The Le Mans 24-hour auto race has ' a nasty way of chewing up strong men and big machines and spitting them out like so much tobacco juice. That is why it is usually won by cars that spring from factories rich in racing tradition, like Ferrari, or simply rich-rich, like Ford, companies capable of producing cars tough enough and indigestible enough to last the distance. Things were different in the west of France last week. In the first place, because of the riots of May and June, the race had been shifted from mid-June to late September. In the second place, it was won by a car that was put together in what VPs at the big glamour places probably would refer to as a seemingly abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, the particular town being London.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, Mexico's short, dark and Buddha-calm Pedro Rodriguez scrambled into the seat of a blue and orange Ford GT40, designed by Ford but produced by JW Automotive Engineering Ltd. of Slough, Bucks. Twenty-four hours later, when co-driver Lucien Bianchi, his red hair still neat, his mustache trim, climbed out, the men and the car had thoroughly crushed what seemed to be the indomitable pursuit of a Le Mans title by the high-powered Porsche racing organization.
The low square car not only won the biggest single event in sports-car racing but in doing so also squeezed by Porsche to win for itself the International Manufacturers' Championship by a slim three points.
The duel between the snappy little Porsches, lethal as hornets, and the low-slung, friendly-looking Fords had been going on all year, a sort of miniaturized version of the big car Ford-Ferrari duels of 1965, '66 and '67. A series of decisions by Ford, by Ferrari and by the FIA had brought this about. Last year Ferrari decided to opt out of sports-car racing, after a multitude of very successful seasons, and concentrate on Grand Prix racing instead. The Ford Motor Company, figuring that the millions of dollars it had spent to win Le Mans in '66 and '67 had finally paid off, also dropped its sports-car program. Henry Ford II gave the Le Mans circuit $150,000 to build what is known as the Ford curve and said adieu. The curve, just short of the pit area, is designed to keep the cars from hurtling by the pits at 180 mph and thus make life slightly more bearable for the race mechanics. Ford's generosity also, and not incidentally, guaranteed the lap record of 3:23.6, set last year by Denis Hulme of New Zealand in a Ford Mark IV, would remain unbroken for years.
Had Ford and Ferrari not dropped out voluntarily they would have been forced to do so anyway because of new restrictions adopted last summer by the FIA. What the sport's international rulers did was legislate out of existence the big, powerful sports prototypes. As of this year any manufacturer wishing to go endurance racing with an engine over five liters must have built at least 500 copies of his car. A manufacturer who has produced 50 copies of his car can go with a five-liter engine, and the sports prototypes are limited to an engine of three liters.
"The idea," says John Wyer, the languid but astute Britisher who now heads the Ford GT40 show independent of Dearborn, "is presumably that a three-liter car without body restrictions can compete on even terms with the five-liter car that does have restrictions."
The events of 1968 have certainly borne this out. Porsche began the year by dominating the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours so thoroughly that it seemed they had a lock on the entire season and the manufacturers' championship. "We thought we'd be the ones to get off to a fast start," says Cambridge graduate John Horsman, Wyer's second-in-command at JW Automotive Engineering, now sole producer of the GT40. "We were all set, and it seemed that the rest would take a while getting sorted out. In fact, we thought we'd have to get off to a fast start to come out ahead on the year. We knew that when Porsche got their three-liter engines ready to replace the 2.2-liter ones they would be hard to beat. When they won in Florida things looked pretty black." The figuring was all wrong, although Porsche won the Targa Florio in Sicily and also won the Nurburgring 1,000. The Fords, meanwhile, won races in England, Italy, Belgium and at Watkins Glen in the U.S. That brought them to Le Mans in a virtual tie with Porsche.
Wyer accomplished all this in 1968 with only two cars and with very little help from Ford. In fact, Wyer's cars are really orphans of Ford's decision to go into sports-car racing in the first place and then ultimately to get out of it. Wyer was put in charge of developing the GT40 when Ford returned to racing in 1964. Then Ford decided to go with the bigger Mark Us and Mark IVs, and Wyer's pets were shuffled into second-string. In January 1967 Ford made Wyer an attractive offer, and he bought out all the assets of Ford Advanced Vehicles and the GT40 project. The cars are now owned by Gulf Oil, whose agencies take out the ads when the GT40s win races. Until midyear, Ford ignored the cars almost entirely.
"When we won at Watkins Glen things started heating up," says Wyer. "Jacque Passino, Ford's special vehicles manager, got on the phone and asked if there was anything they could do to help. They have helped, with some important engine parts."
The reason was obvious. Owned out of Dearborn or not, a win at Le Mans would redound greatly to Ford's credit and give Ford—not Gulf, not JW Automotive Engineering—the manufacturers' championship. And to win at Le Mans against the powerful Porsche team, Wyer needed all the help he could get.