Closing in on Le Mans

The Ford GT40s were designed for speed, unlike any other to have ever graced the race track at Le Mans. The goal was to have them loop through the Mulsanne Straight at 200 mph. Two months before Le Mans proper, public roads were treated to a slice of the June showdown. It was April 18, 1964. Granted access to the pits, journalists and spectators gathered around the widely anticipated Ford GTs. That weekend, however, there was a competition in England – the Aintree 200, and Ford had entered with its top drivers including McLaren and Hill. Both were expected to be back in time before the test weekend was over. In their absence, Wyer had asked two other drivers to test the Ford GTs. They were Roy Salvadori and Jo Schlesser, the former was Le Mans champion in 1959, and Schlesser, a Frenchman with more crashes than successes under his belt, was brought in to spice up French presence in the Ford team. 

Salavodori was first to try out the Ford GT, firing the engine, putting the car in gear and getting the clutch to action on a slippery wet pavement. Off he went and the Dunlop tires gripped the 8.36 miles long track in style. It was an edgy moment for Wyer and Lunn. Any serious issues could put their Le Mans hopes in jeopardy. Flying past the Dunlop Bridge and down through the Essess and 3.5 mile Mulsanne Straight, Salvadori was back into the pit in minutes and his look spelled something was wrong.

“I can’t believe this, John, but I think we’re getting rear wheel spin at 170 mph,” Salvadori informed Wyer. That was enough speed to lift the rear off the ground, not the safest ride for any Le Mans driver. Was there some fault in the suspension system, or aerodynamics? Lunn and Wyer deliberated. The former was identified as the culprit. Mechanics got to work, but Salvadori wasn’t going to risk a second drive, he already had his fill and test day was over for him.

Taking his place was Schlesser, who Wyer instructed “Do not take chances. Bring the car back in one piece.” At the wheel, the Frenchman was off quickly, moving under the bridge in no time. A minute passed, and another, Schesser wasn’t seen turning the corner. He never did. A phone call came in informing there was an accident. Schlesser survived, thankfully. At 160 mph, Schlesser had lost control as the car fishtailed down the straight. Now the test day was over for both Lunn and Wyer. The only other GT40 crashed the following day with Salvadori at the wheel. Salvadori wasn’t hurt, but the car was totaled. The Ford Team had to regroup, headed back to England after test weekend.

News of the Ford failure spread quickly. The title credentials of Ford were put to the test, and things looked more bleak than promising. The New York Times reported on Monday morning: “In trials that ended yesterday, a Ferrari car driven by John Surtees was clocked at 194 miles per hour down the three-mile Mulsanne Straight. Nothing has ever traveled here that fast before. And two Ford prototypes crashed. These Fords were new, unbelievably sleek and expensive … People who know money think Ford can build a winner. People who know car racing are not so sure.”

Comments from Paul… wheel spin at 170mph!!! Looking forward to that!

Roy Salvadori

Getting the Ford GT ready for Le Mans

With parts from across continents, Ford had to ensure its car components passed necessary checks. Major components could not be replaced once the race began, and failure of one part would mean a “Did Not Finish” result at Le Mans, surely not what Dearborn was gunning for. Testing was next, and the task of getting a test driver fell on John Wyer’s shoulders. His pick would go on to become in household name in car racing – Bruce McLaren.  New Zealand born McLaren began racing in his childhood and had grown to become one of the finest engineers and drivers in the world.

Working on Lunn’s specification, a three-eighths-scale clay model of the car’s body was completed in Dearborn, nothing like the automobile had ever been conceived in an American design studio. At 156 inches long and just above 40 inches in height, the car’s official name was Ford GT, even though it was a prototype and not built to race in Le Mans GT category. It would eventually be called GT40. The engine was the modified 256-cubic inch Fairlane V8, delivering 350 horsepower. Engineers in Dearborn also made sure the suspension system was built to withstand the barrage of attacks on Europe’s racetracks.  For this purpose, they came up with – the computer, an unprecedented tool in car design. The GT40 also had a maximum fuel capacity of forty-two gallons, in compliance with Le Mans rules.

In December, the team had everything in place and got started building the first car. But they were running out of time, a worry Lunn reported to Dearborn, noting that race preparation and build time will now have to run concurrently. All hands on deck, the team managed to roll out the first GT40 on April 1. Painted navy blue and white, with a long, sloped nose, rear stance and a raised, clipped tail, every move in Ford’s latest build reflected hours of thought and attention down to the minutest of details. Still, the design team wasn’t done. They had to build two more cars in time for Le Mans, and practice days were also near – only three weeks away before the GT40 would take its turn on the track at full speed.

The GT40 was unveiled before a packed audience at the New York Auto Show, perfectly timed to bring Ford’s racing machine to the view of the entire world. Taking to the podium, lacocca delivered a short speech, raving about 350 horsepower and 200 miles an hour. Before them was a racing machine featuring an engine built in the United States, a transmission from Italy and brakes from England. It was more than just an American racing car, this was The World Car.

The duel was well underway on both sides of the Atlantic. With Le Mans practice days inching even closer and The World Car yet to welcome its first test-run, Lunn and Wyer turned their attention to Goodwood, where they’d see McLaren put their machine to the test on the race track. They dreaded the worst. If anything was off, they may well have lost the race before it started. Standing right next to Wyer, dressed in a leather jacket and leaning against the pit wall, was Phil Hill. Hill spent the 1963 season with Italian racing outfit ATS, but things didn’t pan out with the firm, as did Hill’s racing season. He was trying to get back up having endured scathing criticisms that left the American champion questioning his ability. Le Mans was only days away and Hill had no team. Wyer snapped him up for Ford. Hill was up against his former boss Enzo Ferrari, and the build up to the showdown at the 1964 Le Mans couldn’t be more intriguing.

The Prototype

Taking his turn to deliver the delivering the keynote speech of the annual meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Henry II raised concerns about America’s position in the racing world.

“This is a year like other years in which America will arrive at a series of crossroads in the long journey in search of our national destiny,” he began. “For generations our technology has been the most advanced and progressive in the world. It is the basis of our standard of living, of our national security, of our position in the community of nations. We have grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the unchallenged masters of the machine age.”

“Fifteen years ago, such self-confidence was fully justified. The rest of the world came here to learn how to make things better and cheaper and faster. More recently, in industry after industry, we have seen new processes developed abroad and then adopted here. We have seen foreign products challenging our own, even in our domestic market, not only because the foreign products are cheaper but also because they are often better and more advanced. Signs such as these suggest that we should be asking ourselves some important questions.

“Do we still have more to teach the world than it has to teach us?”

Thousands of miles away, in Slough, London, Ford was about to have a prototype Le Mans car ready for the big stage. The task involved a gathering of the best brains, led by Roy Lunn in the engineering department.

There was also Carroll Shelby and John Wyer in the mix. Wyer, Shelby’s former boss at Aston Martin, had joined Ford in 1963 in an offer that more than doubled his earnings at Aston Martin. Iacocca’s number two, Don Frey, went scouting for an engineering consultant. His search would bring in ex-architect Eric Broadley into the team. Broadley founded Lola, a racing company that raced at Le Mans with a Ford-type prototype. He was more likely to think the Ford way and had access to suppliers the team needed. He joined on a two-year contract.  Shelby’s chief engineer Phil Remington completed Ford’s army of experts.

Le Mans was fast approaching – some 250 days away from Ford’s showdown with Ferrari. It was 12 hour workdays at Slough. No weekends and holidays. The car in the making was one with frightening speed and durability on the race track. Getting all parts in America was difficult, and so Lunn embarked on a European tour cashing in on the most sophisticated components available. Girling brake calipers and metalastic driveshaft couplings were available in England, Borrani fifteen-inch wire-spoked wheels and Colotti transaxles came from Italy, and other parts were supplied by Dearborn engineering laboratories.

Comments from Paul… Roy Lunn, the father of the GT40… we all owe him a lot!

Roy Lunn… Father of the GT40

Surtees and Ferrari

John Surtees was a motorcycling World Champion, but with only one racing season under his belt, he wasn’t as proven on four wheels. Surtee’s lack of experience in race cars was compensated by his pure aggression, and boldness, the kind that reminded Ferrari of “The Flying Mantuan” Tazio Nuvolari. Without thinking further, Ferrari went for the contract, “I would like you to drive for us next year,” Ferrari said, offering Surtees the chance to race in “Formula 1, sports cars, and anything else we might decide to race.” It was surely a big offer, but Surtees didn’t see himself ready, yet, to take on this challenge. He turned down the offer, opting to ramp up his experience on the race track instead. Rebuilding his team a year later, Ferrari acquired the services of a new manager. He also hired an  engineering expert in the person of Mauro Forghieri, but he was short of options in the driving department and turned to Surtees again. The time was right, and Surtees took the job.

Born in 1934 to a talented motorcycle racer, Surtees grew up learning the ropes of racing under his father. The latter would eventually train dispatch riders for the British army during World War II. These riders had to be acutely skilled and insanely fast to safely pass across messages to soldiers on the front lines. By twenty-six, Surtees was a national hero abroad, in Italy. He was already seven-time winner of the Grand Prix World Championships and was well on course to become the world’s fastest man on two wheels.

Surtees’ first Formula One race was in Lotus. And while he had little experience with cars, he would go on to win his third Grand Prix in Portugal.  It was clear he’d meet the needs of Ferrari when he joined in 1963. His first race was the 12 Hours of Sebring, where his retainer contract and financial remuneration from wins were enough to get by. Surtees had a solid relationship with Ferrari from the get-go. The pair launched together in town and showed a close bond starkly different from the Phil Hill-Ferrari one.  Ferrari set out to test the Englishman’s success on the team. Already World Champion on two wheels, Surtees was bidding to set an unprecedented record on four wheels.

In his first season, Surtees traveled west to the United States, where he competed in Riverside, California. He saw in America a thriving world of sports cars where a fusion of European style and American thinking shone through the experimental lightweight cars rolled out of production lines. The big engines were obvious, championed by Carroll Shelby’s Cobra and Jim Hall’s Chaparral.  On his return, Surtees made his observations known. “We cannot compete with the big engines being used in America,” he warned Ferrari. Another worry was that the Ferrari team that had dominated the Italian racing scene wasn’t evolving quite dynamically as it should. If the cutting-edge innovation, now driven by English teams, and the big engines in America were anything to go by, Surtees feared that Ferrari’s dominance may be put to an unprecedented test in the future. The need to innovate and think young couldn’t be more important. Ferrari had to come up with a plan, and fast.

In 1964, Ferrari rolled out the 1964 Ferrari 330 P. An update of the prototype sports car that won Le Mans the prior year, Ferrari’s new build was a blend of every ounce of imagination from the brightest mechanical experts in Italy. Featuring a four-liter V12 with six twin-choke Weber carburetors, the race engine delivered approximately 370 horsepower, simply surreal for a car less than 1,665 pounds in weight.

Brimming with confidence that his new weapon would be unrivalled by any other sports car maker, Ferrari was unfazed by the combined threat of Ford Motor Company and the Shelby Cobras.  The new release was about five kilograms less in weight and added 60 horsepower to its predecessor. Besides, Ferrari cars won Le Mans the last five years. And while his Formula One duels were not perfect, Ferrari was confident that his established superiority in sports car racing – that turned spectators to paying customers in the showroom – was virtually sealed.

Surtees and Enzo

Il Grande John

Setting out of his Modena home on a winter morning in 1964, Enzo Ferrari has his loyal chauffeur Pepino waiting at the wheel of a purring Fiat 1100. Now sixty-six, Ferrari was fast approaching his twilight years. The automobile genius having seen out many successes and challenges for years on end was finally finding some comfort. His new home was both comfy and spacious enough for his wife, and his mother Mama Adalgasia. He’d rather be driven at this age, but his undying love for Fiats remained. Pepino’s morning commute eventually lands them at the factory.

Ferrari had enjoyed virtually all successes race cars could win.  But by 1964, the quest for speed and design of sports cars had become global and competition for customers was increasingly fierce. From Porsche 911 to Jaguar’s E-type and Lamborghini 350 GT, there were more than a handful of competitors vying for global dominance.

Still, Ferrari’s two new 1964 models were truly amazing. Dubbed “the Sophia Loren of supercars,” the 275 GTB was blindingly elegant, yet fully designed for speed. And the new customer car – high-end 500 Superfast – had enough steam to hit 170mph. There was limited supply of Ferrari’s Superfasts – only thirty-six made, but purchases came pouring in, with the Shah of Iran cashing in on two, and Peter Sellers buying one. If anyone was more popular than Ferrari in Italy, it had to be the Pope. His popularity swayed 40% of his sales to America. Clients included New York’s governor Nelson Rockefeller, William Holden and the Dupont and Dulles families.

Following the death of Von Trips, race champion Phil Hill eventually took the exit route from Ferrari’s team. He didn’t click with new manager Eugenio Dragoni.  Hill didn’t regret his departure, though, stating that Ferrari never really gave him his full support. “I wasn’t sorry to leave. Enzo Ferrari never understood me … He always favored the man who would take that extra risk in a live-or die situation. I wasn’t willing to die for Enzo Ferrari. I wasn’t willing to become one of his sacrifices.” Hill said in an interview.

Following Hill’s exit, Englishman John Surtees soon became the leading figure in Italian racing. A contract driver with Ferrari, Surtees got off to a sensational start and was endeared Il Grande John by fans. His first meeting with the boss was a remarkable one. “It was a curious feeling as I walked through the door of Ferrari’s office that morning, as if I was stepping into another world,” Surtees noted. “It seemed as though everybody was going about their jobs with a reverential earnestness which was almost unnatural. I was experiencing for the first time the unique magnetism of Ferrari.”

Comments from Paul… John Surtees, the only man to win world titles both on motorbikes and cars! Don’t think that will happen again in a hurry….