Ford GT40

For a kid living near Le Mans, Ford’s scorched-Earth approach was awe-inspiring, and even though he was to discover later that the car’s aerodynamics were not the best, that gut feeling remains

This is a very symbolic car for me – probably the first racing car of the modern era. At least, what! see as the modern era — but then I am 50 years old!

I don’t think any car had received so much factory support before, to win a single race. At the time, I was living just next door to Le Mans, so I saw the start of the project, the early tragedy, and the success at the end against Ferrari, who’d seemed invincible. The GT40 arrived like an avalanche. It was fascinating to see how many teams were working together. They all congregated at Le Mans like an armada. Le Mans had this extraordinary visibility: apart from what you read in the press, you could visit any of the garages where the teams were and see them working on their cars. That made the racing very involving. Not like F1 now, where you can only really see it on television. Then, if you didn’t go to Le Mans, you saw nothing.

In 1962, ’63 and ’64, it was always a red car winning; for the young boy I was then, it seemed inevitable. Then, suddenly we saw this American car trying so hard and, in the beginning, not achieving very much. But it looked fantastic. Recently, I watched Ford unveil a brand new version of the GT40 at the Detroit Motor Show, and it still looks fantastic. And this is despite, from my aerodynamicist’s point of view, it not being a particularly nice example of my art.

Of course, there were no full-size wind tunnels then, it was all on-track development If your front starts to lift on the straight, you have to think of something to do, otherwise you never get to the end of the straight. Aerodynamics did not have a good knowledge base in the ’60s; GT40 followed the wedge principle, hoping for downforce — a low front and higher rear — but it produced a lot of front lift. They just experimented until they brought the lift down — not really an engineering approach.

When I came out of university there were no aerodynamicists in the automotive departments, almost no engineers. At the beginning, when I was trying to be a race-car engineer rather than being an aerodynamicist, I was told, “We don’t need an engineer here for more than a couple of hours a week”. So you can see how times have changed. Nevertheless, my switch from aircraft to cars came through aerodynamics; the choice was small companies or big programmes — like Concorde or Airbus — where you are lost in the project and don’t see results for a year. Racing throws the truth in your face immediately. I did four years at Renault, and then Piero Ferrari called me for an interview.

Renault and Ferrari were experiencing the same wrong way of using their mother company’s wind tunnel, a production tunnel which had no moving ground. So my job was to build the first Ferrari wind tunnel. It didn’t pay dividends very quickly because patience is the last quality of the Italians, and without waiting for his investment to bear fruit, Ferrari decided to take on John Barnard. And so it took another year before everything settled down, and we managed finally to do a decent car for Ferrari, Gerhard Berger winning the last two races of 1987, Japan and Australia.

Designers always try to use the best technology going, and most of the time it’s in the aerospace industry. And that was true of the GT40, too, with its centre monocoque and bag fuel tanks. But funnily enough, it’s not true for the aerodynamic aspect, because an aeroplane’s aerodynamics don’t apply at all to a car.

At Renault, any collaboration we tried with, say, Dassault never came up with anything useful because they are used to something completely different. Race-car aerodynamic knowledge has been slow to improve because we are the only ones dealing with it. But in the end it changed F1 completely.

I went to most of the races when I was with Ferrari, but now I need to be in the office more in order to run the company. But I still love racing; when I finally went to the Le Mans 24-hour race as a participant, it was a dream for me. I had been hooked by that thrilling finish in 1969 between Jacky Ickx’s GT40 and Hans Herrmann in his Porsche 908.1 was thinking, If racing’s always like this, how is it possible to resist?’

I was lucky to be working at a time, say from 1985-94, when an F1 team’s aerodynamicist could be the biggest car; now the crash influence on their structure takes first place. But you never stop progressing, which makes me think that we’re still ignorant about aerodynamics, even though we’re doing 100 times what we used to. Designing unstable F1 cars with flat bottoms is ridiculous. There would be so many things for us to discover about stability without that.

Fortunately, as well as our F1 work with Minardi and Renault, we at Fondmetal have been working on Le Mans projects for six or seven years now, with Audi and Mercedes — but not the year the CLKs took off! This has enabled us to constantly increase our knowledge of aerodynamics.

Just like it did for Ford almost 40 years ago with the GT40.

J-C Migeot was talking to Gordon Cruickshank