This story is an excerpt from The 2018 Great Cars Issue of RACER Magazine, on sale now. To subscribe to RACER at a special discount rate, click here, or to buy The Great Cars Issue online, click here.
That isn’t just rubber, oil and road dirt streaking the now-silent Ford GT crouched purposefully in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation — that’s a 2,879-mile story. Every one of those smears and scratches tells of one fleeting, yet crucial moment from an historic win in the world’s most famous and grueling endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
A half-century on from its 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans in 1966 — the first of four-straight in the French classic — Ford headed back to the Circuit de la Sarthe with an all-new racecar, the GTE Pro class-contending GT. The significance of its return was enormous, and the unique challenge of Le Mans remained as daunting as ever: not only racing the competition, but the track and time itself. Twice around the clock, day into night into day again, with a ferociously strong GTE Pro field ensuring the tiniest problem or mistake could be the difference between victory or defeat.
Little more than a year after the Ford GT turned laps for the first time, four of the red, white and blue machines were wheeled off partner team Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s haulers to begin a week of practice and qualifying that would culminate in the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, June 18-19, 2016.
Testing of the GTE Pro-spec racecar had been intense in the months prior to Le Mans. Outright performance is paramount at the 8.467-mile track, with its signature high-speed Mulsanne Straight, but so is near-bullet-proof reliability. The GT, with a carbon-fiber chassis, race-ready aerodynamics and twin-turbo, 3.6-liter, V6 engine wasn’t lacking in the former. But testing is also critical for pushing every component in the car to its limits, finding and fixing any weak spots before Le Mans finds them for you…
So far, so good, the quartet of GTs ended qualifying in the first, second, fourth and fifth starting spots in a loaded GTE Pro field that also boasted factory entries from Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Porsche and — factory entries in all but name — Ferrari, the marque that had battled Ford so hard at Le Mans during those heady days of the late 1960s.
Picking up where they’d left off almost five decades before, the No. 68 Ford GT enjoyed a titanic battle with the No. 82 Ferrari. The pair swapped position multiple times until, nearing the race’s 20-hour mark, American Joey Hand put the Ford back into a GTE Pro class lead it would hold until the end.
Hand and his teammates in the No. 68, Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais and German Dirk Muller, completed 340 laps on their way
to victory, with third-, fourth- and ninth-place finishes for Ford’s other three entries making it an impressive, 100-percent finishing record for the all-new GT racecar, its international roster of drivers, and a tight-knit squad of skilled and determined engineers and mechanics.
“This is an historic moment for the Ford Motor Company,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman, Ford Motor Company. “We dared to dream that we could return to Le Mans, 50 years after the incredible 1966 win, and take on the toughest competition in the world. The pride we all felt when the Ford GT crossed the line at Le Mans is indescribable.”
As the weary, but elated mechanics began the job of packing up their equipment and the cars, word came down: “Don’t clean the No. 68!”
Its reward for 24 hours of hard running without missing a beat? Early retirement, and the chance to proudly wear its hard-earned dirt and battle scars at The Henry Ford.