This Is Why You Have to Watch the 24 Hours of Le Mans This Year
This article originally appeared on The Drive on June 15, 2016
“It was just like in books you read about Detroit,” says Chip Ganassi, describing that fateful day when he laid eyes on the new Ford GT for the first time, back in 2014.
Ganassi—legendary racing impresario with Chip Ganassi Racing, a stalwart in Nascar, IndyCar, and IMSA—was in the office of Raj Nair, Ford’s chief engineer, when some Ford people gestured for him to follow them. He recalls walking down a hallway, past a big room where designers were crafting full size clay models of cars. The place had that “big automobile company feel…big Detroit,” Ganassi recalls.
“Come on,” his hosts said. They continued down a hall, down some stairs, down another hall, more stairs, until they entered what felt like a basement skunkworks. There, under a tarp, was an automobile, and when the Ford guys pulled the cover off, Ganassi let loose an audible "Whoa!"
“I was amazed,” he says. “My immediate thoughts were, this is clearly the grandson of the GT40. It had all the lines of the GT40. It looked updated according to current aerodynamics. But it still had that same character. You could tell instantly it was a relative of that car.”
Ford had invited Ganassi to Dearborn to discuss a new racing campaign. Ganassi was thinking that Ford was going to unleash a new Mustang, in IMSA. “But this was no Mustang,” he says. It turns out, he learned, Ford was planning on going back to Le Mans in 2016, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company’s historic 1966 Le Mans victory in the GT40, with an all-new racing car. Ganassi was thinking: Wow! Ok. Let’s go!
As you read this, Ganassi is in France leading the charge as chief of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s Le Mans team. He will play the role that Carroll Shelby famously played in the 1960s—Ford’s coach and captain. (Ganassi has heard the comparison before. Unlike Shelby, he says, he hasn’t been married many times, “so I got some catching up to do.”) When Ford launched the attack on Le Mans during the 1960s, no American manufacturer had ever won the 24-hour classic. “Ford of Dearborn has set the cat among the pigeons,”Sports Illustrated said at the time. “We are on the threshold of possibly the most exciting racing era in history." And that’s exactly what the 1960s became, racing’s golden age, in good part because of the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans.
When Ford won in 1966, Henry Ford II—grandson of the company’s founder and the most powerful CEO of his era—was there in the pits. That one race was a defining moment for some of the biggest names in racing, from Carroll Shelby to Bruce McLaren (one of the winning drivers) to Henry Ford II himself.
Most racing fans of a certain age will maintain that Le Mans doesn’t have quite as much clout as it did at its peak in the sixties. And, Ford will be competing in the GT class at next weekend’s race—not the prototype class that will gun for all-out victory, as the 1960s Ford GT40s did, winning each year outright from 1966 to 1969. But there’s no denying that Le Mans is still the most important and fascinating sports car race in the world, the one trophy that every car manufacturer would love to have. In LMP1 (the fastest class, with purpose-built racing cars), the competition between Audi, Porsche, and Toyota for the overall win will again lure millions of eyes to the race itself and to the TV broadcast. Ford’s presence with a new car and a new team, meanwhile, presents some scintillating plot lines.
For American fans, the LMGTE-Pro class that Ford will compete in is the class to watch. Not a single American driver will be in the cockpit of any of the top class prototype cars. The top GT class, however, will pit factory teams against each other from both Ford and Chevrolet—the Ford GT versus the Corvette. Ford versus Chevrolet! This is the most important rivalry in all of American business history, playing out at the biggest sports car race in the world. There can be no tie; one has to beat the other. Corvette has the experience, having won Le Mans in class eight times. Ford is new, but will come out in numbers (four cars to two). There is also a renewal of the Ford versus Ferrari rivalry, as Ferrari will debut new racing cars also at Le Mans this year, in the same class as the Ford GT—the Ferrari 488 GTE. Porsche and Aston Martin will fill out the field. Which means Ford will battle the Germans, the British, Italians, and its crosstown Detroit rivals. It sounds to us like international competition at its most enthralling.
For Ganassi, Le Mans will be a new experience. He competed here in 1987 as a driver, but has never managed a Le Mans team. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing will field an international lineup of top rank talent in four cars, each car numbered to commemorate one of the four wins from the 1960s: #66: Billy Johnson (US), Olivier Pla (France), Stefan Mucke (Germany). #67: Marino Franchitti (UK), Andy Priaulx (UK), Harry Tincknell (UK). #68: Joey Hand (US), Dirk Muller (Germany), Sebastien Bourdais (France) #69: Ryan Briscoe (Australia), Richard Westbrook (Australia), Scott Dixon (New Zealand). To race a brand new car at Le Mans requires insane amounts of money, man hours, and development—all of which these cars now embody. Ford’s new GT is powered by a 3.5 liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6, the technology not all that different than the EcoBoost engines Americans use to commute to work. Thus far, at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the car has been less successful than Ford folks would have hoped. They also say they have learned from their mistakes.
“I really believe we have a chance to win,” says the American driver Joey Hand. “Everything has to go right.” When asked if this is the biggest challenge of his storied career, Ganassi answers: “It’s certainly the most exciting.”
“What’s most exciting about GT racing is that it’s not a spec car,” Ganassi says. “It’s not a spec engine or a spec body. That’s really exciting to people who’ve been around the sport for a long time. When you think of all the people who have touched the Ford GT project—or the Porsche or Ferrari or Corvette project—you look at all the people involved in making these programs a success, there’s literally thousands. Thousands of people who have played a part in getting that car to the grid.”
That is why Le Mans racing is so gripping. All that work—millions of man hours, all those talented people, all that testing and building and late nights and last minute corrections—comes down to a car with a driver in it, man and machine, everything on the line, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in total darkness, battling exhaustion at massively high speeds. One split-second error can destroy a car, and—as we have seen so many times at the Circuit de la Sarthe—destroy humans as well. Like Sebastien Bourdais says of the Porsche curves at Le Mans: “It’s high-speed, high commitment, and there’s no room for error… There’s a lot of time to be gained or lost, but [like Ford’s entire Le Mans program this year] it can go seriously sideways quickly.”
Ganassi has set his sites on one achievement, knowing that a checkered flag for a car that has never raced at Le Mans before is against all odds. Which is most important: Finishing the race? Beating Ferrari? Beating Corvette? “There’s only one goal,” he says. “Winning.”