1966 24 Hours of Le Mans: Bewildered Bruce By: Jeremy McMullen
The look on Bruce McLaren's face as he climbed from his GT40 would be one of stark contrast to the rest of those with the Ford team. It was clear who the winner was, and yet, confusing as well. In the midst of one of the most demonstrative and authoritative victories in Le Mans history, McLaren and his co-driver Chris Amon would find themselves the beneficiaries of a saga that upset the team management at Ford as much as Ferrari's presence.
It was an all-out effort. Tremendous amounts of capital would be thrown into Ford's racing program. In 1963, a deal was on the table and all parties involved had come to an agreement. The production cars would be known as Ford-Ferraris while the racing side of Ferrari's efforts would be known as Ferrari-Fords. The price for this union would be 10 million dollars. All parties were about ready to sign when Enzo Ferrari suddenly stood made a comment to the leaders from Ford and immediately withdrew from the meeting. The Ford executives would be left stunned and would return home without a premier luxury and exotic car company having been signed. Ford would be furious.
Ferrari would rethink the deal and would even try to begin the negotiations anew. To this, Ferrari would receive his answer. Ford would only be interested in beating Ferrari on the racetrack from now on. Both sides prepared for war, spectators and Le Mans enthusiasts prepared for one of the best eras in endurance sportscar racing history.
Rivalries had been a part of Le Mans since the very beginning. Even after World War II, the famed race would see its share of battle between manufacturers. Had it not been for the tragic events of the 1955 Le Mans all indications were that it would have been a Le Mans worth remembering. Of course, the battle between Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz would end up taking a rightful back seat to the numerous deaths as a result of Pierre Levegh's crash into the grandstands.
So, Le Mans has had its share of manufacturers battles throughout its illustrious past. However, Le Mans had never seen a battle like the one that was coming. The amount of resources poured into both Ford's and Ferrari's racing programs would be titanic. And while it would unfortunately lead to excessive costs entering the world of racing, the technology and the passion that would be brought to endurance racing would far outweigh the negatives. As far as the spectator was concerned it was the ultimate battle, certain to be entertaining and drama-filled.
Ford was entering unknown territory. Despite being heavily invested in motor racing, Le Mans and endurance racing was very much a European thing. Therefore, Ford would be entering this challenge of Ford II a little on the back foot. But with the funding being thrown into the program it was likely the Le Mans effort would gain some balance rather quickly.
The program would be run like a military unit. The demands of drivers were quite simple: be comfortable at 200 mph and obey orders. Though simple, with the nature of drivers during that period this would be some serious demands. However, there was a couple of drivers that fit the personality profile Ford wanted almost exactly, and one of them was Bruce McLaren.
Possessing a technical mind and a known ability to drive flat out on the limit with consistent lap times, Ford had one of their developmental drivers. And after bringing Eric Broadley and John Wyer on board, Ford not only had their car, but also its team manager.
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The pace of the program would be a fast one. It would be helped by the fact Broadley had already developed a GT car for Lola that was simply known as the Lola GT. What really attracted the Ford executives to Broadley was the simple fact he had designed with Lola GT specifically with a Ford V8 engine in mind as the car's powerplant. This certainly fit Ford's mindset at the time.
Carroll Shelby would be brought in to help with development. Having won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, he was fully aware of what was needed to achieve the goal. John Wyer, who had been Shelby's team manager at Aston Martin during the 1959 victory was also fully aware of what a team needed to be successful. And in Bruce McLaren, the program had at least one driver that fully understood the technical and the driving side of the business. It was an all-out mindset.
However, despite the all-out effort, Ford's initial assault on Le Mans would not be at all successful. Oh, the GT40 would prove to be fast and would certainly show signs of being capable, but unreliability would afford Enzo Ferrari a little bit of a grin as his cars would carry on to yet another victory.
The whole of the program would be handed over to Shelby as Broadley would depart to work on his own designs. Wyer would remain but would be demoted somewhat when the whole of the program would be shifted to the United States. Additionally, the GT40 needed a more powerful and reliable engine. All that was available was the hefty 600 pound 427. Still, there were apparent benefits to the engine that were too good to ignore. Nonetheless, when the engine and all of the strengthening was finished, Shelby now had a car weighing in at more than 2,700 pounds.
Unfortunately, so many changes and issues with the new Mark II had arisen that it wouldn't be until the middle of May before Ford would have a couple of cars ready for Le Mans, and this despite being victorious at Daytona and finishing 2nd at Sebring. The lack of preparation would be more than obvious as not a single one of the six cars that would be entered in the 1965 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans would even manage to finish the race. The second Le Mans effort looked more embarrassing than the first.
But the embarrassing loses would only infuse the Ford executives with even more resolve. After the failure of the 1965 Le Mans, the night after the race, the Ford executives assembled the Ford Team and told them flatly, 'Next year we are going to win this race and we might as well start right now.'
Ken Miles had come to be part of the GT40 program and had thrown himself fully into testing duties. Endless hours of track testing at Riverside would take place. The car would undergo numerous hours of wind-tunnel testing and other developmental work would proceed under the direction of Shelby. Engine after engine would be tortuously tested. Reliability was absolutely necessary. Even the brakes would be improved using ventilated, thicker discs.
Even more money had been thrown into the program after the executives insisted on victory. This would put even more pressure on the drivers to perform, but also, obey orders. This would be perhaps the greatest difficulty the drivers would have throughout the 1966 edition of the French endurance classic and would be dutifully demonstrated when Walt Hansgen died in practice at the wheel of one of the GT40s. Walt would lose control of his car at over 150 mph heading into Turn 1. He had been told by Shelby to slow down just prior.
Ford would enter three factory cars under the Shelby American Inc. team name. The number 1 car would be driven by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme. Hulme would be brought in just before Le Mans after Lloyd Ruby suffered injuries in a plane accident. The number 2 car would be driven by a pair of New Zealanders. Bruce McLaren would be joined by Chris Amon. The third entry would list Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant as its drivers.
Ferrari would come to Le Mans with an arsenal of its own. Three 330/Ps and four 365/P2s would be entered in the race. Besides Ford's and Ferrari's entries there would be a number of privately-entered GT40s and Ferraris all up and down the entry list. It was clear who the two dominant manufacturers of the era was.
At the end of qualifying, the first four positions on the grid would be occupied by GT40 MkIIs. Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant would have the pole having set a lap time of 3:30.600 around the 8.38 mile circuit. Ken Miles and Denny Hulme would start in the 2nd position on the grid. The third Ford factory entry of McLaren and Amon would also start on the grid ahead of the first of the Ferraris. The number 2 GT40 would start in the 4th position on the grid.
At the start of the 24 hour race, it would be Graham Hill that would make the best start of everybody and would have a couple of second lead over the rest of the field. Amongst the factory Ford's Gurney was in the lead. The number 2 car of McLaren and Amon would get off to a very slow start and would be quite far down in the running as the whole of the field roared away. The progress of the number 2 car would be hindered off the grid when a collision between a couple of entries happened right in front of the black number 2. Further problems for Ford would come in the way of a delayed Ken Miles. Not only had he also gotten away poorly but he would have to come to a halt at the end of the first lap because he was unable to get his door securely shut.
The slow starts and delays hurt Shelby's directive of being up at the front at all costs in an effort to control the pace and the course of events. As a result, Miles would push his car hard to come up through the field and join Gurney at the front. McLaren and Amon would be dealing with issues of their own and would be unable make its way up through to the front during the early going.
Gurney, being the talented driver he is, would be flying around the circuit but would be doing so in a very controlled and intelligent way. Hill would run into trouble and would hand the lead over to Gurney. Miles, on the other hand, was pushing even harder and was throwing caution to the wind in an effort to catch up to Gurney.
The directive had been for the Ford cars to run up at the front of the field, not to race each other at the front. But despite Gurney setting a new lap record during the middle-evening hours, Miles wanted the lead and would not be denied. While he would put the multimillion dollar GT40 program at risk with his dogged pursuit of Gurney, Miles would take over the lead of the race and would begin to pull away slightly.
Miles continued in the lead of the race when the heavens opened up and the rains began to fall. Ferrari would lose one of its entries when Ludovico Scarfiotti plowed into a couple of cars all turned around in the esses. The rain, torrential at times, would lead to ever more retirements. And before light would even dawn over Le Mans it would dawn on just about everybody that Ford was the expected champion. It had its cars running one-two-three. And if their cars could just hold on until 4pm on that Sunday afternoon, Ford would achieve his aim of beating the dominant Ferrari manufacturer at his own game. Therefore, the race wasn't about the individuals driving the cars, instead, the drivers were role-players in a manufacturer's feud. The once almost family of Ford and Ferrari had become bitter rivals and the Ford drivers were being driven to bring home a victory, not for themselves, but for the company.
It was now Sunday, June 19th, and Miles and Hulme continued in the lead of the race. The car of Gurney and Grant would fall out of contention and out of the race altogether after completing 257 laps. The third car, driven by McLaren and Amon, was still in the running but was a lap down. But then, McLaren and Amon would find themselves back on the lead lap when the number 3 car had to have some brake issues resolved.
The Ford Team had been so focused on just winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans that it wasn't until the early morning hours, with the rain still streaming down and the course incredibly slick, that a meeting would be called to try and figure out which of the two cars would actually take the victory. The French officials had made it clear to the team that a staged victory would actually result in the car of McLaren and Amon being declared the winners because their position on the grid was actually a few yards further back in distance than what Miles and Hulme's had been.
The Ford Team had another issue to consider. At the start of the race the GT40 of McLaren and Amon started on Firestone tires as a result of a contract Bruce had with the tire company. However, it was very quickly noted that the tires were coming apart and the number 2 had fallen well back in the running order. Ford's 'win at all cost' mentality would lead to the decision being made by the team to switch the car from Firestones to Goodyear for the remainder of the race, Ford's interests far outweighing those of Firestone and McLaren's. At that point, as Amon would put it, 'Bruce said to me: 'We've nothing to lose. Let's drive the doors off it''.
The two New Zealanders would put together an impressive performance in their GT40 and would actually take the lead briefly. But then, with the race seemingly in hand for Ford, the directive to slow down would be given. Throughout the remainder of the race the drivers would have to complete laps at a pace of about four minutes. Amon would admit, 'It took me ten laps of concentrated driving to slow down to this speed…It became very monotonous.'
McLaren had been with the GT40 program since its first days. The charge that he and Amon had put together certainly was impressive and needed honoring. But still, Miles and Hulme were in the lead.
It was the final moments of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Three GT40s, two factory cars and one entered by Holman and Moody would hook up together and would drive the final couple of miles in what would become an iconic formation. Henry Ford II looked on eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of his words spoken to Enzo Ferrari. And in the grey overcast could be seen the headlights of three GT40s beaming off in the distance. The checkered flag ready, Ken Miles would actually back off just slightly and McLaren would cross the line with about a car length advantage. The number 2 car of McLaren and Amon would be declared the winners as a result of the 24 Hours of Le Mans being all about mileage covered. But this would certainly be one occasion when the desires of an individual driver to win Le Mans would be placed a distant second behind the desires of the team.
Bewildered and tired McLaren and Amon would be presented with the victor's champagne by Ford II himself. It was clear even McLaren and Amon were unsure of the fact they had taken the victory. However, the win could not have gone to a more deserving member of the Ford Team. Not only had the drive Amon and he put together been a most impressive performance, but Bruce's presence since the very beginnings of the GT40 program had made him the most deserving of the victory.
But of course, as time would tell, it really wouldn't matter who took the victory amongst the drivers because the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans would be a victory for Ford over Ferrari. And this fact could not be more easily understood than by merely peering at that iconic photograph of the finish once again. There were not individuals crossing the line on that rainy day. It was three cars built by the same manufacturer. The names driving were of little consequence and hence could have been the real reason for McLaren's and Amon's look of surprise.
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Wikipedia contributors, '1966 24 Hours of Le Mans', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 July 2012, 20:04 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1966_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans&oldid=504161385 accessed 28 August 2012