Swing low, sweet chariot

Marino Franchitti tries a GT40 for the first time. The second can’t come soon enough

Some questions simply don’t have to be asked: the look on Marino Franchitti’s face tells all. He has driven many classics in the past – history is as much a part of the family’s racing DNA as hitting apices – but this is his first run in a Ford GT40. Having left Ganassi Racing’s temporary Turweston base, the Scot drives along a short straight, turns right, completes a bidirectional run on a modest slice of airstrip and then peels left to hand the car back. The whole thing takes little more than a minute, yet still he’s in raptures.

“I’ve driven a Ferrari 250 GTO,” he says, “and the step between that and a GT40 seems huge, even though they are not too many years apart – that’s what I love about that era, the accelerated development.

“Talk about instant gratification… It’s incredible. I knew I had only one run so I had to get every experience I could. Legendary cars can be intimidating – you’re apprehensive as you approach them, although they’re legendary because they were successful – but the GT40 just works. Gearbox, clutch, throttle, the connection between the throttle and your ear… it sounds amazing from the inside. 

“Just think about it: two drivers in one of those for 24 hours. We’re talking huge cornering speeds and lots of four-wheel drifting, keeping an eye on all the dials, trying to remain sufficiently quick without overdoing it. That’s something I really enjoy about racing old cars – getting the middle of the corner correct so that you are just right at the exit, balancing the thing the whole way through so that you don’t get to the exit and find there’s a whole car width left. But it’s just a different cassette, a bit like putting a different operating system in a computer. You have to affect the car’s attitude before mid-corner and get it set – turn in hard and early, flow it through there and pick your exit point.”

Franchitti has consumed at least a library of GT40 literature and knows many of the anecdotes, but he also has a direct connection with Dan Gurney, who co-drove the winning Ford with AJ Foyt at Le Mans in 1967. The Scot raced the original DeltaWing sports-prototype, which was built at Gurney’s All American Racers factory in Santa Ana, California.

“I was at the workshop for about three weeks while they were finishing the car and would catch up with Dan most days,” Franchitti says. “They wanted to do a picture of me and him with the original bottle of Moët that he used to start motor racing’s champagne-spraying tradition at Le Mans in ’67. He gave me a champagne-shaking lesson and it would be very nice to use that at Le Mans.

“Engineer Phil Remington [who died in 2013, aged 92] was still working there at the time. He was a big part of reworking the GT40’s aero before the race – and also created the roof bubble for Dan, who needed a bit more headroom. ‘Remy’ found a street sign, dug out some sand and hand-beat it to the correct shape there and then. That was OK for the test, although obviously they had a proper one made afterwards. The opportunity to be with him and Dan, and to see their interaction, gave me a little insight – peeking through the curtains to see what they did when they were younger.”

But back to the present…

“Older cars always feel more open,” Franchitti says, “because there’s a lot more window glass, roll cages are much skinnier – if they’re there at all – and you feel rather exposed. I’d like to spend a lot more time in a GT40 – a quick run has whetted my appetite. It’s a bit like being given a new toy for Christmas and then have someone take it off you almost straight away. I need to get back in one – and soon.”