Have you heard people blab on and on about the GT40, but you don't know what the fuss is about some old Ford? Here's a simple explanation.
All credit goes to our own porsche9146, commenting on this Forza tribute to the GT40. Specifically, he was replying to reader benjo, who wasn't getting why everyone was making such a big deal about the forty-inch-tall Anglo-American.
How can a modern ford be one of the greatest cars? Is this a cultural thing?
Porsche9146 laid everything out.
Hello. My name is Fred. I write about motor racing on Jalopnik all the time and have done live blogs for the three largest endurance races in the world (Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona) for them over the past seven months. I know a little bit about sports car racing.
With all due respect, if you think that Le Mans isn't the most important thing to a car of that era, you do not understand motorsport. In the 1960s (and every year before about 1985 when the two biggest racing series in the world, F1 and NASCAR, really went mainstream), the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans were the two most important events in the racing world bar none, to the point that they were the only two mainstream racing events on earth. One is a test of a driver more than anything, that being the Indianapolis 500, and the other is a test of a car.
The mid to late 60s were perhaps the greatest time in the storied history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Ferrari program that had basically dominated every race they'd entered since Jaguar and Mercedes had left the sport (and before you go to wikipedia to actually find out anything about sports car racing and see that I'm using a sweeping generalization here, yes it's true that they dropped a few, most notably the '59 24 Hours of Le Mans), but it's era of dominance was coming to an end. In GT ranks, Porsche's 911, Chevrolet's Corvette Grand Sport, Jaguar's E-Type Lightweight and Carroll Shelby's legendary 289 AC Cobras were removing the foothold Ferrari's 250s once had on those ranks, and when Ford saw that Ferrari could be beaten in GT, they decided it was time to try to beat them in the class that mattered most, Group 5.
That lead to the formation of the GT40 project, a collaboration between American and British Ford arms, with support from legendary British sports car chassis maker Lola. The first few years were rough, with the 289 powered cars struggling to beat the older 250LMs, but by 1966 Carroll Shelby's Cobra Daytona team had been moved out of their home made GT projects and into full control of the then Anglo-American GT40 program. Soon followed the 427-equipped Mk2s, and with the new power and new organization the legendary 1-2-3 (in the wrong order, thanks to a poorly communicated attempt at a formation finish, mind you!) in 1966, the first time Ferrari had been beaten on merit in nearly a decade. The world's second biggest race was again open to any and all comers.
Ford didn't rest on it's laurels, though. Instead, they decided to develop the next evolution of the GT40 in-house, without the assistance of Lola, and the result was the all-American GT40 MkIV. Shelby again ran the program, and this time he brought in some of the greatest drivers from the world of USAC Championship Car racing. The result? Another win, this time at the hands of now four time Indianapolis 500 winning driver AJ Foyt and legendary designer, builder and driver of AAR racing cars Dan Gurney (who would go on to win the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps in his self-designed, self-built, self-run, self-driven AAR Eagle the very next week).
At this point, Ford was left with no more worlds to conquer in sports car racing. They pulled funding, their goals had been met and exceeded. However, Ferrari's dominance didn't continue into 1968. No, John Wyer and his Gulf liveried GT40 Mk1s went on without any factory support to win the next two 24 Hour races, and from that point on, the floodgates were open. Le Mans was anyone's race.
1970 saw Ford's presence at the legendary event dwindle to nothing in the top class despite privateer victories at the race with GT40 based cars the last two years, but the race wasn't exactly left in the hands of Ferrari's new 512 series. No, Porsche's new 917 had something to say about that. Despite the fact that the longtailed LH model was the one designed for Le Mans success, the short tailed k models won in 1970 and 1971, the first ever victories in the most important race in sports cars by the most storied name in sports car history. 1973 saw the big engine equipped top class demolished and the lighter secondary class adjusted by the ACO to benefit the wholeheartedly French Matra program and the result was that both Porsche's dominant 917 and it's dominant 908 were no longer eligible to compete in Europe. Porsche switched it's focus to the North American Can-Am and German Interseries Group 7 championships with it's open top 917/10 and 917/30 prototypes, while Matra easily defeated Ferrari's new 312P, which was designed without the intent of being a top class car at Le Mans and thus not specialized for Le Mans as all other Ferrari prototypes were. Soon Ferrari pulled it's funding from their focus on the 24 hour classic, despite the fact that Enzo Ferrari once called it "the most important race in the world", never to return as a full factory program again (despite building the 333SP customer car and the Lancia LC family of Group C racers).
Essentially, what Ford did with the GT40 program was break the most dominant program in the history of sports car racing's dominance and open the floodgates of competition at the world's most important endurance race. They won in four of their six years of competition, twice winning without even running a factory program, and they proved that an unbeatable team was beatable even in it's prime. The car modeled above is the John Wyer Mk1, a privately entered car that won twice (the first ever individual car to win twice in the event) despite being massively outdated and a car that secured the first ever factory top class Porsche program for the Wyer organization (one of two, as Martini Racing also scored a similar contract). I'm not as big a fan of the GT40 as many are, but I struggle to understand why you are confused as to it being called one of the top cars in the history of the world.
Yes, before you ask, I am American, and if that makes you think less of me than you are extremely bigoted.
None from me, Fred. Couldn't have said it better myself.
Photo Credit: Luis Nieves