The unlikely story of the greatest Ford GT40
A dirt-smeared, oil-stained Ford GT40 looked oddly out of place at the 1968 Paris Motor Show in the company of so many perfectly polished road cars, but there it was, centre-stage on the Blue Oval’s stand, heroic in the blue-and-orange warpaint it had worn only a few days earlier when winning the 24-hour battle at Le Mans. It’s doubtful whether visitors to the Salon de l’Automobile appreciated it at the time, but Ford was showing a legend in the making. It’s this legend, and this particular car - GT40 chassis 1075 - which we look at in the latest addition to our highly acclaimed Great Cars series.
The Gulf Oil-backed team running this GT40 might have been tempted to put the car into retirement after the Paris Show, knowing that it was under increasing threat from newer racing rivals and that its place in racing history was guaranteed - but the best was yet to come. Keeping faith with the GT40, John Wyer’s JW Gulf team took 1075 to five outright victories from 11 starts in ’68 and ‘69, including two successive wins at Le Mans, making it the most successful (or perhaps we should say winningest) GT40 of them all.
Every bit as colourful as the Gulf Oil livery was the vengefulness that inspired the GT40 in the first place. After Ford Motor Company was jilted in its attempt to buy Ferrari, because it had insisted its acquisition should include control of the Italian marque’s racing activities, Henry Ford II reputedly said of Enzo Ferrari that he’d “kick his ass.” This famously set in motion at Ford a sports car racing programme bigger and more costly than any ever seen before.
What’s not so widely appreciated is that the most accomplished of all GT40s arrived at a time when Ford had withdrawn its factory team and Ferrari had faded from sports car racing. Ford had shelled-out $20m to win Le Mans with the Shelby-American team in ’66 and ’67 and was unwilling to splash any more cash. Ferrari had won Le Mans every year from ’60 to ’65 (as well as in ’58, ’54 and ’49) and was now focused on Formula 1.
This means GT40 1075 won Le Mans in ’68 despite Ford’s prior withdrawal; despite one of its drivers, Lucien Bianchi, spinning the car in the wet conditions that made the race treacherous for four hours; and despite its other driver, Pedro Rodriguez, having something of a reputation as a firebrand and car-breaker. Even more surprising was Le Mans a year later, where 1075 was driven by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver against apparently unbeatable opposition from Porsche and won again.
One of Porsche’s fast but untamed 917s swept to pole position at Le Mans in ’69 at an average lap speed of 148.49mph, and for hour after hour it was a 917 that led the race - but the one privately-entered 917 crashed-out on the opening lap, claiming the life of driver John Woolfe, and the two factory-entered cars were eventually halted by clutch/bellhousing problems after 148 and 327 laps. With three hours to go, GT40 1075 moved into the lead - but the Porsche 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gérard Larrousse was on the same lap and the two cars were evenly matched. The Porsche was faster on the Mulsanne Straight, the Ford better under braking, and for Le Mans’ greatest battle the stage was set.
Again and again the Ford and the Porsche swapped the lead, sometimes several times a lap. Heading past the pits and out into the country for the last time, on the section of the circuit through the Esses to Tertre Rouge, Ickx slowed momentarily, just enough to let Herrmann pass. He had calculated the only way he could keep up was by tucking into the Porsche’s slipstream along the Mulsanne Straight - and he planned to swerve back out of the slipstream and alongside the Porsche on the run-up to Mulsanne Corner, get on the brakes oh-so-late, and overtake. This audacious tactic paid-off. The GT40 dived past the Porsche and stayed ahead - if only just - all the way to the chequered flag.
These successes against the odds - in addition to notable victories at Brands Hatch, Spa, Watkins Glen and Sebring - are all the more admirable because GT40 1075 was swimming against the tide of technical progress. By 1970 Le Mans would belong to Porsche’s 917 and so too would the iconic blue-and-orange livery of Gulf. These changes confirmed that 1075 had marked the end of an era. Its heroic story makes for a great book.
By Phillip Bingham
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