September 25, 2023

The REAL story of the twisted ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ Finish at Le Mans in 1966

1966 24 Hours of Le Mans

The REAL story of the ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ finishReg Lancaster-Getty Images

  • Writer Davd Phipps of Competition press & Autoweek compared Ford’s efforts at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans to a “steamroller at work.”

  • He also noted the “confusion at the finish as the two remaining Shelby American cars almost crossed the line side by side”.

  • The Ford Mk. II entries dominated the race, partly due to the mistakes of Enzo Ferrari, who entered only three Ferrari P3 chassis, none of which finished.

In the 100 years of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is celebrating its centenary this year, no race has had a more controversial finish than Ford’s first victory in 1966.

What really happened?

David Phipps van Competition press and AutoweekBrock Yates van Car and driverAnd Road & Rail‘s Henry Manney were all veterans of race records up to their knees. For a man, these three noted that Ken Miles drew the short straw at Ford’s “formation finish,” a photo opportunity for publicity.

But was there anything worse as a result of a personality clash between Miles and Ford executive Leo Beebe, as portrayed in Hollywood’s “Ford vs. Ferrari”?

Ken Miles, Carroll Shelby, 24 Hours of Le Mans
Ken Miles, left, talks to Carroll Shelby at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the eyes of many, Miles stole a win from him that year.Bernard Cahier – Getty Images

The winning attack on the Ford camp was “as classically executed as a von Clausewitz campaign,” according to Yates, citing the Prussian military. But the final hour “left the race with mysterious anti-climax and corporate confusion.”

Phipps likened Ford’s effort to a “steamroller at work” and noted the “confusion at the finish as the two remaining Shelby American cars almost crossed the line side-by-side”.

The Ford Mk. II entries dominated the race, partly due to the mistakes of Enzo Ferrari, who entered only three Ferrari P3 chassis, none of which finished. His team manager, Eugenio Dragoni, compounded the lack of entries versus a phalanx of eight Mk IIs by not using a “hare” strategy to pick up the pace by one car and leave the other two P3s behind for the sake of endurance.

And finally, both Ferrari and Dragoni engaged in intramural politics in which John Surtees, Ferrari’s number one driver in F1, was told to give way to reserve driver Ludovico Scarfiotti. As it turned out, Scarfiotti crashed his P3 and Surtees would leave Ferrari’s F1 team in favor of Cooper.

no 2 bruce mclaren, chris amon ford mk ii, won the race

Ferrari was no match for the Ford of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon on this day.GP Library – Getty Images

With no threat from Ferrari following the retirement of the P3s, four of the eight Mk. IIs that had come in were racing at the front of the field at the end of the 18th hour when the lead car of Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant stopped due to a detached radiator hose.

With six grueling hours to go, the Shelby American Fords of Miles/Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon were running relatively close to first and second. The Holman-Moody Mk II of Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson was a distant third.

Road & Rail‘s Manney reported that the rivalry between drivers would result in an occasional “Nelsonian blind eye” targeting guidelines related to lap times, referring to famed British Admiral Nelson’s loss of sight in one eye. According to on-the-spot reports, several Ford drivers had been beating each other’s lap times, including Gurney, Miles, McLaren, Bucknum and Graham Hill.

Once the Gurney/Grant car was on the sideline all drivers were told to stick to 4 minute lap times, which was about 20 seconds slower than the pace the Mk IIs could run in race trim. (As predicted, the Fords with their 7.0-litre V8s could have comfortably outpaced the Ferraris on the Mulsanne Straight, while still sticking with the P3s in the twisty sections of the eight-mile circuit.)

After the order to slow down, it was confirmed that Miles was remarkably furious in the Ford pits with a lap of 3 minutes and 38 seconds, which was 22 seconds short of the target four minute lap time! Miles was told by his team’s commander-in-chief and friend Carroll Shelby that he would be ripped out of the race if he tried to sneak another lap like that. Shelby was later quoted by Yates as saying, “I would have given $50,000 for Ken to win.” Miles was also quoted as reacting to provoking Shelby’s anger. “If you think I’m hard on a car, see what’s left of Gurney’s.”

Miles naturally wanted to become the only man to win the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring and Le Mans in the same year. But the Ford hierarchy, led by competition chief Beebe, already had a plan ready for a formation finish and a picture of Ford’s dominance, which proved problematic. Manney, who spent much of the race in the pits conferring with drivers and crew members, reported that Beebe briefed drivers on the photo finish plan during their final pit stops.

start of the race at le mans

The starting line-up ended up favoring the cars that started further back in the event of a “dead heat” finish.Bettmann-Getty Images

We all know how the story ends. A dead heat, ie a finish in formation, resulted in French officials deciding that the Ford had won against McLaren/Amon due to a higher average speed after covering more distance in the same time. This was due to the line starting further (under the old Le Mans start where drivers raced to their cars) after Amon qualified fourth behind Miles’ second-place Ford.

Adding to the eventual dismay was the lack of awareness, beyond those reporting from the pits, of why Miles had slowed from a significant lead over McLaren to allow the latter to overtake him in the final hour, running in a drizzle, for the photo. finish. “We were told to finish neck-and-neck and we did,” said Miles, as quoted by Yates. “If they had Bruce and me racing for it, we wouldn’t have had all this nonsense.”

Neither TV commentators, junior French officials nor the public, according to all magazine reports, expected McLaren and Amon to take the winner’s podium because the Miles car had been the leader for so long.

bruce mclaren, henry ford ii, chris amon, 24 hours of le mans

Bruce McLaren, Henry Ford II and Chris Amon in the grandstand at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.Bernard Cahier – Getty Images

As reported by Manney, and as seen in photos, Miles deliberately braked at the finish to allow McLaren to pass at the checkered flag, meaning the finish is taken at around 50 mph. It was also suggested that McLaren may have slammed on the accelerator and gained about a metre.

According to the film, Beebe played the heavy because of his contempt for Miles and his unmanageability. Yates reported that the Ford hierarchy had been communicating with French officials during the final hour about their dead-heat calculations and how that would lead to the McLaren/Amon car being declared the winner. But the photo finish went as planned.

One wonders what would have happened if the Gurney/Grant Mk. II had continued to lead. As Gurney won pole, the car and its two American drivers would not have been the winners in a dead heat formation finish by the French method.

No one argued that the race needed a single winning car, although many objected to what was an unsportsmanlike finish. “It’s a mystery,” Manney wrote.

Yates’ conclusion was typically hyperbolic. “Morning Light,” Yates wrote, “came well on the way to victory with Gurney and Grant, until cooling problems ended their fine ride. That left Ken Miles and Bruce McLaren to re-enact their climatic drama and send Ford away from Le Mans with the one checkered flag they had sought with more determination, more bad luck, more frivolous waste and more exhausting work by a small group . of dedicated men than any other project in motor racing history.”

It is estimated that Ford spent $3 million (about $25 million in current dollars) for the privilege of rolling Ferrari.

Phipps came closest to capturing the storyline that would go on to become a highly successful Hollywood movie.

There was “outrage at the finish of the race when organizers awarded McLaren and Amon victory over Miles/Hulme based on the spacing between the cars as they lined up for the start,” he wrote in Autoweek & Competition press. Miles, he went on, ‘maintained with some fairness that this made it mandatory for any driver who wanted to make sure to win the race with a Le Mans start to start last.

“As usual, logic made little difference in the outcome of the decision.”

ford v ferrari le mans 1966

At Ford’s first annual motorsport banquet, a photograph of the 1966 Le Mans finish was distributed for the company’s factory drivers and team members to sign. It shows Bruce McLaren’s Mk II moving forward at the controversial finish. Ford publicity photo courtesy of Bob Riley

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