It’s rare that anything goes according to plan in the auto industry. Between federal safety and emissions regulations, corporate bean counters, engineers, and designers all playing tug-of-war with a car, it’s a minor miracle that anything sees the light of day. Just the fact that Tesla’s pre-production Model 3 seems to deliver on Musk and company’s promises was hailed as a major victory for the company. And that’s for road cars — racing is a whole different animal. So when Ford announced that the GT would not only mark its return to endurance racing, but celebrate its historic 1966 win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by repeating the feat, it was met with plenty of skepticism.
But the 84th running of Le Mans is now in the history books, and Ford has delivered as promised with a commanding victory in the LM GTE Pro class, beating well-established contenders from Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, and Aston Martin.
Ford Chip Ganassi USA’s No. 68 car (driven by Sébastien Bourdais, Joey Hand, and Dirk Müller) took the checkered flag, finishing 18th overall, beating the second-place Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, with Ford’s No. 69 and 66 finishing third and fourth in the class. Had it not been for the pesky Italian, Ford would’ve been a modern redux of its historic one-two-three finish from 50 years ago.
Porsche won the race overall with its 919 Hybrid LMP car, taking its 18th constructor’s title, and scoring an upset victory over Toyota’s TS050 cars. Toyota held the lead until an apparent turbo failure stopped its No. 5 car dead in its tracks with just three minutes left in the race, allowing the Germans to take the checkered flag. So while a Volkswagen-owned brand took home its 16th title in 17 years and Toyota licked its wounds, Ford’s win felt like the biggest success of the day.
The GT’s victory may have made for the perfect storybook ending, but it was by no means a sure thing, even after the race had begun. The No. 67 car suffered from gearbox issues, and kept it out of contention. The beginning of the race was a wet one too, and the Porsche Motorsport 911 RSRs dominated their class through the early hours.
But once the circuit dried up, Ferrari and Ford emerged as the pack leaders — a perfect throwback to Ford’s ’60s heyday. Some last minute Balance of Performance changes were instituted before the race, nominally to close the gap between the turbocharged Fords and Ferraris and naturally aspirated Astons, Porsches, and Corvettes, but by mid-race, it was clear that the formidable NA cars weren’t going to be racing for the podium this year.
Like it had a century ago, Ford’s against-all-odds endurance racing program has produced a winner in the new GT. The victory would’ve made an excellent marketing tool for the road-going version, but all 500 cars had been sold long before the race began — leaving over 6,000 applicants empty handed. Toyota’s heartbreaking loss may be the dominant story to come from Le Mans this year, but 2016’s LM GTE class saw a battle for the ages. For fans of American racing, it’ll go down as one of the most exciting Le Mans outings in decades. For Ford Performance, it’s a return to the top of the racing world 50 years in the making.