Ford II sulked in his angst over the defeat, but vowed to return next year.

Ford Hires Professional Help

After the humiliation at Le Mans Ford decided it needed professional help. In came Carroll Shelby who recruited Ken Miles, a WWII tank commander turned sports car racer. Miles was one of the best drivers in the country. They asked him to test the GT40 and help develop it into a winner. The first time he drove the car he broke the news to the Ford team, “The car is extremely awful.” They immediately got to work tuning the brakes, engine, suspension, aerodynamics, to solve the GT40’s wild instability. Time wasn’t on their side, as usual.

It’s even said that the crew took amphetamines in order to work around the clock getting the car ready for Le Mans. At the start of 1965 Le Mans Ford had six GT40’s ready. Henry Ford II had specially made business cards that he would personally hand out to all the members of the Ford-Shelby team. The cards read, “You’d Better Win.” Encouraging words, but they didn’t work. All six cars didn’t finish the race. Two years of development and the GT40 couldn’t even finish a single race. Ferrari took the crown for the 5th year in a row.

By 1966, the executives at Ford were urging Henry Ford II to stop his quest for vengeance. Money was being poured into the GT project with nothing to show for it but humiliation. What did he do? Poured more money! He gave Ken Miles the keys to Ford’s R&D department which focused on the GT40’s reliability. A couple thousand man hours later the GT40 was a different beast capable of 210 mph in total control. The engine and transmission were put on a rig similar to what is now seen as a dyno to run the drivetrain for 24 hours in Le Mans conditions. Unheard of in 1966.

Le Mans 1966, the Prancing Horse’s Surprise

The GT40 was now performing as good as it looked and Ford was feeling confident. They entered eight GT40’s for Le Mans. Then Ferrari announced a new race car, the P3. The car was even shorter that the GT, standing at just 37.4 inches off the ground! It couldn’t match the GT40’s top speed, maxing out at 190 mph, but it didn’t need to because it could handle the turns like it was on rails. The P3 was more efficient than the GT40 which meant fewer fuel stops. Who did Ferrari get to drive the P3? None other than John Surtees, F1 champion and considered the fastest man on the planet at the time. Enzo Ferrari asked Surtees to make sure he kept Ford in his rearview mirror.

Political issues between John Surtees and Ferrari meant that he had to be replaced by another driver. Surtees wasn’t too pleased with this and took it up with Mr. Ferrari. The two ended up in a major argument resulting in Surtees quitting the team all together. It looked like Ford had finally caught a break.

Henry Ford II dropped the flag to start the 1966 Le Mans. His stomach must have been in knots as he watched his 8 race cars set off. During the first half of the race it looked like the humiliation of ’64 and ’65 was going to repeat itself. Four out of the eight GT40’s were already out of the race. The remaining drivers in the race were given strict instructions to not push the cars. They wanted the GT40 to finish the race - at least.

Ken Miles didn’t listen and instead drove faster. With his foot to the floor Miles started setting double-check lap times. His driving put the GT40 in the lead ahead of Ferrari who couldn’t keep up. By sunrise, all Ferrari P3’s were either smashed or broken in the pits. The Ford GT40 won in 1966 with a one-two-three finish and made history as the first American team to win at Le Mans. The weight off Henry Ford II, his executives, and the Ford-Shelby Team’s shoulders must have felt like unloading a ’66 Chrysler Imperial off your back.

It’s important to pay tribute to Ken Miles, who tragically died testing the Ford J-car (Ford Mk IV) in August 1966. The GT40 could have been a Motorsport Edsel if it wasn’t for him.

Ford would go on to win Le Mans in 1967, 1968, and 1969. Nobody knows exactly how much money was spent trying to beat Enzo Ferrari, but experts speculate that the ballpark may have been around $500 million. In the 1960’s! All this because Henry Ford II was angry at Enzo Ferrari for backing out of a deal last minute.

Life is one hellva screenwriter.