The Hollywood movie, Ford vs Ferrari has just released, and the trailers building up the hype, were epic. Forget everything about Senna vs Prost or any current driver rivalry, the Ford and Ferrari feud was at the next level.
To think that all it took was a gutsy business deal, which promptly fell flat on its face. Back in 1963, Henry Ford II desired to let Ford Motor Company to go racing. The bad news was that, Ford did not have a sports car in to actually run.
So, he went for the ballsiest option, try and buy race car company, Ferrari. Back then, the Italian manufacturer’s sole objective was to sell street-legal machines to fund its track exploits.
Ford sent an envoy to Modena to propose a $10 million deal with founder Enzo Ferrari. All was going well until Ferrari found a clause that said Ford would control the budget for his race team.
Ferrari baulked immediately and sent Henry Ford II a message saying,: “There was something his money couldn’t buy.”
Highly insulted by the slight, Ford redirected his company’s cash and engineering towards starting its own race team. Their primary goal was to beat Ferrari in the world’s most prestigious race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“These two guys were larger than life,” says A.J. Baime, author of Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. “Here you have arguably the most famous and powerful CEO in America, Henry Ford II, up against Enzo Ferrari—the most narcissistic man to walk the earth, but deservedly so, because he was a genius. You couldn’t write it better.”
The clash of egos led to Ford designing America’s greatest race car: the GT40. Admittedly, it was an unstable engineering mashup of California hot-rod ethos and high-speed NASCAR expertise. In 1964 and 1965 the GT40 flopped, to Ferrari’s amusement, but bold testing innovations and an innovative brake strategy ensured that they had a trick up their sleeve for 1966.
“They spent a lot of money, but that was no guarantee you’d win a race,” said Preston Lerner, author of Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans. “[Ford] also had to bring in the right people to win. They had to have the mechanics, the race organization people, the drivers. It could’ve been a glorious failure.”
One of the biggest hurdles was the brakes and managing the temperature over the course of 24 hours. According to Ford engineers, when the car braked at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, the front brake rotors would spike to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit in a few seconds.
“Dan Gurney told me that everything he did driving that car was about saving the brakes,” Lerner continued, “At the end of the Mulsanne, he’d back off well before the brake zone and coast down so he wasn’t scrubbing 180 mph all at once.” Carroll Shelby told Baime: “We won [Le Mans] on brakes.”
The person who cracked the brake equation was engineer Phil Remington, who devised a quick-change brake system. That allowed the mechanics to swap in new pads and rotors during a driver change. So, drivers didn’t have to worry about making the brakes last beyond their stint.
At the time, other teams protested about the GT40’s pit-stop advantage. However, there were no rules, and that wasn’t the only area where Ford was pushing boundaries.
Finally in 1966, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon’s #2 car lead a dramatic 1-2-3 Ford victory at Le Mans. The next year, Ford returned to France and won again. With repeat wins in hand, they had nothing else to prove and withdrew official Le Mans factory support after 1967.