DEARBORN, Michigan — The striking thing about the in-car shots of number 68 is that the only branding on the dash is a stylized “GT” logo. It could be any GT to the casual observer. Where’s the Blue Oval sticker?
The counter-argument is that there are no casual observers, at least in the U.S., who follow the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Still, it’s as if the Ford Motor Company has been absent for, oh, 50 years or so and has failed to notice the hyper-promotional branding that has insinuated itself into every commercial and political aspect of our lives. The Ford GT is a halo car, of course, one that should make more money for its company by selling everything from Mustangs to F-150s to Fiestas than it will by selling its sold-out $400,000-per-copy self.
Perhaps the subtle dashboard branding doesn’t matter. As a racecar, the Ford GT has not received a lot of mainstream exposure. For enthusiasts, there’s Ford’s 1-2 victory in the GTE class, behind faster GTP prototype cars, at the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours (which was not broadcast in its entirety in the U.S. last year), plus major auto shows, some TV commercial appearances and now, the documentary “The Return,” directed by Erich Joiner.
“Return” is laid out much like Audi Sport’s “Truth in 24” about the German brand’s attempt to win overall with its prototype-class car in 2008. The Ford GT saga (to be clear, attempting the second-tier GTE production-based class) begins with a brief explanation of Ford’s vanquish of Ferrari at Le Mans with its overall win in 1966, starring Henry Ford II, Carroll Shelby, Mose Nowland, Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren. Without lingering on that historic victory, Joiner’s film quickly moves on to the secret development of Ford’s 2016 Le Mans challenger, starring Edsel Ford II, who joined his father at the race in ’66, William Clay Ford, who did not join his father back then but makes up for it now, and chief engineer Raj Nair, global performance chief Dave Pericak, performance marketing chief Henry Ford III, Multimatic Engineering veep Larry Holt, team chief Chip Ganassi and car number 68 drivers Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.
The documentary quickly and concisely progresses through the Ford GT’s early failures at Daytona and Sebring and spends enough time at Le Mans to build tension, as if anyone watching is unsure of the outcome.
“I had more than a thousand hours of footage,” Joiner told a group of Ford Motor Company employees assembled in an auditorium at its World Headquarters, to preview “Return.” “I knew I had a great story.”
There’s the sense that somehow Ford went in knowing it couldn’t possibly lose this one, coming 50 years after that historic first victory, even though the ’16 race was the new GT’s first, while the original “GT40” didn’t find success until its third year. You get the same sense from Audi Sport’s “Truth in 24,” although the difference is that Audi spent a lot of money to assure its 2008 win.
If Raj Nair’s shaky nerves, as he watches from the garage, are as real as they look, it serves as proof there was no guaranteed outcome. Just ask Toyota about its GT prototype effort.
On the other hand, “Return” doesn’t mention allegations of “sandbagging.” There were last-minute ballast and power reductions that Le Mans’ sanctioning body imposed on Ford, as well as Ferrari, Chevrolet Corvette and Aston Martin just prior to last year’s race. Ford faces stiffer restrictions at this weekend’s 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it will try to win the GTE class with its GT again, but will have to add ballast and cap horsepower at 490, because as Pericak told the employees at the preview, “they’re afraid of us.”
Rather, they’re trying to even out the chances, he added after Nair warned him to be politically correct, what with a few media in the crowd.
Joiner keeps the film off the rah-rah, all-Ford all-the-time cliff by interviewing retired Corvette factory driver Kelly Collins, “Ford GT: How Ford silenced the critics, humbled Ferrari and conquered Le Mans” author and former Automobile contributor Preston Lerner, and AutoExtremist editor and publisher Peter DeLorenzo.
There’s also Ford’s newly promoted global markets chief, Jim Farley, and somewhat awkwardly, Mark Fields, who attended the 2016 Le Mans race with the Ford crew, identified as “previous president and CEO.”
Ford says there are no plans to broadcast “Return,” which is a shame, because at one hour, 16 minutes, it’s a slickly filmed, tightly edited halo film for a halo car. You’d expect to find it, at least, running during the nether-hours on Velocity or on one of the cable sports networks. “Truth in 24,” after all, was broadcast on ESPN just prior to the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2009. You can watch “Return” for free, with no fear of a cable bill, here.