It has been half a century since the Ford GT40 became a rock star in racing. In February 1966, the Ford sports car finished first, second, and third in the inaugural 24 Hours of Daytona in Florida. Ford took a podium sweep once again at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. In France, three months later, the GT40 claimed the top three positions at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Winning the triple crown of endurance racing is the pinnacle of sports car success. It was a very impressive time in history for the American automaker and served as retribution for Enzo Ferrari’s snub of Henry Ford II over the American giant’s attempt to buy the Italian sports carmaker a few years earlier.
Fifty years later, the all-new Ford GT is the Blue Oval’s tool of choice for the return to international sports car racing. With help from Multimatic and Chip Ganassi Racing, Ford Performance is campaigning four cars around the world—two cars in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship in the U.S. and Canada as well as two cars in the FIA WEC series in Europe and beyond. Clearly, Ford isn’t taking this racing rebirth lightly. It’s an all-out assault.
Unfortunately, round one at the 24 Hours of Daytona in late January didn’t go so well for the company. Yes, the Ford GT showed good pace, but transmission problems plagued both cars. Ganassi Racing worked hard since the disappointment to get both cars sorted for the 12 Hours of Sebring, where they showed improvement. One car took fifth place in its class and 15th overall, and the other took eighth in class and 26th overall. Though one of the Fords led the GTLM class briefly, it was a Corvette C7.R that took first place in class and 11th overall.
The Ford GT’s early struggles shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with racing. But it does make me wonder if Ford could have timed its half-century anniversary return to the track a bit better, and possibly with a more street-oriented entry.
It’s important to remember that Ford had two quite disastrous seasons with the mid-engine GT40 in 1964 and 1965 before it recovered in 1966 and blew away the competition. Maybe Ford should have come in earlier and quieter with the new GT instead starting off big on the 50th anniversary.
I also question the type of car Ford is racing. Don’t get me wrong. I love the new GT, and I applaud Ford’s return to the international racing arena. The road version of the GT looks fantastic and is a wonderful halo automobile for the company, but why can’t you buy one of the road cars while the race cars battle the competition on the track? We won’t see the street version of the Ford GT until the very end of this year, well after the 2016 racing season comes to a close. The rumored $400,000 price is much higher than the road versions of the competition’s entries while the production numbers of the Ford are lower. Is the Ford GT a cheater car only built to meet homologation rules of the sanctioning bodies?
Let’s look at the competition. Porsche has the 911 GT3 RSR, and Chevrolet has its Corvette C7.R. Ferrari runs the 488 GTE, while BMW now has the new-for-2016 M6 GTLM. Aston Martin campaigns the V12-powered Vantage GTE. All those entries except for the Ferrari are based on road cars that are easily available from your local dealer and are substantially less expensive than the upcoming Ford GT road car. Yes, the 488 GTB road car has a long waiting list, but it’s still much more affordable than the rumored sticker price of the Ford GT, which uses a twin-turbo V-6 very much related to Ford’s prototype race car, the engine that powered the overall winner at last year’s 24 Hours of Daytona.
I wonder whether Ford should have gone down a slightly different path for its return to endurance racing. One option would have been to make the Ford GT more like a 911 GT3 RS or Ferrari 488 GTB—actually, more like the last Ford GT, which was built from 2004 to 2006. I’m thinking along the lines of a more accessible road-based car that’s available to buyers at a lower price. Another option could have been to turn the Shelby GT350R Mustang into a full-blown race car similar to what Pratt & Miller and Chevy do with the Corvette.
Either way, the new Ford GT is a very special car, and I’m very excited to see if Ford’s large outlay of cash reaps the rewards the company expects. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the sanctioning body for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will allow Ford four entries for the great French endurance battle in June, so the new car had better do well. If not, there’s always the 51st anniversary of the Ford GT40’s great success.