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It is 50 years since Ford celebrated its maiden Le Mans victory. As the factory prepares to return to the race for the first time since 1969, we spoke to three key players in one of the biggest endurance racing stories of modern times

Writer Simon Arron | Photographer Drew Gibson

To the right stand two Ford GTs, one resplendent in full racing livery and the other an unmistakably fresh shade of raw carbon. They are surrounded by a team of almost 30, many of them poring over screens wired rather messily to the car’s brain. To the left is a 1964 GT40, overseen by a couple of blokes from Ford Heritage – probably twice as many as you actually need to operate the thing. The family heritage might be obvious from the adjacent coupés’ profiles, but beneath the skin the contrast could scarcely be greater.

We’re at Turweston Airfield, a handful of miles from Silverstone and a popular choice with racing teams for low-key shakedowns. For the European arm of Ford Ganassi Racing, it’s a first day of action ahead of a hectic pre-season test schedule. Marino Franchitti is on hand to conduct systems checks on an L-shaped circuit incorporating two-way sprints along bisecting runways. It sounds simple enough, but this is a live aerodrome and the team has to time its runs to accommodate incoming and departing Cessnas, of which there seem to be rather a lot.

The GT40? That’s present partly as a photographic prop to bridge generations, partly to allow Franchitti to get a feel for the thing prior to a proposed car share in the Alan Mann Trophy at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting. Works teams in the World Endurance Championship aren’t too precious to permit such arrangements – could you imagine Maurizio Arrivabene sanctioning Sebastian Vettel’s participation in a similar event, perhaps at the wheel of a Ferrari 246? – but the Scot’s deal had just fallen through due to the GT40 in question being sold. That, though, would not temper his enthusiasm for a quick stint at the helm (see sidebar).

Firstly, though, we need to analyse the day job. “We’re using testing to build the team,” Franchitti says. “We’re all working together for the first time, developing relationships, learning WEC procedures. We’re just starting to put the pieces together – and we have to do it quickly.

“Because of the hours the guys spent putting the cars together, there was soon an amazing amount of camaraderie. I was going to the workshop about once a week to see how everybody was doing… and taking them a lot of sugary treats – cookies, doughnuts and so on – to help them keep going. That builds a team very quickly. It’s not like we received a car from a manufacturer, read a book about how to make it and then went racing. These guys have been doing it from scratch, and we’re just a small part of an absolutely massive programme.”

***

The truth of Franchitti’s words becomes fully apparent a couple of weeks later, when Motor Sport heads to the global arm of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in Greatworth – also very close to Silverstone – to talk to team principal George Howard-Chappell, aka motor sports business director at Ford partner Multimatic, which is building both road and racing versions of the GT (and running the latter under the Ganassi banner).

Such is the intensity of the immediate pre-season schedule that Howard-Chappell has little spare time during the day. He suggests meeting up at close of play – a soft enough target in theory, but the M25’s unsuitability for purpose makes me almost an hour late. No matter. The factory car park remains rammed, the lights are on and there’s still a hive of activity within a modest industrial unit just off the B4525. “We could have had a flash ‘look-at-me’ building,” Howard-Chappell says, “but Ford wanted something low-key, with character, away from that kind of environment.”

The accent is on engineering rather than image – and that’s always a good sign.

Howard-Chappell has a strong track record. After working in Formula 1 with Team Lotus from 1992-1994, he set up the factory Lotus GT team and oversaw Le Mans class wins for Ferrari and Aston Martin during a long stint (1998-2012) at Prodrive. He then joined Multimatic and commenced work on another racing project that didn’t reach fruition, after which the Ford programme began to take shape. “I have worked on nothing else since,” he says. “There are parallels with my previous work, because it’s GT racing with a manufacturer and that’s what Aston Martin was all about. In terms of the scale and the way it’s being handled, though, it’s not the same at all. At Prodrive the whole racing programme was very much handed over by Aston and we were told to get on with it. Here, there’s a lot more Ford involvement and the very big difference is that, on the Multimatic side, we’re building road and racing cars at the same time. Aston Martin is a high-profile brand but a smallish company owned by a finance group. Ford? When you go to Dearborn and see the scale, it’s not like the Aston HQ at Gaydon! And the support we get from the parent company, when needed, is just amazing. So it’s the same – but different.”

The relationship between the Blue Oval and Multimatic vice-president Larry Holt stretches back many years – and not just in terms of competition. “There’s a very, very close link on the OE (original equipment) side, too,” Howard-Chappell says. “Multimatic makes a whole bunch of mainstream Ford product components – all sorts, from lower wishbones upwards. It’s huge.

“The first thing I said to Larry when I joined was that I’d never realised the extent of what his company did or what its skills were. I asked why he didn’t publicise it more, because it had such an amazing range of expertise, and he replied ‘Why would I do that? I don’t need any more work and can already pick and choose what I do, plus a number of clients like the fact it isn’t all high-profile. You can go to Multimatic and get a job done without everyone knowing about it.’ It is an under-the-radar company, although that’s perhaps changing a little with the Ford GT programme.”

***

Multimatic picked up the keys to Greatworth – formerly home to British Touring Car Championship team Triple Eight – on November 1 last year and had precisely two months and four days to tailor the building to its own needs and have a complete car ready for the media launch. “It’s definitely one of the most intense programmes with which I’ve been involved,” Howard-Chappell says. “It was similar when I set up the Lotus GT team back in 1995, ditto when we built the first Prodrive Ferrari – we had a factory and the right infrastructure to support us, but turned a road car into a racer in just 16 weeks and the effort nearly killed some of us. This has been challenging, but great fun. The chance to go to Le Mans with a factory Ford GT – where else do you get opportunities like that?”

This, of course, is the European side of an operation that is also running a brace of GTs in the US-based IMSA series, which began 10 weeks before the World Endurance Championship kicked off at Silverstone. The GT showed clear potential from the off, although myriad problems affected both cars on their debut at Daytona. One was delayed by an accident at Sebring, although the other finished fifth in class and on the lead lap.

“We started by looking at the donor car while holding a set of regulations in one hand and asking ourselves what we could do to turn it into a racer,” Howard-Chappell says. “The Ford GT is an ideal platform – mid-engined, low frontal area, nice double wishbone suspension geometry all round, quite low. Having read the regulations, there was nothing to make us think, ‘Oh dear, this will be a bit difficult.’ It has a very stiff carbon chassis and the EcoBoost is a very nice race engine [previously proven in Daytona Prototypes]. It ticks all the boxes and was much less of a struggle to turn into a racing car than other things I’ve worked on in the past.”

Franchitti adds: “From the word go I’ve felt very relaxed about this programme because I really believe in the people involved. Look at George – he’s a bit like a modern John Wyer, someone who has won at Le Mans with different manufacturers. I’ve watched his work from afar for years and to see him build this team from the ground up has been very impressive.

“When driving the GT, you have to leave the pits with the torque turned down, because full torque would blow the gearbox if you didn’t let it warm up fully. Then you’ll be doing about 180 on the straight and get a message – ‘torque time’. It’s like accelerating from zero again. It’s bonkers, but a beautifully built car.

“There were a few teething troubles at Daytona, but they were easily traceable. The main thing was that the car’s performance was good. We could see it was where it needed to be and, having tested it so much, that came as no surprise. And the old adage about learning more in defeat than you do in victory is absolutely true. Victories are forgotten really quickly, but defeats eat away at you until you get a chance to go out and fix things.”

At Le Mans Ford’s IMSA and WEC divisions will operate as one team – its GTs numbered 66, 67, 68 and 69, which Ford requested to honour its four straight victory years with the MkII, MkIV and GT40. “The crews aren’t going to intermingle,” Howard-Chappell says, “because that would be a mess, but there will be a great deal of information sharing. It’s a four-car team, but with some logical divisions because of the way things have come together. 

“Our initial focus was very much on Le Mans and you can see that from the way we decided to approach our first two races, at Silverstone and Spa. We could very easily have run two drivers per car in those events, but opted to go with three because that will help us prepare better for Le Mans. We’re taking things one stage at a time, but expect to be competitive from the start.”

After so many years in the sport, does he approach new projects with clinical professionalism or does his inner schoolboy sometimes escape?

“Mostly clinical professionalism,” he says, “but with a bit of schoolboy thrown in. When we got to our first Aragon test and stood there in the garage with our two cars, then watched them go out on track… there was a bit of excitement in that.”

Howard-Chappell’s Le Mans victories came in 2003 (Ferrari), 2007 and 2008 (both Aston), while he was also responsible for the sonically sumptuous Lola-Aston V12 that finished fourth overall in 2009. Which was his tensest Le Mans?

“Probably 2005, my first year with Aston,” he says. “We’d been to Sebring and won on our debut, then did a one-off FIA event at Silverstone and took first and second in class. After about 20 hours at Le Mans we were leading and thought, ‘Wow, what a story – we’re going to win everything’… and then it all fell apart. It was a similar story in 2006. Whenever you get into a strong position, by midday on Sunday you begin to sweat.”

Is it a race somebody in his position can enjoy in real time, or purely with the benefit of hindsight?

“I enjoy it until about 4am on Sunday,” he says, “by which stage you’re pretty knackered. You run until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday, so don’t get away from the track until about 1.30am. It’s gruelling, but it’s the thing we always talk about. Whenever people ask about the highlights from my time in racing, I never mention F1. The answer always seems to be ‘Le Mans’.”

Time, perhaps, to lob in a bit of mischief. In the current climate, does he believe the World Endurance Championship is a better product than F1? He grins and says, “It depends on your perspective, I guess, but it is for me. It’s so open and a huge amount of innovation is possible. OK, the Nissan thing failed badly last season but look how different it was from everything else. Thinking outside the box is so possible with the LMP1 cars – there’s no way you could do that with the current F1 regs – and there’s a lot of excitement in our races, too, with constant overtaking. It’s very competitive and you can never be sure what might happen, whereas in F1 at present it’s almost a foregone conclusion. There is no way we do any nursing in the WEC, either – the way we prepare for and race at Le Mans is absolutely flat out. Drivers go as quickly as they can all of the time and we test to make sure they are able to do that.”

***

Fast-forward another few days and Ford conversation resumes in the Goodwood paddock, during the 74th Members’ Meeting. Seasoned professional Franchitti is present, but has no drive and is restricted to watching the Alan Mann Trophy for Ford GT40s. Ironically, though, Ford’s European chairman and CEO Jim Farley – a keen amateur who races a Lola T298 in Peter Auto’s Classic Endurance Racing series – is taking part, in a GT40 owned by Portuguese driver Diogo Ferrão. Farley is hugely excited about that (the pair would go on to finish ninth), but perhaps even more so by the GT programme.

“Racing to me is a counterpoint to the intense nature of my day job,” he says. “It’s a deeper way to enjoy cars than the stuff I usually do. You are so focused on going as quickly as you can that there’s no time to think about anything else, which I find very relaxing.”

Farley joined Ford from Toyota in 2007, and a return to competition was already on the Blue Oval’s radar. “When I first met Edsel Ford,” he says, “one of his opening questions was to determine what I thought about Ford coming back to racing. We then started to think about the kind of road car we’d need as a starting point. 

“If you look back at the 1960s, there wasn’t a big supercar market when the GT40 was developed – they were designed only as racing cars. There is now a big demand for supercars and we saw that as an opportunity. It’s breath-taking to see the reaction we’ve had to the GT. Some projects are just the right things to do – they don’t have to fit into a customer clinic or be a perfect business equation – and that’s the case here.

“I think the company now looks at its performance business in a way that it hasn’t since perhaps the 1960s. We didn’t previously have RS or ST badging on such a wide range of products – and people who buy these cars feel just as strongly about them as those who buy an M-class BMW or an AMG Mercedes. It’s not a hobby for a few enthusiasts. We’re selling tens and tens of thousands of these vehicles globally and I think our new programme will help connect the brand with those customers.

“GT racing has its roots in prestige, luxury brands. I think it’s quite poetic that Ford is trying to disrupt the status quo – just as it did all those years ago.”

The rivals

‘Ford vs Ferrari’ makes a great headline, but they’re not alone 

Corvette

The Chevrolet Corvette made its competition debut 60 years ago, in the 1956 Sebring 12 Hours, and first raced at Le Mans four years later. The current story began with the creation of Corvette Racing in 1999. Its cars sound even better than they look and have this far notched eight class victories at Le Mans – including a GTE Pro success last season for Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor.

Porsche

Synonymous with Le Mans since scoring its first win in 1970 – and has more outright successes (17) than any other manufacturer. Also prolific in the GT classes – most recently in 2013, when 911s triumphed in both GTE Pro and GTE Am divisions.

Ferrari

Hasn’t won the race outright since 1965, after which Ford became the dominant force, and has made no attempt so to do since the early 1970s. Very active in the GT classes for many a season: won GTE Am last year and took GTE Pro honours in 2014, with Gianmaria Bruno, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander.

Aston Martin

In recent times, some of the Corvette vs Aston GT battles have been the best thing about Le Mans – in terms of both competitive ferocity and sonic output. Formed in 2005, the current team took back-to-back GT1 wins in 2007 & 2008 and scored a dominant GTE Am victory in 2014.

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