When we think of the big clashes between manufacturers in motorsport, we perhaps think of Audi vs. Porsche, Ferrari vs. Mercedes, maybe the triad in DTM of Audi, Mercedes and BMW too.
The world was (re)introduced to another clash at Le Mans though, as Ferrari and Ford flung their handbags around in petulant disdain at one another’s actions, irrespective of whether they were intentional or not.
Let’s not forget, there have been interesting developments between the two motor giants in the past.
Two years on from the big Ferrari fall-out in 1961 which saw the introduction of legendary engineer and designer Mauro Forghieri, Ford did in fact attempt to buy Ferrari out. Negotiations, though, came to nothing. Rumours were then banded about that Ferrari only ever opened the talks in order to force Fiat’s hand into buying them out, which eventually they did.
Following on from the failure in negotiations with Enzo Ferrari, Ford sought about dealing the ultimate blow to the Prancing Horse. What was the one thing the Italian supremo loved more than anything else? Racing.
Ford created the GT40 and in 1966, took eight of the Mark II versions of the car to the Le Mans 24 hours, under a multi-million dollar factory effort to topple Enzo’s giant. There were also customer teams, taking the full Ford presence up to 13 of the 55 cars entered into the race. Ferrari – no doubt complacent after years of success – entered just 2 cars.
After a dismal couple of years – compounded by their non-performance in 1965 when none of the Fords finished the race – their huge investment paid dividends. Ford ended Ferrari’s 6 years of supreme dominance at Le Mans with a whitewash – locking out the podium places by completing a 1-2-3. What’s more, neither of the Ferraris managed to finish, both clonking out by lap 227.
The Fords, controversially, crossed the line together. I say ‘controversially’ because really, Ken Miles and Denny Hulme ought to have won the race. However, Miles was made to obey team orders given by the PR man Leo Beebe and slow down to ensure all three Ford podium sitters crossed the line together in order to rub Enzo Ferrari’s nose in it with the perfect photo opportunity at the line. In obeying these orders, Miles and Hulme didn’t win the race despite being far ahead of the 2nd placed car following the final round of pit-stops. Due to the fact Miles had slowed down to allow McLaren to catch him, the latter – who had started the race behind Miles – had covered a longer distance as he crossed the line alongside. Therefore, the win went to McLaren and Amon in the #2 and is referred to by some as ‘the car that shouldn’t have won Le Mans’.
However you wish to look at it, through the selfishness of those above and the desperation to make some form of petulant point, Miles and Hulme didn’t get the win they deserved.
Irrespective of the contentious nature of the victory, the brand dominated Le Mans for the remainder of the decade, winning again in 1967, 1968 and 1969. Following that stream of success, they retracted their manufacturer effort and stated their intention to no longer take an official part in the world’s finest endurance race.
Fast forward 50 years and the two are at it again, on Ford’s big return.
As it turned out, it was Ferrari’s turn to deny Ford as the American team failed to replicate their complete domination of the podium places. The #82 Risi Competizione Ferrari of former Formula 1 racer Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Matteo Malucelli claimed 2nd spot and split the GTE-Pro class winning #68 Ford GT (Joey Hand/Dirk Müller/Sébastien Bourdais) from its brand mates in the #69 and #66.
Thankfully, this isn’t where the story ends though.
Before the race, there were allegations of sandbagging thrown around all over the place. Admittedly, it was Corvette who started it all off, with driver Jan Magnussen accusing Ford. Convinced to such an extent that he was willing to claim he was ‘100 percent sure that’s what they’ve been doing’.
So, on Ford’s return they were already kicking up a storm in qualifying but what about the race?
The story starts not with Ford or Ferrari, but Porsche. During the night stage, the German manufacturer was reported to have had issues with its leader lights. For those who don’t know, the front-running cars of each class had a sequence of three lights that would be lit depending on their track position. The #1 Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard was showing the incorrect number of lights, which – if rules were enforced correctly – should have led to an enforced pit-stop to resolve the issue. But nothing happened, the stewards allowed the car to continue.
The point at which this got interesting was inside the final hour when Ford – perhaps motivated by the 1-2-3 50 years prior – reported the #82 Risi Competizone Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella for faulty leader lights. Astoundingly, a stop-and-go penalty was issued, causing uproar in the Radio Le Mans commentary box with John Hindhaugh rightly sympathising with the Italian squad and virtually begging Fisichella to not serve the absolutely ludicrous penalty he’d been dealt. If anything, it just showed horrendous double-standards. Happily, the Ferrari driver chose to ignore the penalty, meaning he crossed the line in 2nd place. They had to give an explanation at a post-race hearing, which the stewards accepted but still handed the team a €5000 fine. The car was also docked 20 seconds on the timing sheets as a result of a later hearing.
Ferrari issued a protest of their own against Ford once the race had finished, claiming that the Ford GTs violated the ACO’s performance window (7%) between the LMP2 and GTE-Pro classes. The Fords had performed extraordinarily well and arguments amongst the public still rage on as to whether or not Ford (and indeed Ferrari) were sandbagging on the test day and also during qualifying.
The way I see it, it’s yet more childish and desperate mud-slinging from both sides as they desperately tried to outdo each other in any way possible. If nothing else, at least they’re consistent with doing it on the big stage. Part of me is very glad that the Ferrari split the podium though, mainly because they deserved it, but also because it means that a car’s race wasn’t ruined by horrendous and petty double-standards. That said, it’s amazing that with the amount of people who pointed out the stewards’ failure to pull Porsche up during the night stages for the same issue, nothing was done about them post-race.
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