Racing a GT40 is the stuff of boyhood dreams for many; putting it on pole at Spa with a Formula 1 star as co-driver is something else completely
It’s one of those moments that happens in a flash, but plays out before you in agonising slow motion. I’m accelerating hard out of Stavelot on the run towards Blanchimont on my first stab at a qualifying lap for the Spa Six Hours. With well over a hundred cars entered traffic is always an problem, but I’ve managed to hustle my way round two-thirds of the lap without any major losses of momentum. Now, almost within sight of the lap’s end, the gap I’ve committed to at more than 130mph is closing fast. Too fast. So this is what it’s like to race a GT40…
The story of this particular GT40 begins not in the sixties, but in 1982 with renowned GT40 expert Bryan Wingfield. Armed with a cache of original parts from the 1965 build programme, Wingfield set about assembling a completely authentic recreation for Richard Eyre to take historic racing, but it soon became clear that a period-correct GT40 wouldn’t be competitive under the somewhat relaxed historic racing regulations of the day. Instead the car was road registered, using the chassis number GT40 P/1000W and given an age-related registration – NWC 165C – by the DVLA in Swansea.
If you’re a student of GT40 history you’ll know GT40 P/1000 is the identity of the ill-fated Comstock Racing GT40, which was destroyed in an accident that tragically claimed the life of its driver, Bob McLean, during the 1966 Sebring 12 Hours. It’s one of the more grisly episodes in GT40 racing history, but there was logic to Wingfield’s choice of chassis number, despite the fact it contained no parts from the original: with the fate of the first car so well documented there could be no ambiguity over the identity of his ‘new’ car. Just to make sure, Wingfield added a ‘W’ to the end of the chassis number.
P/1000W then passed through a number of hands in the UK and Europe before Wingfield bought the car back in late 1996, again with the intention of preparing it for racing. However, projects for other GT40-owning clients meant he was never able to dedicate time to completing his own car, which led to the present owners acquiring the car from him in 2011. In early 2015 they consigned it to celebrated GT40 preparer, Paul Lanzante, for a nut-and-bolt restoration with the intention of racing it in the 2016 Spa Six Hours.
I enter the story midway through the restoration process, when the owner offers me a seat in the car for the Spa Six Hours. I distinctly recall the mix of excitement and trepidation on receiving the invitation, as I knew from first-hand experience just how intense the Six Hours is. I also knew how quick and scary the GT40s looked as they scythed through slower traffic. Of course I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat, but privately I wondered if I’d bitten off a little more than I could chew.
As P/1000W gets closer to being ready for its first shakedown, the project takes a surreal twist when Lanzante announces he’s got another driver sorted: an Austrian mate of his by the name of Gerhard Berger. You may have heard of him. When Berger subsequently enlists his buddy – former Minardi F1 driver and 1985 Le Mans winner Paolo Barilla – as the third driver, I begin to wonder whether the whole thing is an elaborate practical joke at my expense.
Like you I’ve read endlessly about the GT40. How it was conceived to beat Enzo Ferrari’s red cars at Le Mans after he snubbed Ford’s buy-out. How it was designed by Lola founder, Eric Broadley. How it stood just 40 inches high. How after some humiliating failures it ultimately succeeded to become one of the all-time greats of endurance racing. Icon is an over-used word, but if any racing car deserves the accolade it’s the GT40.
During the last few months of the restoration I sit in the part-built car a few times to get the seat and steering wheel positions right. I then drive it in a couple of shakedown tests at Goodwood and Blyton, but the first time I see the finished car in the garage at Spa is spine- tingling. It looks fabulous in its Comstock Racing colours, and when Lanzante’s boys tilt the engine cover back before firing up the unsilenced 4.7-litre (or 289cu in dollars and cents) V8 to get some heat into its bones, the noise it makes is every bit as special. My mouth still goes dry at the thought of it.
Everything about the GT40 is an event. Just walking up to it is a reminder of its snake’s belly stature. Then you pull on the latch and swing open the door and half the roof comes with it! To get in you shimmy your way between the door top and B-pillar before stepping onto the seat and lowering yourself in until your feet find the pedals. You can’t help but duck as the scythe-like door closes above your head, but still it clatters across the shell of your crash helmet. And this with a bubble in the door top to try and give Gerhard some extra headroom. It could have done with being a GT45.
You feel a bit hunched and claustrophobic, but once you’re in and settled with the harness pulled down tight it’s surprisingly comfortable. There’s plenty of elbow room with space to work the wheel and the right-hand gearshift sits atop the sill, like a proper racing car. It’s a synchro five-speed ’box with a dog-leg first, so the shift is surprisingly sweet, though the one thing everyone tells you about GT40s is how weak the gearboxes are.
The cockpit is fantastic and highly distinctive, thanks mainly to that extensive array of switches and dials stretching across the width of the dash. The view is panoramic and hugely evocative, the tops of the wheel arches rising like cheekbones on a beautiful face. The rear-view mirror gives you a reasonable sense of what’s behind – largely that snorting Ford V8 – but what’s behind you in a GT40 tends to stay behind you. Unless it’s another GT40.
The Spa Six Hours is open to pre-66 cars, which means only early GT40 Mk1s are eligible (ours qualifies through using original parts). They have to run narrow rear wheels (hence the slightly undernourished stance) shod with treaded historic rubber, just like other cars on the grid. Because of the GT40’s achievements and the fact it was a purpose-designed racer, I’d always expected the driving experience to be aggressive and physical, just like its looks and soundtrack. I’d overlooked the fact the GT40 was also a road car, albeit a wild one, so even in race trim it’s supple, delicate and straightforward to drive. Surprisingly modern, actually.
Driving anything at Spa is special, but the GT40 feels born to the task. Wide and smooth with fast, flowing corners, this majestic circuit lets the Ford hit its stride. When it comes to engine set-up for GT40s, Lanzante is a firm believer in torque over peak power. It’s a wise approach, for not only is it torque that punches you out of the corners, but an engine that delivers generous low- and mid-range shove fosters a more relaxed driving style – something underlined by the modest 6500rpm rev limiter.
The motor feels fabulous. Ultra-crisp throttle response with real slug of torque, there are no hiccoughs or holes in its delivery. It spins freely too, so it’s easy to butt into the limiter if you’re not quick enough with the upshifts. At first you keep one eye on the tacho, but eventually you dial your ears into the tone of the motor as it gets to 6000rpm, which gives you time to snick up into the next gear. The shift itself is light and smooth and makes a satisfying noise akin to a guillotine slicing through thick sheets of paper. The downside? It’s all too easy to rush, and if you snap the lever through the gate a bit too keenly it beats the synchro and catches with a short, sharp graunch. Better to calm yourself down and drive with a bit of mechanical sympathy, as you would a fast road car.
Calmness and smoothness are also key to the steering, as grip is ultimately in short supply. You soon learn to float the GT40 into, through and out of corners with positive but measured inputs that don’t immediately over-work the tyres. Apart from the Bus Stop and La Source, the GT40 never requires more than half a turn of steering (which is perfectly weighted), though you also learn that once you’ve got the nose turned in this could just as easily be of the opposite lock variety, even through the quick stuff such as Pouhon and even Blanchimont.
That sounds scary, and doubtless is in the rain, but in dry conditions the GT40 is communicative and progressive, so you’re always ready to settle the tail with steering and throttle. It’s a delicious feeling when you’ve got the car in the palms of your hands, nicely balanced and driving through the corner with no more than a quarter turn of opposite lock and steadily pouring on the power. It’s handsome reward for a patient approach.
Like most cars of the period, these early GT40s are rather keener on going than they are on stopping. On the Kemmel Straight it pulls the best part of 160mph before Les Combes, so braking is another exercise in judgment and self-control. Especially if the car’s fat with fuel.
You can go out and hammer them for a few laps and they’ll take it without too much complaint, but then the heat builds up and they rapidly begin to wilt. Better to be gentle – not quite employing the lift-and-coast techniques used by today’s LMP1 drivers to save fuel – but squeezing into the pedal rather than stamping on it, then allowing the car to roll nicely into the corner.
This technique also has the advantage of giving yourself more time for downshifts. Seasoned GT40 hands told me if you use too much engine braking you’ll risk stressing the gearbox. One said if you feel the rear wheels begin to lock even for a moment, you can pretty much guarantee the ’box will fail a few laps later. Best not fall into the trap of over-driving, but that’s easier said than done, especially when you’re about to head out into the maelstrom of qualifying. Which brings us neatly back to that 130mph needle-threading incident…
I’m closing fast on a Shelby Mustang, which as bad luck would have it is catching another car – a slow white something-or-other I can’t identify. I was a terrible maths student, but weirdly if you stick me in a racing car I’m pretty good at calculating tangent vectors. From where I’m sitting, so long as everyone sticks to their line there’ll be plenty of room for all of us and, crucially, no need to lift.
The Shelby Mustang keeps its side of the bargain and remains steadfastly to the right. The white thing appears to be staying left but, for no apparent reason and at point-blank range, then veers directly into my path. In more of a flinch than a steering input I jink right, wincing as I do so in full expectation of loud, expensive and potentially painful contact. I don’t think I shut my eyes, but I definitely breathed in as though it would somehow suck in the flanks of the GT40. It must have done something, for by some miracle the inevitable collision never happens.
The hair-raising incident lasts less than a second, but its enough time to feel a flood of unbridled relief and then get straight back on it. The remainder of the lap doesn’t seem that dramatic, even slithering by a Ferrari 250 SWB through Blanchimont and almost outbraking myself into the Bus Stop. Still it’s a relief to get across the line and a time in the bag.
I pit on the very next lap. To my immense surprise Paul swings the big door open and tells me we’re on provisional pole. I climb out and head into the garage for a good-to-be-alive chocolate bar and a nerve-settling mug of tea. I’m pleased with the lap, but absolutely convinced it will be beaten.
For a while I studiously avoid the timing screens, but as the session progresses the time stays top. Gerhard heads out for a run and is on for a time that could improve, but then he drops it into the Bus Stop and loses a second. I go out again, but it’s getting dark and there is clearly some oil down. It makes no sense to hammer the car, so Paolo does his mandatory three laps to qualify then we park it and wait. As the session ends #16 remains at the top of the screen. We’re on pole for the Spa Six Hours!
I’m driving a few other cars during the weekend, so I have some welcome distractions. In fact it’s not until we’re stood on the grid next to the GT40 that the scale of what we’ve achieved – and what’s still left to do – hits me.
There’s a scrum of photographers swarming around the car, or rather around Gerhard, who’s already strapped in. Elsewhere an apparently endless throng of drivers and team personnel stretches back up the hill as far as I can see. Up until now it’s just felt like a bit of an adventure. Now, with the GT40 plonked firmly on pole, a bone fide F1 legend doing the first stint, 10 GT40s hoping to beat us and a further 96 cars snaking back up the hill and all the way back to the Bus Stop, it suddenly feels a bit bloody serious.
A siren slices through the hubbub. It’s a signal for everyone to clear the grid. We all file down the hill towards a break in the endurance pit lane wall. The place is mobbed but I’m lost in my thoughts. To be honest I wish I was starting, for although I’d be nervous as hell, at least the release would come in the next few minutes. As it stands I’ve got two hours to sit and stew before I can take over from Gerhard.
The start is a tumult of noise and colour. The pack of 11 unsilenced GT40s sounds ferocious, howling and barking as they hammer down the hill towards Eau Rouge and Raidillon. Unsurprisingly Gerhard has the bit between his teeth and has managed to get the jump on the other GT40s. We know it doesn’t mean much to be leading with just under six hours remaining, but much like the first few laps of the Le Mans 24 Hours, there’s something uniquely intense about watching the first few laps of a long race. More so if it’s a race you’ll be joining in a matter of hours and your car happens to be leading.
In the raw excitement of those opening laps I manage to forget myself and the slightly nauseous fizz in the pit of my stomach abates. But only until I get back to our pit garage, at which point the long, uncomfortable wait continues. I sip some water while eyeing the beer fridge; the contents of which I fully intend to enjoy in the last few hours of the race as Paulo (hopefully) brings the GT40 home.
And then, just 53 minutes into the race I catch a garbled commentary sound bite: Gerhard’s off at Les Combes. For an agonising few moments we don’t know any details. Then we see some images of the car up against the barriers, white nose smeared with orange paint from the tyre wall, right-hand headlight cover shattered and right-hand front wheel toppled into the arch. We don’t know the cause, but suspect front suspension failure. What we do know is we’re out of the race.
We also know Gerhard’s out of the car and fine, which is absolutely the main thing. But once that crucial fact is established you’re left with nothing but emptiness where once you were filled with energy, focus and flashes of hope for what we might achieve. Paul Lanzante – a man of many words, most of them unfit for publication – sums the situation up in typically spicy fashion. I make myself useful by procuring us consolatory beers.
When the low-loader arrives with Gerhard in the front and the GT40 on the back, it’s clear the right-front suspension was indeed the cause of our retirement. If it had to fail I’m glad it did so at Les Combes and not Blanchimont or the top of Eau Rouge. Gerhard – possibly the only man to rival Lanzante’s extensive lexicon of profanities – gives his own pithy assessment, but looks surprisingly sanguine. That’s racing.
While we retreat to the pit garage to drink more beer the Six Hours battle rages on. It’s hard to stay excited about a race you’re no longer in, but the visceral drama of seeing and hearing wrung-out GT40s, E-types, Cobras, Mustangs and all manner of other competitive Sixties metal pounding around in pursuit of
one another is impossible to ignore. I don’t think there’s a more spectacular race in all of historic motorsport.
None tougher, either.
Even for old cars prepared to the highest modern standards. With less than two hours gone two more GT40s retire, with others encountering issues that drop them out of winning contention. Still such is their pace compared to the rest of the field that the six surviving GT40s finish resolutely in the top 10, with a trio of the famously low-slung Fords locking-out the podium.
The race might have been bitter-sweet, but driving a GT40 at Spa is an experience I’ll never forget. I’m thrilled to add it’s an experience I’ll get to repeat this September, as P/1000W is set to return for another crack at the Six Hours.
This time I’m hoping the beers can wait.
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