How a little-known enthusiast engineered an unlikely return to GT racing for a disinterested blue oval
There’s an often-overlooked footnote in Ford’s supposed 50-year absence from Le Mans, one that came out of Switzerland and is tinged with tragedy. The story starts in 2005 when the Ford GT40 was reimagined as the ‘GT’, having been revealed in concept form three years earlier to celebrate the marque’s centenary. Three inches taller than the original, Ford resisted the GT43 moniker and again took aim at Ferrari: “Little kids – and big ones – dream about Ferraris, not 360 Modenas,” said Ford’s then-president Steve Lyons. “We want people to dream about the Ford GT and put the emphasis on the Ford brand.”
The new car brought with it a fresh focus on Ford’s GT40 and Le Mans heritage, but no race car was forthcoming from Motor City – despite the obvious marketing benefits of such a programme. As far as Ford was concerned, the GT would be a road car only.
Step forward Martin Bartek, a Swiss businessman and racing enthusiast, who took it upon himself to develop racing versions of the car. To do that he formed Matech Concepts and started first developing a GT3 GT before moving on to a GT1.
“Ford wasn’t involved at all,” says Bas Leinders, who with Marc VDS Racing was Bartek’s first customer and shared a degree of the development work. “He [Bartek] tried to push Ford to get involved but they weren’t interested in promoting the GT, it was all about the Mustang at that point for them. That was a sore point for Martin. He invested a lot of money in it and it wasn’t easy to generate more. He probably wasn’t getting enough from the sponsors and he ran into money troubles.”
Despite the lack of funds, the project had its successes. The GT3 version won its class in the 2009 Spa 24 Hours. Finishing runner-up a year later, the GT bowed out with pole in 2011 but couldn’t convert that into victory. It was certifiably the best GT3 car in the world in 2008, when Matech secured the FIA GT3 Championship for teams.
The GT1 came close to doing the unthinkable in 2010 by winning its class at Le Mans. Matech led for the first nine hours, running 1-2 with VDS in the opening stages until Leinders crashed heavily out of second place. The team had two laps in hand at one point, but engine failure put paid to what could have been victory and another place in the history books: the final GT1 class win at Le Mans. The Ford GT can also lay some claim in helping revive the career of Formula 1’s most highly rated: Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman stepped back into sports cars to re-establish his career after a difficult seven races for Renault F1. He made history, too, winning the first-ever FIA GT1 World Championship round at Abu Dhabi in 2010 alongside Thomas Mutsch.
“Romain drove for Matech,” Leinders says, “Maxime Martin, Fred Makowiecki and Richard Westbrook were among those that drove for us at VDS. So there were some really good drivers, it was very ambitious and the results were there. With a little more backing it could have been even better.”
Despite the reputation that comes with American muscle car racers, being behind the wheel was rewarding. “It was a really nice car to drive,” Leinders says. “ It wasn’t the easiest and some of the drivers struggled. We had some good results that first year, although we from time to time were a little unlucky with reliability problems. In general, it was actually quite good.
“The car warranted Ford’s involvement,” adds Leinders. “The later GT1 was a big, big progression. It had carbon brakes, bigger tyres, the suspension was a bit harder and it had good aero.”
Sadly its true potential was never to be seen: Bartek died in 2011 aged just 44, bringing a sad end to the project that had come so close to succeeding against the odds. “He got into racing for fun and step by step became a constructor,” says Leinders. “Maybe he underestimated it, the impact of the money and the effort that it needed.
“Maybe if we had won then Ford would have got involved. But there are so many ‘what ifs’ in racing.”