The man behind those blue-and-orange Le Mans winners
The Gulf Oil logo. Powder blue and tangerine orange. Low-slung Ford GT40s, mighty Porsche 917s, open-top Mirage-Fords. All are synonymous with John Wyer, the Englishman who spent American oil-industry dollars so effectively that he became known as the greatest team principal of his generation – but who might never have gained that reputation if he hadn’t been fired by Ford.
Wyer was the standard-setter in motor racing team management throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the meticulous planner who could also think clearly and make smart decisions in the heat of battle. Wyer applied his natural fastidiousness to preparing for every eventuality, his engineer’s mind to suggesting improvements in car design, engines and components, and his access to unrivalled information to shape race strategies. That information came from his chief engineer, John Horsman, who recorded details at every race about his cars’ mechanical wear rates and fuel consumption.
Wyer was also known for his patrician air, razor-sharp one-liners, and ability to cut racing drivers down to size with the piercing stare which earned him the nickname ‘Death Ray’. He had, by his own admission, “an inability to suffer fools with any show of pleasure,” and during the early years of the GT40 programme this forthrightness sat uncomfortably with the corporate politics at Ford Motor Company.
Wyer was involved with the GT40 almost right from the start. This was largely because, purely by chance, he happened to visit Carroll Shelby’s workshops in Los Angeles on the same day in April 1963 as the Ford executive responsible for monitoring the corporation’s investment in Shelby-American Inc. Wyer wrote in his book, The Certain Sound: “It has been a source of astonishment to me that the really major landmarks in my life have so often seemed fortuitous at the time.”
Ford was impressed by the way Wyer had successfully formed a racing team for Aston Martin and directed the British marque to a 1-2 at Le Mans in 1959, when the race was won by the DBR1 of Roy Salvadori and Shelby. Wyer was less impressed with Ford’s employment offer. He had already decided “whatever I did next would be as far removed as possible from racing and sports cars,” but at a hastily arranged meeting in Detroit, Ford product manager Don Frey persuaded him to change his mind. For a while, Wyer and Ford looked like a working partnership made in heaven, but within a year or two each had formed different ideas about how the GT40 should be turned into a winner. And ideas were badly needed, because Ford’s first showings at Le Mans in 1964 and ’65 were dismal.
At Ford’s first attempt to win the French 24-hour race, all three GT40s failed to finish. At the second attempt, no fewer than six GT40s ran in the race, but still none lasted the distance. This was more than disappointing. This was humiliating. Ford had been spurned in its attempt to buyout Ferrari in 1963 and was hellbent on giving Enzo a slap in the face, but while all the Fords faltered in ’64 and ’65, Ferrari won both times.
After the ’65 race, some senior executives at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn called for the GT40 programme to be axed. This foreign adventure had already cost more than $6 million and there was no point throwing more good money after bad. But others argued that fuelling a race programme with cubic dollars was only part of the solution, cubic inches were just as important and sadly lacking. A plan formed to forget the GT40’s iron-block 289cu in. (4.7-litre) V8 Cobra engine, forget also the aluminium Indianapolis-specification ‘260’ (4.3-litre) V8, and adopt the mighty ‘427’ (7-litre) unit from NASCAR racing. This, however, would require extensive revisions to the GT40’s chassis and systems.
Wyer disagreed with this proposal, advising that an easier route to success would be to continue developing the smaller-engined GT40 – but the men in Dearborn were no longer listening. Control of the GT40 programme was moved across the Atlantic to Shelby-American Inc., the team that might have got the gig in the first place. Ford’s settlement with Wyer entitled his business, J.W. Automotive Engineering, to provide parts and service for GT40s for three years and to produce more GT40s as required. There was a guaranteed profit of £1,000 per car, plus a $100,000 budget for Wyer to support private GT40 owners in international competition. A lucrative deal, but demotion.
This is when Texan oil man Grady Davis came riding into Wyer’s life like a knight in shining armour. Davis was a vice-president with Gulf Oil Corporation in Pittsburgh, but more than that, he was also a racing enthusiast who had run his own team in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events. Davis initially contacted Wyer because he wanted a street-legal(ish) GT40 for his personal use, but as the two men got talking it became clear they could benefit each other more significantly. Davis, who believed Gulf’s international brand-profile could be raised through sports car racing, saw in Wyer the man for the job. And Wyer, who believed Ford had been wrong to drop him, saw in Davis the financial resources to prove it.
And so it turned out. Oil dollars were pumped to Britain in sufficient quantity for Wyer to demonstrate that a smaller-engined GT40 could indeed win Le Mans. With 4.7- or 4.9-litre engines, JW Gulf GT40s won five of the eight International Championship for Makes rounds they contested in 1968, even though they were old warhorses up against Porsche’s newer 907 and 908. And at Le Mans it was the blue-and-orange GT40 of Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi which crossed the line first.
The ’68 Le Mans-winning car, chassis 1075, returned to France in ’69, where it faced tougher opposition including two works Porsche 908 Coupés and three new 917s – and won again. In fact 1075 became the most successful of all GT40s, achieving five outright victories in 11 races over two seasons. Four of those victories were scored with Jacky Ickx in the driver pairing; two with Brian Redman, Lucien Bianchi, and Jackie Oliver; and one with Pedro Rodriguez. The remarkable story of those successes, of the GT40 more broadly, and of John Wyer’s crucial role, is well told by author Ray Hutton in Ford GT40 – The autobiography of 1075. And if you’d like to see 1075 in action, Jackie Oliver will be reunited with the car at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Porsche was so impressed by Wyer’s achievements with a budget much smaller than its own that the company appointed him in 1970 and ’71 to run Gulf-liveried works 917s. These won races but not, frustratingly, Le Mans. Wyer would, however, get to oversee one more Le Mans victory, in 1975: Gulf Research Racing’s Mirage GR8-Ford Cosworth gave Derek Bell his first victory in the 24-hour race and Jacky Ickx his second.
Of all Wyer’s accomplishments, his two wins at Le Mans with an aged blue-and-orange GT40 are surely the most memorable, but he will have been as proud of Porsche’s recognition of his expertise. Wyer was an admirer of Teutonic efficiency, and particularly of Mercedes-Benz’s great pre- and post-war team duo Alfred Neubauer and Rudi Uhlenhaut. Alongside their names, his stands comparison.
By Phillip Bingham