Ford GT's storybook finish had stomach-turning start
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Ford Motor Co.'s 2016 return to racing with the GT supercar had a storybook ending: victory at Le Mans 50 years after it beat rival Ferrari to put American motorsports on the map.
But the start to that story was anything but smooth.
Months before it took the checkered flag in France, the GT made its racing debut on the sunny east side of Florida at Daytona International Speedway in the Rolex 24. Ford had put thousands of test miles on its GTs, but the two supercars that took part in the daylong Daytona race had hit the tracks only a few weeks earlier at a tuneup, Roar Before the 24.
The race started well enough; the No. 66 car led its class early, but trouble started just 16 minutes in for the No. 67 car.
In the ninth lap, it lost significant speed with a shifting problem. The driver was forced to pit, and crews worked on the car for roughly 10 minutes before taking it into the garage.
The problem? A faulty gearbox actuator. Ford later said the supplier made a design change between testing and the race, unbeknownst to the automaker.
"We hadn't had any issues in testing," Raj Nair, Ford's development chief, told Automotive News. "Racing can be pretty cruel that way."
After the long layoff, the No. 67 car returned to the race but trailed most of the field the rest of the way. It later twice suffered cuts to the right rear tire and was forced to pit both times.
After leading early, the No. 66 car suffered a damaged brake line, and the same shifting problem that plagued the No. 67 car.
Nair said the cars also experienced electrical problems because of the in-car cameras that were added for TV. Ford had not tested with the cameras in the car.
By the end of the race, the No. 66 GT finished seventh and the No. 67 GT finished ninth of 11 cars in the GTLM class.
"It certainly wasn't a storybook start," Nair said. "It was tough."
Executives after the race admitted frustration, but described the problems as minor teething pains rather than systemic issues.
"Our bubble was burst," said, Dave Pericak, head of Ford Performance. "We couldn't believe we were in the garage as much as we were. You just take it on the chin and move on."
Nair later said that, after Daytona, Ford switched back to the old gearbox actuator design.
As the cars put in more track time in subsequent races, the program gained momentum. Ford picked up its first win at Laguna Seca in California in early May and a second-place finish at Spa in Europe a few days later.
The finish at Le Mans -- Ford placed first, third and fourth in its class -- was impressive for a first-year program, but was not without drama and controversy.
Before the race, rivals complained that Ford was purposely holding back before posting impressive qualifying numbers that allowed the No. 66 car to start the 24-hour race in the No. 1 position. Ford denied the allegations.
Later, with less than 30 minutes left in the race, Ferrari was given a black-and-orange flag, a signal to pit for a penalty for having a faulty light. The team chose not to pit, which could have resulted in a disqualification. Officials chose not to enforce it, allowing the car to remain in second place and deny Ford the podium sweep that it took in 1966.
Still, the Blue Oval team was thrilled.
A jubilant Executive Chairman Bill Ford laughed as he was sprayed with champagne on the victory podium, and he later hoisted the first-place trophy above his head alongside his cousin, Edsel Ford II.
"It all ended up coming together," Nair said. "The win at Le Mans was the biggest racing thrill I've had at Ford."
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