Ford winner comeback during 24 Hours of Le Mans
Back in June, I was lucky enough to be invited by Ford France to witness history: Ford winner comeback during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But first things first, a bit of history to get the full picture of what happened. The firm from Detroit shares a big history with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is heavily linked with Ferrari. Back in the 60s, the italian brand was for sale (sort of), and Henry Ford & Enzo Ferrari were about to make a deal. However, the latter decided he didn’t want to let go of his racing activity to the giant from Detroit, and the whole deal was off. This kind of pissed off Henry Ford (understandable). To get back at the italian brand, Ford decided to hunt on Ferrari’s turf: racing. Where else but at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Ferrari had been on a streak with 5 consecutive wins?
The year was 1966. After two years of preparations & starting their work from pretty much nothing, Ford was on the starting grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with 3 Ford GT40s. They ended up winning 1st, 2nd & 3rd place that year. And then won again in 1967, 1968 and 1969. Only then did they say « OK, I think our message was heard », and they left like champs, to never come back. Veni, Vidi, Vici. Until now.
The year is 2016. It’s been 50 years since Ford’s 1966 win of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, followed by 3 others victories. June 2016 was the epic return of the firm from Detroit, this time in the GTE-Pro category, with their new FORD GT racecar, racing for Chip Ganassi Racing. The main goal was victory, but to spice things up, they had a bunch of nemesis: all of the Ferrari 488 GTE racing in the same category. All of this was very exciting…
My trip started as they always do, in Paris. It was friday morning at the train station, I met with my point of contact, and off we were to Le Mans! After a fairly short trip (it’s only an hour away from Paris with the TGV, when there are no strikes, that is), we had arrived. We picked-up all of our credentials, and the day could truly start. The day before the race. Ford saw things BIG. Their hospitality area was HUGE and incredibly welcoming: a huge restaurant with a 2-star Michelin chef, a shop for mechandise, many comfortable couches (I’ve spent many hours there lol), a bar, a cinema, a massage room (which I never thought of using, to my despair), a toy circuit racing toy GT40s, a viewing deck to watch the race… Basically, everything was prepared for you to spend 24 hours watching the race in the best possible setting. To be honest, I’ve never was as well received as I was that wee-kend. Many different people enjoyed their week-end together: dealers, guests, enthusiasts, Ford GT owners, mechanics, as well as Ford employees & officials. It really felt like we were all part of a big family, attending a distant cousin’s wedding. It was a place to gather, to unite, and to hopefully celebrate.
On friday afternoon, we got to meet and discuss with Olivier PLA, driver of the Ford GT #66. Some of the people with me were journalists and questioned him on his thoughts, preparation & the car. He answered freely, though you could feel he was very focused on the tomorrow’s race.
One of the highlights of the trip was the garage visit. Indeed, Ford had organized a pretty cool garage tour of the Chip Ganassi Racing area. This is the place where the cars make their « pit stop » during the race, wether to change a tire, add fuel, or simply exchange drivers. In terms of racing, this is the « holy place », where all the action happens. This is the place where you see all the mechanics in full alert (or trying to get as much rest as they can in a racing environment). Unfortunately for me, this tour was on friday, so we didn’t get to see any of the real action. The four cars were dismantled, there were car parts everywhere. We could see the engineers working and doing their job: one of them was heating up the tyres to take off residue. That was mega impressive, though somewhat funny because it looked like he was heating up a raclette cheese. However, my second garage tour (lucky me, we could only have one in theory), was during the race, and I could see all the mechanics and technicians extremely focused, with their eyes on the numerous screens, paying attention to every little detail going on. We didn’t get to « live » any action though, we were asked to leave the area when cars did a pit stop. Which is completely understandable: not only for security reasons (we didn’t have the proper equipment), but you also had to let everyone do their job freely and not get in the way. But still, what a rush when we had to leave the place fast.
That being said, we had access to the Ford lounge, which is right upstairs from the pitlane area, up the two FORD boxes, with a direct view on the straight line and on the pit stop area down below. So during the race and testing, we were able to see a few pit stops. Which was incredible. It was my first time living a race from the inside. Let alone a 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and for some reason, you are much more considerate about everything around you and of the race itself. I noticed that I followed it with much more attention, look at every screen all the time, every little detail mattered. It’s almost as if you’re part of the team yourself. As I said, it really felt like a big family. I mean, I had lunch with Chip GANASSI himself and Raj NAIR (VP of Product Development), and we discussed freely of all sorts of things. The day before the race!! I mean, those guys probably had more important affairs to attend to, yet they were there discussing with us and enjoying this wonderful experience.
It was getting late, and it was time to end the day.
6 AM, the alarm clock rings. It’s saturday. Race day.
Everyone gets prepared to leave for the race track, we knew it was about to be a very long and busy day, but very exciting day as well. We get in our Ford Galaxy and off we go. Today is special for two reasons: obviously, it’s the start of the race, around 3 PM. But there is also a planned FORD Parade around noon, which we’re supposed to be a part of. We go to the Ford lounge to watch the cars do a few more tests before the big race, then we decided to meet around 10AM to get ready for the parade. We took one of those amazing golf karts to go to the Parking Dynamique, which was unbelievably awesome (you have no idea how these things can be life-savers).
When we got there, it felt like hitting the motherload: all the « old » Ford GTs I had seen pictures of on social media were parked there. Though I didn’t count, there were probably 10 or 15 different ones. All sorts of specs, and from many countries (France, UK…). Some owners even brought their cars from the USA to France – talk about determination! My favorite car probably was the red Ford GT, mainly because of its custom plate from Florida which read « 5RRY 4RE ». At first this might not make sense, but when you think about it, this is what you’re supposed to read: « SORRY FOUR-R-E » (« Sorry Ferrari »). I found that massively amusing and cheeky, and I was sold on the plate & car. This was my car of the week-end!
I kept walking and saw what was probably the most impressive line-ups of FORD Mustang GT and FORD Focus RS. To be honest, I had never seen that many in the same place. And they were all brilliantly aligned , it was very very impressive. It wouldn’t be a true show without the king. The most secretive supercar ever, the car everyone wants to own: the new Ford GT. It had a wonderful red interior, black wheels & some sort of grey-ish paint (which looked pretty nice, though not the nicest Ford GT I had ever seen). We gathered around to get ready for the parade, hear the security instructions and how things would go down. Everyone was to wear a helmet, and it was meant to be a « parade lap » (understand « no speeding »). I thought it was very sad we only did one lap, I think of all my photographer friends who only have one opportunity to get their shot. But I always understand how tight the planning is as well, and at give or take 3/4 minutes per lap, you can understand how one can lose a lot of time.
As FORD guests, we were allowed to pick a car and drive it for the parade. Considering I just got my driver’s licence recently, I decided to be humble about it and not take the wheel of a powerful car that isn’t mine on a freaking race track. I chose to be a passenger instead, fully knowing these kinds of opportunities might not ever pop up again. But hey, I’ll have other occasions to drive stuff! My ride was a lovely red Mustang GT 5.0L V8, with black wheels. The real deal. Only thing is I didn’t get to see the 3 winning Ford GT40s from 1966 which opened the parade. Boo-hoo. The parade itself was pretty cool, but it definitely wasn’t « parade lap speed », especially at the Hunaudières straight line haha. I held my phone & my driver Eric’s (from Presse Citron) phone as we were doing the tour, to do a Facebook LIVE to share the experience with our friends & followers.
As soon as we finished the tour, we were free to get ready for the race. As I was getting back to the Ford hospitality, the freaking Bugatti Chiron pops up out of nowhere, to disappear as quickly as it appeared. The magic of Le Mans, right? I wanted to live the start of the race from the Ford Hospitality area, so I went there.
It started to rain rather heavily. The race doesn’t care about weather conditions, so it started at 3PM, with famous Hollywood star Brad PITT to give the start. And BOOM, all the cars were off. Everyone cheered and you could feel that something big had just started, and it wasn’t about to die off in less than 24 hours. The few first laps of the race were done behind the safety car because of the heavy rain though, so it was a bit dull. But as soon as things got better and the sun started to shine again, things were ON. The Ford GTs had 1st place and seemed to rule the track: they were definitely impressive. One of the craziest things of this beginning of the race was the Toyota who overtook the two leading Porsche in the only 2/3 laps to become #1 in LMP1. Everyone was very much impressed, but as you all well know, this was the beginning of a sad story.
I kept watching the race in different places, enjoying myself as much as I could, varying angles and points of view, knowing this was an incredibly unique experience. I saw many friends, hang around the Village. But one of the coolest moments of the day happened around 9PM/10PM, when we decided to take one of the FORD-organized trips to a part of the track. Indeed, Ford had privatized a place near the second chicane. Basically, you could only get there by car through a shuttle service, and it gave you an incredible vantage point of view of the race. You could see the cars blasting and breaking right in front of the 2nd chicane of the Hunnaudières. The noise, the backfires, it was without a doubt impressive. Night was also setting down around that time. And it gave you an impressive look on the massive straight line, where you’d see the headlights appear in the distance and quickly dominate the surrounding forest. What a treat, what a time to be alive! We stayed there with a friend for a few hours, then waited for the bus to go back to Ford hospitality to watch the race some more.
It was about 2AM, and I decided to go home. They had a service of shuttles to go back to the hotel every hour until 5AM, and I just couldn’t see myself making it all night long after the packed day we had just spent. I could’ve « slept » on a couch, but I needed to go and get my stuff back anyways.
Again, 6 AM, the sun was already up. We went back to the race track, had a lovely breakfast there and kept watching the race. Nothing much had changed for FORD during the night, except the fact that a Ferrari had taken the #2 spot. At the moment, Ford had the win, as well as 3rd & 4th place. After a few hours of watching the race, I decided to eat lunch at the Chip GANASSI hospitality area, and to my surprise, Mark FIELDS was right next to me. Remember when I told you it felt like a big family? The Ford CEO was having lunch right next to me as if nothing lol. It was time for me to think of my plan on WHERE would I want to watch the end of the race: I decided to go a bit early to the Ford lounge, right up the pit stops. It was already packed with people. Such a lovely atmosphere reigned in that place, everyone was very excited, everyone was happy and in a good mood. I loved it. It felt like FORD was going for the win, no doubt. But as they say, 24 hours if 24 hours, and we would live the living proof of that saying soon enough.
A few laps to go until the end, the Fords were still doing great and leading the GTE-PRO category, still with the Ferrari close on our tails (with a penalty as well, which made everyone happy lol). With a few minutes to go, the leading TOYOTA seemed to be losing speed with every lap. With only two laps to go, the leading TOYOTA suddenly stopped on the straight line, to everyone’s surprise. The speaker was going nuts, the crowd / public didn’t believe what they were seeing. No one believed it actually. Even the TOYOTA mechanics didn’t believe this was real. Everyone was gutted and very sad, you could feel the sadness and grief for Toyota, who was about to do something incredible after being the leader of the race. The japanese staff didn’t flinch, but just like every human that afternoon, they were probably deeply sad about what was going on. The saddest part is the car didn’t even qualify, because it didn’t complete the final lap…. motorsports are CRUEL. But 24 hours is 24 hours. It’s that more cruel because the adventure ended only a few minutes before the end, after leading the race for almost 24 hours. Not a few hours, but a few minutes. Eventually, the Porsches caught on, and took the #1 spot. And ended the race as #1. Which would lead to a very cool message from their part: « we raced for 24 hours, toe to toe for 24 hours, but gained our respect for ever ».
As far as FORD, everything was doing very well. « We » (it really felt like I had played my part in all this, and I had somehow helped in achieving this goal lol) had secured the #1 spot and the win with car #68 . Though we didn’t get to do a triple-win like in 66 or a 4-car-win (the Ferrari fought hard & well for its second place). Still, everyone exhulted in the Ford lounge. Cheering, screaming. Everyone was extatic, champagne was already pouring down everyone’s throats! Good thing I’m not a big champagne enthusiast, otherwise it would’ve been a pretty exclusive opportunity to get drunk lol. Everyone was already going down for the pitlane, to join the mechanics, the crew, everyone was there. I quickly immitated the group and felt part of the family, again, as we were celebrating with Mark FIELDS & Chip GANASSI down there. People were cheering, taking pictures, hands were being shaken. Everyone was happy of this performance! What a thrill to be so close to the action, so in-depth, as if I was part of this whole thing. I wanted to stay for the podium and prizes, but it quickly became full of people, a true swarm, and decided it would be wiser to just go back to the Ford hospitality. Which I did, and to my amazement, the party was going wild in there as well. People were chanting along « We are the champions » (by QUEENS) & « We will rock you » as well, partying, talking loudly, clapping, cheering.
You could tell this was something very important that just happened. Ford had managed to do a succesful return to the master endurance race, 50 years after their success. This was a statement to the whole world, this was history being written before our eyes. This big FORD family was happy, and we cheered and chanted for a longer while, knowing that we had lived the coolest 24 hours of the brand, with the brand. It was an incredible privilege, so thanks again to FORD for organizing the whole thing and making it happen. I had never been that much « inside » a race, and it felt amazing. I’ve learned a lot, lived a lot, what an incredible experience.