Ford Wins Le Mans! Should You Give a Damn?

A point-counterpoint between two experts on Ford racing history.

Ford Le Mans
Ford Motor Company

This past Sunday, at 3:00 PM Paris time, Ford Motor Company made Le Mans history by winning the LMGTE-Pro class in its debut with a new race car. The victory comes on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s 1966 Le Mans crown—the first time an American manufacturer won Le Mans outright, a feat that no other American carmaker has ever accomplished. Following last Sunday's checkered flag, some pontificators have begun heralding a new era for the Stars and Stripes. Others wonder what the big deal is. So the question is: Should you care about Ford's victory?

Herewith, a point-counterpoint slugfest. In this corner: Leo Levine, renowned motoring journalist since the 1950s, who wrote the definitive book on Ford racing, Ford: The Dust and the Glory, volumes I and II. In the opposite corner: The Drive’s editor-at-large A.J. Baime, author of the critically acclaimed book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, which takes place in the 1960s.

All right gentlemen, let’s have a clean fight. Come out swinging.

A.J. Baime: Ford Rules!

Let’s make one thing clear: This is a critical moment for motor racing in America. The sport in all its forms has struggled for viewership in recent years. Millennials, in general, don’t care as much as their dads did. (I recently met a guy in his 20s who had never heard of A.J. Foyt.) Ford’s victory at Le Mans in the LMGTE-Pro class is massively important, and it’s the job of writers and racing fans to get the word out, or it will be like a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear it. Because today, the race has lost some of its impact. Why? Because it’s hard to understand. So a lot of sporting fans in America have no idea of the significance of this past Sunday’s checkered flag.

Ford Motor Company

Yes, it’s true, the Ford car did not win Le Mans outright, the way Ford did in the golden age of racing in the 1960s, for four years in a row. Ford finished in 18th place on Sunday—roughly 375 miles behind the outright winning Porsche. But the Ford did win a class of racing that is the most relevant to drivers of everyday cars—that is, you and me and everyone else.

The LMGTE-Pro class (meaning Le Mans Grand Touring Endurance Professional) is the class for professional teams and drivers, competing in what are essentially street-legal customer cars. The Chevrolet Corvette. The Porsche 911. The Ferrari 488 (rare, but still, a street-legal customer car). Ford has been very conscious of this in its marketing; the Ford GT’s engine is a turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, so the technology in the race car is not all that different from what’s in our F-150s.

Another reason why Ford’s victory at Le Mans is important: We're talking about the most grueling test of man and machine on earth. You could argue that Le Mans is not as important as it was in the 1960s, and you would be correct. However, Le Mans is still the hardest race to win in the world, the checkered flag that all manufacturers covet. To win Le Mans, a car’s engineering has to be bullet proof. The car must be furiously fast. It must accord itself to innumerable, highly technical regulations. But most of all, it must be able to take impossible abuse and keep on rolling. For a debut car to win Le Mans, even in class, is frankly miraculous.

Ford beat the Porsche factory 911s. Ford beat Ferrari. Perhaps most important of all, Ford beat the Chevrolet Corvettes. Ford versus Chevrolet is the greatest rivalry in the history of American business, and it played out at the biggest sports car race in the world. The Corvette has won Le Mans in class eight times. Which should lead you to one question, and one conclusion: First, why did it take Ford so long to throw its hat into the ring?; and next, you realize it’s pretty damn impressive that Ford whooped the Corvette in its first year out. The top finishing Vette was four laps behind—at Le Mans, that’s 34 miles.

Ford Motor Company

Motor racing impresarios need to simplify the rules, so that new viewers can instantly engage. There should be two classes at Le Mans, the way there was at the race’s height of fame in the 1960s: 1. Prototypes, all out race cars to test tomorrow’s automotive technology; and 2. GTs, sports cars you can buy today.

American cars should be competing in, and winning, this race. No American manufacturer has won Le Mans outright since Ford’s last victory, in 1969. No American driver has won it outright since Davy Jones did 20 years ago this year (in a Porsche). Not a single American driver was competing in the top LMP1 class this year. We should support any American motor company that invests the tens of millions of dollars to build a car from scratch and race it at Le Mans, in any class. As Americans, we should feel that our brands have to compete and win among the best in international competition—especially in a field that is not just sport, but industry too.

Leo Levine: Le Mans Was a Snore

Next door to these words you will find some by my newfound colleague A.J. Baime, who will tell you that Ford’s performance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was noteworthy, praiseworthy, and several similar terms. If you believe him, he has a bridge he will sell you.

The Ford entry did win something by virtue of entering what amounted to the minor league division, but before we deal with that, let us examine the product that is Le Mans, vintage 2016.

The event amounted to the automotive equivalent of Sominex.

Ford Motor Company

Cars did pass other cars, as they are wont to do in a race, but you needed a small library to (hopefully) understand the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) version of alphabet soup. The cars were classified as LMP1, LMP2, LMGTE-Pro, and LMGTE-Am. Why has the race become so complicated, rule wise? Because of the bureaucratic mess that constitutes today’s racing rules, Le Mans has lost its relevance.

When the first 24-hour race was held in 1923 it served as a public proving ground for cars that were, back then, series production. Of considerable interest to the car-buying public, for example, was whether or not the headlights would last through the night. By the time we reached the 1960s, Le Mans was the world’s most popular race, due to the Ford-Ferrari battles. At the time, the race was front-page news in the New York Times, and in 1965, Le Mans was the first sporting event in Europe ever broadcast live in America.

But to stay up all night in 2016 to watch an LMP2 chase a LMGTE-Pro?

Make next year’s event for series production passenger cars with a minimal number of modifications and see how many manufacturers enter. Of course they will; they won’t have a choice. To have a race for the sake of racing is fine. But to play alphabet soup with cars that meet the letter of some overly complicated rules? There must be better things to do.

But back to the Fords.

Here we have one of the world’s great industrial empires going second class. Instead of running with the Porsches and Audis in the prototype division, they opted for the lesser lights, running in the LMGTE-Pro division. If Ford’s PR people have the requisite skills, they may even get you to think they won something. They did, but were about 375 miles (44 laps) behind the winning Porsche.

A half century ago Ford ventured into what was for Dearborn an unknown area—European road racing. Ford took its lumps at first, then came back to win at Le Mans in 1966, '67, '68, and '69, the last two years with one “customer” car run by John Wyer, the first two with a team led by Carroll Shelby. Ford won not in class, but overall.

You would think that in the 50 years since the advances in race car technology would produce a faster GT for Ford, but look at some numbers:

The Circuit de la Sarthe, or Le Mans road circuit, is roughly the same length today as it was in the mid-60’s—about 8.5 miles per lap. In 1967, the winning Ford GT driven by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt was not challenged for the last 12 hours and as a consequence ran slower lap times. In addition, the car had a cracked brake disc, and this slowed them even more.

Brian Cleary/Getty Images

Both the car that won in 1967 and this year’s Ford had engines producing 500 horsepower, although from different layouts. The “old” car had a 427-inch (7.0-liter) V-8, the new one a turbocharged V-6 of 3.5 liters displacement. No aerodynamic results were announced, but it can be considered a given that the new car is more aerodynamic.

The Porsche that was first over all in 2016 covered 384 laps—3,251.97 miles. The 1967 Ford GT covered 3,245.34 miles. Meaning the winning car of today motored almost the same distance as the winning car from five decades ago. The 2016 Ford GT, meanwhile, only traveled 2,879.35 miles over the 24 hours. That’s over 350 miles less than the Ford GT of 1967 did.

So much for a half-century’s worth of technology.

The first 50-odd minutes of this year’s event were run at reduced speeds, behind a “safety” car. A word about the safety car in the rain: GT cars are licensed for public roads, and as such have both brakes and gas pedals. When it rains, their drivers should know enough to slow down without the FIA safety car in front of the field. Or is that asking too much? No such safety car appeared, for example, when Phil Hill won Le Mans outright. He motored all night in a pounding rain, in an open cockpit car, at furious speed with terrific skill, thus becoming the first American to win Le Mans, in 1958 in a Ferrari. There was no safety car to make sure he had the skills to keep himself on the road.

But Ford will have enough to talk about, as long as you don’t read the fine print.

So much for Le Mans, vintage 2016. Sic Transit whatever.