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Why the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans is such a big deal to Ford

At the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi, Porsche, and Toyota will battle for the win with their futuristic hybrid race cars, but another carmaker is getting all of the attention. Ford and its quartet of GTs won’t be in the running for an overall win, but the Blue Oval is nonetheless the biggest Le Mans story this year.

So what’s the big deal?

Basically, it’s a case of déjà vu. Fifty years ago, Ford won Le Mans with its GT40, the culmination of a fierce battle with Ferrari. Today’s GT supercar is inspired by the GT40, and Ford would very much like a win in the GTE Pro class for production cars in order to drive that point home. There’s no feud with Ferrari this time, but Ford’s reputation is definitely on the line. The GT is a technological showcase for the company, so failure will be almost as humiliating as it was the first time Ford tried to win Le Mans.

An epic rivalry

The 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans went pretty well for Ford. Its cars finished 1-2-3, and Ferrari was never really in contention. But that victory came only after defeats in 1964 and 1965, showing the determination of Henry Ford II to beat Enzo Ferrari on the biggest motor sport stage in the world.

Grandson of company founder Henry Ford and referred to as “The Deuce,” Ford’s then boss had offered to buy Ferrari in 1963, but Enzo Ferrari went back on the deal. In his book on Ford/Ferrari rivalry, Go Like Hell, author A.J. Baime argues that Enzo spurned Ford because of concerns he wouldn’t maintain full control of Ferrari’s racing operations. Whatever the reason, Henry Ford II was not happy.

“All right,” he said upon hearing the news that the deal was dead, “We’ll beat his ass. We’re going to race him.”

Ford GT40 wins Le Mans 1966

The Deuce chose Le Mans because he knew it would hurt Ferrari the most. As it is today, Le Mans was arguably the most prestigious event in international motor sports, and at the time, Ferrari was dominating. Ford’s 1966 victory broke a six-year Ferrari winning streak. After 1966, Ferrari never made another serious attempt at Le Mans again, instead focusing on Formula One.

The story of two industrial titans deploying their companies’ full might to settle a personal vendetta seems like something out of an automotive-industry soap opera, but there was also a practical element for Ford. While today carmakers try to attract new customers by emphasizing technology, in the 1960s it was all about performance. Ford used racing to attract new buyers, particularly younger buyers, and Le Mans was just one facet of a campaign known as “Total Performance.”

The return

Ford’s Le Mans winning streak continued through 1967, 1968, and 1969, after which new rules made its GT40 obsolete, and the 1970s oil crises made performance less fashionable. Ford hasn’t pursued endurance racing as aggressively since then, but the rivalry with Ferrari has become legendary.

Henry Ford II chose Le Mans because he knew it would hurt Ferrari the most.

Ford built its first GT road-going supercar in 2005. That car looked like a carbon copy of the original GT40, but it was never meant for racing. With the 50th anniversary of the GT40’s first Le Mans win approaching, Ford decided it was time for another GT, and a return to the French race. So the radically styled GT that dropped jaws at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show was designed in tandem with racing versions.

There is no blood feud with Ferrari this time, but Ford’s return to Le Mans is still important to the company. Now that Ford has consolidated its lineup and is selling many of the same cars in both Europe and the U.S., proving that it can understand both markets is more important than ever.

More specifically, Ford needs to promote what sits behind the GT’s driver. The twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 is a big change from the V8 engines that powered the last GT and the original GT40. The EcoBoost brand of downsized engines is also the backbone of Ford’s lineup. EcoBoost engines of different sizes are in everything from the F-150 pickup truck to the Fiesta subcompact. Ford believes the turbocharged engines are crucial to meeting fuel-economy standards, but it still needs to convince consumers to want them.

2016: The story so far

Just like it did in the 1960s, Ford is throwing everything it can at Le Mans 2016. It will field 12 drivers and four cars, numbered 66 through 69 in reference to the company’s four Le Mans wins. This Le Mans army combines teams that normally run independently in North America and Europe, overseen by Chip Ganassi Racing and Multimatic Motorsports, which will also build the GT road car.

The GT’s inaugural season has produced mixed results. The car debuted at the Daytona 24 Hours in January, part of the North America-based IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The two GTs proved fast, but mechanical problems put them out of contention. At the 12 Hours of Sebring, both cars suffered crashes but ultimately finished, albeit far behind the winning Corvette team. A win also eluded Ford in Long Beach, California, but the GT finally scored one at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Another pair of GTs runs in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) in Europe. In the season opener at Silverstone in the U.K., the GTs were outclassed by Ferrari 488 GTEs. In the second race at the Belgian Spa-Francorchamps circuit, one of the cars suffered a nasty crash, but the driver was unhurt. The other GT placed second.

Ford’s record so far would seem pretty good in just about any other scenario, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that the four GTs, their 12 drivers, and the teams that back them will actually be able to pull off a Le Mans win on their first try. Whatever the outcome, all eyes will be on the red, white, and blue Fords when the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans kicks off June 18.

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