Ford GT40 vs Ford GT. They look similar, but GT40 and Ford’s new GT are chalk and cheese under their skins as befits their very different roles. But we simply had to bring them — and Jackie Oliver — together. Paul Fearnley reports
For a man who spent 30 years in the bear pit of Formula One, without a single victory gained to ease the pain, 62-year-old Jackie Oliver looks well on it. His jockey-like (GT40-sized?) frame has in the main avoided the beady eye of the handicapper and, in replica Gulf overalls, he rolls back time by niftily plonking himself into the snuggly monocoque. Yep, he’s GT40-sized.
The car hasn’t done too badly either. It’s still a head-turner 40 years and several iterations after its first, flawed, Le Mans showing. The blueprint for modern supercars and racing’s most famous livery — Gulf Oil’s sky blue-with-Jaffa stripe — is a combination that still makes you giddy, even if you know nothing about the history behind it. Which is exactly what FoMoCo has tapped into with its retro-rocket GT: instant charisma. But when the news broke in 2002 that Dearborn was to update its icon, my heart sank. As did Oliver’s.
“I did wonder how true they would be to the GT40’s styling,” says the 1969 Le Mans winner. “When I read they were going to make a cheap Ford — I mean something not to the sophistication level of a McLaren F1 — I was worried that it would be a disappointment. But I have to say that they have made a great-looking sportscar.”
He’s right. Whisper it, but there is someone in the Motor Sport office who prefers it to the original. But then he has never seen them together. It comes as a shock when the Real McCoy, all spit and cough from its downdraught Webers, rumbles into shot: it’s tiny. You throw a double take. No, it really is that small. Forty (point five) inches to the roof — of course, there’s a clue in its name.
The GT is 4in taller and 18in longer. Supercar sized. And it swallows Jackie O whole. Not that he’s uncomfortable with it.
“I liked it the first time I saw it,” he reveals. “I enjoy retro styling any way, and I always thought the GT40 was an attractive car.” And the praise doesn’t stop there.
Start button pressed, the supercharged 5.4V8 wuffles into life. And the noise — is a bit disappointing, to tell the truth. Then Jackie plants 500bhp and 500lb ft — figures comparable to the Le Mans-conquering 7-litre MkIV of 1967 through the 11.5in Goodyear Eagles. Oocha! The Ford UK PR man cringes; this is the only GT in Europe and its appointment book is chock-full. The JW Automotive squad of ’69 would understand his agonies.
“The weak point of the GT40 was its clutch,” says Oliver. “You couldn’t dump it leaving the pits. In one race the team called me in wrongly. I was angry and roared back out, only for them to call me back in to check the free play on the clutch. They were very jumpy about that.”
The jet black lines eventually peter out and the red GT laser-beams for the horizon. This is the second time Jackie has driven the car — the first was up Goodwood’s hillclimb during June’s Festival of Speed — and it’s obvious that he loves it. He hurries back. But hurries away again. Back and away. Back and away. Then he stops. The PR man relaxes as the cooling GT pings and clicks.
Oliver: “It’s so easy to drive.” Racing drivers tend not to gush over road cars, but this borders on the effusive. “The clutch is soft; the gearbox is faultless — not that you have to use it much so strong is the torque — and the brakes are staggering, the ABS only triggering very late in the day.
“With the controls as I’ve described them, you might expect they wouldn’t lend themselves well to pushing on. But that isn’t the case. Okay, the chassis is maybe a bit soft for track use, but I was happily surprised by it at higher speeds. Its basic character is neutral-to-understeer, but there’s enough power to unstick the tail. And there is none of that snap stuff you sometimes get with a mid-engined layout. The contact patch feels very consistent too, none of the darting about over surface changes that low-profiles can cause. It’s everything it’s cracked up to be.”
But how does it compare with the GT40?
“There’s zero comparison. The GT40 is an out-and-out racer. I’ve driven the silver ‘road car’ GT40 that Ford owns, and its disguise is still very thin. None of the creature comforts of the GT.”
“The GT40 was easy to drive too.” Ah. “And it still is. It was the first racing car I’d driven for more than 20 years when I got back into our old Le Mans winner [chassis 1075]. Driving fast is like riding a bicycle — you never forget — but still I was amazed at how quickly I got back into it. A little bit of understeer that was easy to dial out.” Aha, that sounds familiar.
The GT40 was five years old when Oliver codrove 1075 to Sarthe success alongside Jacky Ickx. Worried by the ever-increasing speeds of Ford’s Mulsanne-munchers of 1966-67, the governing body restricted engines to 5000cc for homologated Gp4s and 3000cc for Prototypes, the two-seat GP cars it really hoped to promote. The GT40 had been built in sufficient quantity to qualify for a second go in 5-litre form. At the forefront of its renaissance was JWA, the scion of Ford Advanced Vehicles in Slough that had been integral to the model’s original thrust. Oliver signed with John Wyer’s squad for 1969.
“I had done the 1968 Le Mans with the team, but never got to drive because Brian Muir stuck our car into a sandbank early in the race,” he says. “Before that I’d had one other GT40 outing in ’67, with Terry Drury at Monza; we retired early. I wasn’t a fan of long-distance racing, Actually, I hated it. Being a selfish, self-centred driver, I wasn’t keen on the sharing side of things. Nor was I happy about reining in my natural instincts and not going flat-out. And the team and manufacturer got all the credit for any success.” Blimey.
“But it helped that I was with JWA. That was a good outfit: David Yorke was an excellent team manager who was strict but understood drivers; John Horsman was the engineer who had kept the GT40 up to a competitive pitch; and John Wyer was the ace strategy man. Against that, I found Jacky difficult to work with. He’s mellowed since, but at that time I considered him immature. He was the team’s number one, however, very fast and could seemingly do no wrong. I just tried to fit in and keep quiet; there’s no question that Jacky won the PR battle, he was into all that sort of stuff.”
JWA’s was a mix-and-match 1969, the GT40 wheeled out for Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, and the team’s Mirage prototypes (with BRM V12 or DFV) used in the shorter races. But it was the old warhorse (a bit more powerful courtesy of Weslake heads, somewhat lighter, and with bigger brakes and wider tyres) that saved the season.
1075 smacked the wall at Daytona after leading. But at Sebring, with Oliver shading Ickx on this occasion, it edged out the new 3-litre Ferrari 312P of Mario Andretti/Chris Amon by a lap.
Oliver: “I didn’t expect to win in such an old car. But the team always had a good strategy, its tyre swaps and pad changes were very slick, and the car had had all its niggles ironed out. You felt sure you were going to finish, which is more than half the battle in sportscar racing.
“That ZF had quite a slow change, but it was easy once you got used to it. And it was sturdy. It wouldn’t let you miss out a gear, but then we were making fewer gearchanges than our opposition because of all the torque. One less change into and out of every corner is a big saving over 24 hours.
“Its seating position was very good and you felt secure. The controls were heavy-ish, but not stupidly so. You felt at ease in it, basically.”
Especially if you were 5ft 7in. Clearly, I am not GT40-sized and, once I’ve extracted the right-hand gear lever from up my trouser leg, I almost scalp myself with that scalloped door. The seat is steeply reclined but it’s still head-against-roof time. No wonder Dan Gurney needed his Bump.
To start it you twist a key better suited to locking a briefcase than unlocking a dream. Then you thumb the button. Now, that’s not disappointing. Both cars’ V8s can be glimpsed via the rear-view mirror and a Perspex bulkhead. But there’s a difference. At the GT’s gently thrumming tickover, this is the only way of knowing the Detroit muscle is in its proper place. The GT40, though, is all induction roar, numbing vibration and bewitching mix of hot oil and exhaust fumes. Ah, Fasto!
Chassis 1008 has never raced. And its current motor is a 300bhp cooker that cokes up during our photography session. But even so, to get a pukka GT40 rolling, to row that hefty synchro ZF along and crack those Webers open is a serious thrill. Runway and Mulsanne blur into one. Briefly. And then GT whistles by at head height. Deceptive. A rorty exhaust could be deemed a safety device for pedestrians, such is its unannounced performance.
“The GT, understandably, is far more refined than the GT40,” says Oliver. “With its air-con and sound system, it’s not meant to be a racer. That said, Ford has built a car with lots of power and torque, a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, and no traction control. You are not cut off from the experience by technology. This is a driver’s car.”
But given that its design brief oozed potential PR disaster, perhaps the GT’s greatest achievement is that it leaves the reputation untarnished. Indeed, it ticks all the boxes bar one: legendary status. I know it, you know it, Ford knows it. And none of us drove a GT40 to the most dramatic success in Le Mans history.
“Although I didn’t like long-distance racing, winning Le Mans was a huge thrill, and I have a soft spot for the GT40,” says Oliver.
His role in that win is undervalued: he did 164 of the 372 victorious laps. But from the moment he strolled, not ran, at the start to his last-lap pass and 100-yard win over the remaining Porsche, it was Ickx who stole the show.
“Oh yeah, that niggles a bit even now,” admits Oliver. “Jacky didn’t tell us he was going to walk across the track. He was right in that it was madness to be fastening your belts as you held the wheel with your knees while honking down the Mulsanne, but only he would have dared protest in that way. He wasn’t short on confidence.
“Indeed I’m convinced that he stage-managed that finish. Our car had far more speed than the Porsche at the end, and I’m adamant he could have sailed past on the straight and pulled away. But instead he wanted to outbrake it. We probably had better brakes by that stage, but it seemed a harder way to do it to me.”
Tech chief Horsman is not convinced by this argument, pointing out that the team had given up an appreciable lead in order to fit new pads for the last big push. Ickx, he feels, was driving to the max. Same pitwall, different viewpoints.
One thing that everybody agrees on, however, is that it was bloody exciting. Legendary in fact. 07 Charisma earned the long way round.