Driving the Ford GTs that won Le Mans 50 years apart unites digital and analog
On an unseasonably toasty afternoon earlier this fall, the pit lane at Virginia International Raceway was suddenly shaken by the unmistakable crackling idle of a Ford big-block V-8. Every head snapped toward the cacophony, which was thundering from a black 1966 Ford GT40 Mark II splashed with a large “2” on both doors. As soon as the car came to rest, the mechanics, engineers, and Ford employees, who had assembled at VIR for their own event meant to showcase the much newer Ford GTLM race car, swarmed toward the 53-year-old relic. All the planned activities for the day came to a full stop.
This particular GT40, chassis number P/1046, represents hallowed ground. It’s the car that the late, legendary Kiwi duo of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon crewed to Le Mans victory in 1966, fulfilling Henry Ford II’s ambition of smashing Ferrari on its home turf. A half century after the checkered flag fell, the car and its gobsmacking moment in history still inspire controversy as well as books and movies, including the freshly released Ford v Ferrari film that features a small constellation of big-name stars. Rob Kauffman, an entrepreneur and founder of RK Motors, a vintage-car dealership and restoration shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, isn’t one of them, but he currently owns P/1046. He commanded me to climb aboard his GT40 with the words, “Get into McLaren’s seat.” I carefully wriggled my knocking knees under the steering wheel and parked my unworthy butt on the throne of kings. This day was about to get 427 times better.
Ford had invited a handful of journalists to VIR in south-central Virginia to drive the descendant of the GT40, the 2016 GTLM race car. The GTLM is the competition version of the Ford GT, the low and slinky $500,000 supercar that Ford continues to build and sell to charmed millionaires. This particular GTLM is one of the quartet of cars that Ford entered in the GTE Pro class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016. The quartet finished first, third, fourth, and ninth (this car) in class; the winning car is in The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. With Ford winding down its Le Mans program this year, it seemed a good time to let some of the secrets out, put a few grubby writers behind the wheel, and get some more ink for what was a furiously focused corporate effort to bring home a Le Mans victory exactly 50 years after Ford did it the first time.
It was also an ideal moment to see how far racing technology has advanced in five decades, so we decided to try snagging an original GT40 for the day. This is where Kauffman enters the picture. Like so many race cars, P/1046 was cast off after winning the race, passing through a few owners until finding the perfect steward in 2014. Kauffman sent the Le Mans racer to Rare Drive in New Hampshire for a painstaking, 5000-hour restoration to return it to its 1966-winning configuration, which is well chronicled at GT40.RKMotorsCharlotte.com. He’s also generous with his artifact and trailered the car to Virginia for us.
Having wormed into the GT40, I wondered how the drivers did the old-style Le Mans start, where they ran across the track, hopped into their cars, and took off. I looked around. A large, elegantly stenciled tachometer dominates the dash. A strip of tape denotes the 6300-rpm redline. Smaller auxiliary gauges spread to the left. You sit on the right side of the car, but the shifter is still to the driver’s right. I heard a sound; it was either the ticking of the pit clock at Le Mans or my own galloping heartbeat.
So much has happened in the 53 years since this car raced. Just a glance shows how differently the GTLM treats the air with half a century of accumulated aerodynamic knowledge behind it. The GTLM is wide, like a hammerhead, and it then tapers inward from the base of the windshield to the rear. There’s a deep channel between the rear fenders and the flying buttresses bridging the gap. The design element channels air into fender-mounted intercoolers, which chill the intake charge that the twin-turbo V-6 engine breathes. Those buttresses help split the turbulent flow from the smoother current rushing along the car’s flanks. Every square inch of the outer body was designed to make the rushing air perform—for cooling or to reduce drag or to press the car down to the pavement for increased cornering grip. The air is a tool.
Conversely, the air was the devil for the gorgeous GT40. The early cars got light over 150 mph, like a plane taking off. Indeed, two of them crashed in testing. Automotive aerodynamics were poorly understood in the 1960s, so the Band-Aids and modifications made peace with the airflow rather than harness it. Between the early cars and Kauffman’s Mark II, the most obvious changes are the metal plate tacked across the rear bodywork as a spoiler, and a shorter, reconfigured nose that channeled the air through the radiators and out of the hood. The challenge was reducing lift without adding drag, since the major feature of the Le Mans circuit then was its 3.7-mile Mulsanne straight. Top speed always matters, but more so at the Circuit de la Sarthe. In the 1966 race, P/1046 reached 200 mph every lap, a stunning speed considering the 427-cubic-inch V-8 produced only about 485 horsepower.
Interestingly, the GTLM goes no faster. Chicanes added to the Mulsanne in 1990 to reduce ultimate velocity had the desired effect, and the rules of racing have expanded and evolved as well. Nowadays, they limit the horsepower such that the GTLM produces about 550, a stout figure from a smaller, 3.6-liter V-6, but also a fluctuating one. The number has varied throughout the GTLM’s life as racing officials jiggered the turbo boost and other engine parameters so the wildly different cars in the production-based pro class—the Ferrari 488, the Porsche 911, the Aston Martin Vantage, and the Chevy Corvette—would be on a somewhat level field. Bemoan this managed competition if you will, but it’s now a staple of nearly every racing series.
Before I sat in the GT40, I had already driven the GTLM, losing all sense of dignity as I clumsily wedged through the steel driver-protection cage that is bolted to the main carbon-fiber tub. It is downright claustrophobic inside, the windshield far away and framed by the deep dash and massive A-pillars. Rearward visibility is so poor there’s a screen to the driver’s right that is hooked to a rear-facing camera. It’s not just video that is projected on the screen; there’s a system that identifies with colored arrows which of the following cars are closing or retreating.
The steering wheel—it’s not a circle but a pair of hand grips joined by a panel of switches—includes a screen that displays lap times and the gear selected. A tiny bank of lights illuminates when it’s time to shift, the driver selecting one of the two wheel-mounted paddles. Squeeze right for an upshift, left to drop a gear. There’s still a clutch pedal, but it’s only used to get the car moving.
Chugging out of the pit felt as if I were in a video game. The car is a cocoon—nicely air conditioned, by the way—and everything seems far from your reach. In the first few corners, I can’t get a sense of what the front tires are doing—a consequence, I later learned, of the column-mounted electric-assist motor that insulates road feel. In most race cars the engine is a bellowing beast, but in this one it’s stuffed up with turbos and strangely subdued. The brakes require a firm push and are likewise lacking in the usual feel. Since ABS is banned, to help combat lockup, a light flashes to alert the driver that a wheel has locked.
Against the computerized GTLM, the GT40’s door jamb has a typed chart comparing actual engine rpm with what the tach reads. It could be handy, but the driver can’t see it when the door is closed. “We don’t know why they did that,” Kauffman said, “but we bought four typewriters until we found one that mimicked the original look [of the typed numbers].”
I press the GT40’s starter button while gently prodding the throttle. Whereas the GTLM makes a distant thrum, the big-block V-8 wakes like eight Napoleonic cannons firing behind my back, shaking the car. The hallmark of the Mark II GT40, that engine gets more power with less stress. Kauffman, in the passenger seat, cradled a fire extinguisher in his lap, a layer of caution in a car estimated to be worth north of $20 million.
The big, raging Ford FE moved the 2600-pound racer off with barely a blip. Every control is stiffer than in the power-everything GTLM. Compared with other cars of this bygone era I’ve driven, the GT40’s structure feels stout and much better screwed together. It was, after all, a big-dollar factory job and the most sophisticated sports car of its time. The chassis eschews a steel-tube frame for an aircraft-like monocoque of folded and riveted steel sheets, just like the Formula 1 cars of the day. A control-arm suspension graces all four corners.
Things have changed since Phil Remington—Carroll Shelby’s master of all trades—was improvising fixes to the GT40 and Bruce McLaren was testing them on the track. The GTLM came together on a computer, and its drivers were trained on a computer. “The sim,” as it’s called, lives in Ford’s Performance Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina. “Racing is not just a marketing enterprise for us,” explained Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “We built the center in 2014 to be a conduit between our racing efforts and our engineers in Dearborn.” There are now two simulators in constant use. There, an exact copy of the GTLM cockpit rests on a movable platform that replicates g force. A curved screen provides a simulated field of view for the driver as different setups and driving techniques are tried. An adjacent control room with its chilled closet holding five computer banks requires two people to run it. We saw NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick seated in the second simulator, practicing for an upcoming race.
Ol’ Shel would have seen this Futureworld and spit on the ground, but the six laps I drove the GTLM wouldn’t have been as quick without my prep in the simulator. My favorite part was the coaching via headphones by Ford team driver Billy Johnson. With my heart rate at maximum barreling toward the simulated 150-mph climbing esses at VIR, Johnson would say in a soothing and relaxed voice, “Okay, now turn.” In the sim, I was able to run the esses without lifting—and ended up crashing through the retaining wall and flipping into the trackside condos. Hey, it’s all fun and games until you kill 20 simulated fans having a pixel BBQ.
Soon enough, though, I was on the real climbing esses, one of VIR’s signature features and a chain of gentle but nerve-jangling high-speed bends that separate champions from chumps. After a few runs at it in the GTLM, I got the nerve to try Johnson’s instructions to the letter. And, damn, if he wasn’t right: The car carved through so quickly I could scarcely keep up with the required flicks of the wheel. There was no drama, no sliding, no oh-my-god-my-hair’s-on-fire panic.
At 150 mph, the GTLM’s downforce plants the car, so perhaps that performance should be expected. A high-performance street car can corner with about 1.00 g of grip; in high-speed turns, where the downforce comes into play, the GTLM sticks more than twice as hard, with roughly 2.00 g of grip. Even in the low-speed turns—say, under 50 mph, where downforce isn’t so much a factor—the car still grips at over 1.50 g.
You also have to factor in how much tires have progressed in 50 years. The GTLM’s foot-wide slicks are modern track glue that come with their own Michelin engineer to fuss over them. I can’t imagine what Ken Miles would have done with a set of these babies. The GT40’s doughnuts aren’t even slicks; they’re treaded, and the rubber chemistry is from the era of Mister Ed. Yet the GT40 still digs into corners. The manual steering is on the slow side, and I have to shuffle my hands in the tighter turns. I’m not at the limit, but the 53-year-old car still feels composed.
I was able to push harder in the GTLM. Compared with the older Ford, the newer car feels much stiffer at first, like it’s never pitching while braking, or rolling at all in the turns. I thought this made sense for a racing car that doesn’t encounter potholes on today’s glass-smooth racing circuits. However, today’s tracks have curbs, and two curbs are rarely the same height or shape. That’s important because the ability to drive over them can yield speed by effectively widening the track and increasing the corner radius.
Thus, there are two opposing requirements for a modern racing suspension: It has to be stiff enough to keep the tires square to the pavement and not collapse under the huge downforce, as well as supple enough to take advantage of the curbs. The GTLM felt like it favored the former, but an exploratory trip over a particularly tall curb on the inside of a second-gear Turn Four proved me wrong. The car glided over with nary a shudder. I then drove over every curb Johnson had instructed me to wallop in our sim session the day before; each time the GTLM seemed to know what to do. Amazing.
The odd thing is how little I thought about the turbo V-6 thruster behind me. Sure, it’s fast, but there are many street cars, including Ford’s own 647-hp version of the GT, with more poke. The turbochargers muffle the sound, and there’s no vibration in the cockpit. The engine does its job; when you step on the gas, the world goes whoosh.
The GT40’s V-8 also makes the scenery blur, but it splits the heavens while doing so. Redline, shift. Redline, shift again. Redline once more—if your ears don’t explode first. Compared with sitting in the push-button GTLM, the GT40 is a visceral sweat box in which you inhale petrochemical adrenaline from a seemingly living thing. The view out is comparatively expansive, like you’re in the environment, not just observing it from a distance. The trees and the guardrail posts and the gawping faces of onlookers rush by with a startling speed that I’m much more aware of. How Gurney and the other boys kept their concentration amid all this sensory overload is a diamond-plated mystery. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting there, foot down, waiting for the car to get light and start sniffing around the track looking for something to cream. But it doesn’t sniff, it tracks as if on subway rails. Kauffman later told me that when he drove it in the biennial Le Mans Classic race, he didn’t realize how fast he’d gone until after-fact calculations revealed he had passed 200 mph. He never intended to go that fast, but the GT40 had its own plan.
With the GTLM, I feel a pang of empathy for the drivers. Hang with me here because it sounds odd to pity a well-paid professional, but the car felt so stoically competent, almost video-game like, that the drivers are then required to be perfect, too. The tool is there, so now the onus is on them to extract every bit of speed while simultaneously processing a fire-hose spray of data. Lap after lap. Back in the day, McLaren and Amon and Gurney and Miles and the others rocketed headlong into the night with nothing more to focus on than the track, a few gauges, and keeping themselves alive in an era of sudden and painfully routine death. I mentioned this to Johnson, who just shrugged as if to say, “Duh.” Young people. They just take the world as they find it. They don’t fuss about how it used to be.
By 1966, the GT40 had morphed into an exceedingly competent long-distance racer. Its genius wasn’t simply speed and durability but driver comfort, too. Most cars then, when technology was changing so fast year over year, bore some flaw the driver had to mind and adapt to. That’s not the case with P/1046. The engine pulls with such torque from idle to redline that downshifts are optional. The rear tires deftly handle aggressive throttle inputs, and corner handling is well balanced. That’s not to say when the car is pushed hard things won’t go awry, but the well-sorted handling explains how just two drivers could pilot the GT40 over 24 hours, as McLaren and Amon did in 1966.
We shot a few more photos, and then I watched Kauffman back P/1046 onto his trailer. I thought about that car and the endless hours devoted to it, and likewise to the sweat and corporate reputation invested in the GTLM. People don’t race or build race cars because they need a job. It’s a calling and a passion, and in 1966, as now, it produces miraculous things that come with fabulous stories.