An Insider's Look on Ford's Win in Le Mans GTE PRO Class
"Veni, vidi, vici."
This brutal summary was the verdict of Julius Caesar back in 47 AD when considering his triumph at the Battle of Zela. Larry Holt, boss of Multimatic and the man tasked by Ford to bring them victory at the 2016 Le Mans in the GTE PRO class, is more likely to have used the version made popular by the "Ghostbusters" a few years back: “We came. We saw. We kicked its ass!”
Ford entered a brace of two-car teams: one from North America and one from the UK, both flying under the Chip Ganassi banner. Dave Pericak, head of Ford Performance, explained this seemingly extravagant move: “You can’t finish 1-2-3 with only two cars!”
A Happy Ending, Kind Of
The 1-3-4 result did not quite match that corporate goal, but Ford should head back to Dearborn with a sense of a job well done. However, it was not all plain sailing, and there are still some thunderclouds on the horizon that leave behind an unpleasant taste.
So how did this tale unfold, and what has made substantial sections of fans and media less than thrilled with Ford’s domination?
View the Ford GT at Le Mans Gallery
Rise of the GTE Class
The GTE category has been evolved by the ACO, organizers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, to accommodate racing versions of high-end sports cars that can, if one is well-heeled enough, be purchased and run on the street. Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin are the protagonists that have competed for GT honors at Le Mans in the recent past.
Ford Takes On the Challenge
Ford took the brave decision to take on these sporting giants in their own backyard. The 50th anniversary of Ford’s domination of Le Mans back in 1966 proved an appealing marketing hook to give the program real value commensurate with the costs involved. It fit well with the new, sportier aspirations of the brand, also seeking to recall Ford’s mastery of motorsport at that time.
So far, so good, and the project was welcomed by many in the sport. There were those who questioned the basis of this challenge, with there being no obvious model in the current Ford range and nothing on the horizon. Ferrari has the 488, Aston Martin the Vantage, Porsche the 911, Corvette has... well, you get the picture.
Ford Slides Right Through
So Ford would have to build a GT road car and sell it to the public before they would be allowed to play, right?
Well, not quite. The race version of the Ford GT won in France last week, but the street version won’t be out until next year. Despite all this, the ACO gave it the OK – a big mistake in my opinion, as you cannot trust manufacturers to not take advantage of any loophole in the regulations.
Balance of Performance
Another element of the story is BoP, or balance of performance. This process is the mechanism for trying to ensure a level playing field between a mid-engined Ferrari and a front-engined Aston Martin, otherwise the Ferrari would run away. It also aims to balance out the different engine configurations.
Waivers are applied for by the manufacturers, and then the overall package is fine tuned by additional weight, fuel-tank size and horsepower adjustments by the technical staff of the ACO. All the manufacturers play games and try to obtain a temporary advantage by disguising their true performance – also known as "sandbagging."
View the Ford GT at Le Mans Gallery
Ford proved themselves masters of this dark art when Qualifying came around. They managed to improve five seconds on their pace, as shown on the Official Test Day. Dirk Müller grabbed pole position, posting a 3:51.185 with the sister cars lining up in formation behind.
The only fly in the ointment for Ford was Ferrari, who also managed a similar boost in speed with Gianmaria Bruni in third spot. This prevented a lockout of the front two rows of the grid by Ford while the other three manufacturers were struggling. Ford and Ferrari were both running turbocharged engines.
Written in the Stars
Ford versus Ferrari was the big story in town – we all knew that this was going to be the script.
Hollywood was very much the flavor in the mix at Le Mans in 2016. Brad Pitt waved the flag to start the race, and he found other silver screen thespians on hand like Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan and Jason Statham – all very red carpet, all very Sunset Boulevard.
Good Days Gone
At Friday’s Drivers’ Parade there was a constant whining noise as the factory drivers from Corvette, Aston Martin and Porsche bemoaned their lot, knowing that, barring catastrophe, they were going to play supporting roles at best. Reminding them that they had enjoyed similar advantages in the past proved to be no comfort – it was different back then.
Ford v. Ferrari
The race proved to be the contest that had been predicted with Ford romping away at will; both factory Porsches and both AF Corse Ferraris were retired by the halfway point. The lead battle turned to a straight fight between the #68 Ford GT of Joey Hand, Dirk Müller and Sébastien Bourdais and the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE driven by Giancarlo Fischella, Toni Vilander and Matteo Malucelli.
Ford Gets Their Hands Dirty
Actually, "straight fight" is not the right expression. #68 suffered a drive through penalty early on Sunday but still had enough in reserve to catch and pass the Ferrari.
Then came the off-track stuff: One of the spectator friendly initiatives adopted in multi-class endurance racing is a set of different colored lights to show first, second or third in each class – the requisite number of bulbs illuminated to give the fans an easy reference point.
The position lights are part of the sporting regulations and have to be on during the race – sometimes enforced, sometimes not. Ford had noticed that one of the Ferrari’s lights was out and engineered a protest to get the 488 to stop and fix the issue, which removed any threat to the leader and provided the 1-2-3 finish that the marketing mavens desired, plus condemning the Ferrari to fourth place.
This strategy was not greeted warmly in the Media Center.
Ferrari Lashes Back
Unsurprisingly Risi ignored this matter and the penalty that followed for non-observance of the Race Director’s instructions. They planned on arguing their case after the event. In fact, they also filed for the lead Ford to be penalized for speeding in a slow zone. It all got very ugly.
The Dust Settles
The final word was with the Race Stewards who applied penalties to both cars that maintained the status quo. The result would stand. Both teams took a deep breath, dropped further planned protests and retired to celebrate their amazing races.
An Uncouth Victory
Ford’s thunder was somewhat stolen by Porsche's last lap victory, drowning out their historical win. There was no photo-op of the three Ford GTs crossing the line, either.
Ford's unapologetic behavior towards their worthy opponents gained them no friends amongst the fans, as evidenced by the chatter on the internet and social media in the days that followed. Their pride stood in stark contrast to the actions of Porsche and Audi in relation to Toyota and their last lap heartbreak – a story for another day.
What Matters at the End of the Day
I bumped into Larry Holt in Mulligans Bar on Sunday night, both of us exhausted from the weeks spent in France. He gave me his customary bear hug, and I offered him sincere congratulations.
Respect for the achievements of others gives our own actions some value; we would do well not to lose sight of that.
View the Ford GT at Le Mans Gallery