It was his greatest race – and one of Ford’s as well. Which is why this weekend at Le Mans will be a massive Blue Oval celebration. One without Chris Amon, but he’s not downbeat.
The 50th anniversary of the Le Mans 24-hour race in which Ford GT40s famously locked out the podium – with the winning and runner-up cars being driven by legends of New Zealand motorsport – is about to be celebrated at the place where it happened.
The three Kiwis who helped make history for Ford that day in 1966 seem sure to be specifically appreciated at pre-event functions.
Attending will be direct descendants in the case of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, the friends who shared the winning car – which, incredibly, will be back at the track for the first time since its history-making day.
Amon regrets being unable to travel, to do Ford proud and reacquaint, at the site of his greatest career achievement, with chassis P/1046 - the amazing machine he last saw being wheeled away straight after the race, almost into oblivion, as it turned out.
A son, Alex, will do the honours, joining Amanda McLaren who will represent her dad at a whirlwind series of events that culminates with a remembrance drive around the track, P/1046 leading the way.
They will meet the new generation of Ford drivers – none as young as Amon was (just 22) when he won there – whose job it is to debut the new GT. Before they race, Alex will read out a special message of good tidings from his father.
They will naturally lend lots of attention to the machine their fathers made so famous, now rightly heralded as one of the world’s most valuable racing cars. The owner, a race car restorations’ business in South Carolina, has lovingly returned it to EXACTLY how it configured and looked at the race start – complete with the fern leaf logo on the front wings.
Amon cannot get over the attention to detail meted by RK Motors Charlotte. “They’ve even made sure they’ve used the right washers, that’s the attention to detail they wanted to achieve. It’s incredible and quite fantastic.”
More of Amon’s comments can be heard in the accompanying video, but simply put, he says Ford has ensured a wonderful tribute to the team that raced that day and to him, and the memories of his countrymen, his mates: McLaren and Denis Hulme, who ran second that day.
While he insists this weekend is foremost and quite rightly a brand celebration, the win being Ford’s first in what remains the world’s most famous sports car race, he is delighted that the drivers’ efforts are not being forgotten.
“It’s nice, not just for me, but also for Bruce and Denny’s memories, too.”
The contention that this could be seen as a defining moment in our motorsport history, in that it was our first major international success on track is considered and given the nod.
How well we remember.
Or do we? It might be controversial to suggest the 50th anniversary hasn’t had as much reach locally and overseas, but the fact is that most of the media calls Amon has received have come from overseas; usually several a day over the past fortnight.
“I’ve had lot of calls from all over the place … I guess Ford of Europe has been moving it along, but it’s been quite remarkable really. The interest has been huge,” he says, laughing in agreement at the suggestion this is perhaps more media attention he ever received during his professional racing career.
Well, things were different back then: News travelled more slowly, print was king, races were still shown as movie shorts because television didn’t generally care so much. In this electronic age, everything is different and the media rush is not over yet. Amon has been told to hear from one journalist he knew back in the day will be back trackside for a major US television broadcaster, intends to call his Kinloch home during the race.
Laughs Amon: “It’ll be great to hear from him – he was at the ’66 race and now he’s with Fox Sport or something all these years later.
“His plan is to call during the race so I hope he appreciates the time zone difference.” (Race start at 4pm, Saturday in France is 2am next day here). “I mean I intend to watch the race by internet but I don’t think I’ll be catching the start!”
Obviously the respect the brand has for the last surviving driver from that special day patently resounds loudly at company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan: Blue is the prominent hue at Le Mans; the guest list, the effort … it’s all being done on a grand scale, with direction from the very top.
Amon says the Ford family, notably Bill Ford – the great grandson of Henry and the company’s executive chairman - and Edsel Ford, a member of the company’s board of directors, have been incredibly gracious. He’s flattered that Edsel, in particular, has called on a number of occasions.
That’s why Amon is genuinely sorry he won’t be there. “I left it to the last possible moment, I really hoped things would work out ... I’ve come to know how much it means to the company and to the Ford family. But it’s just impossible.”
Alex, he knows, will do the family proud.
Pride. What was, back then, just another race win – albeit a really good one – has, after the passage of time, taken a new personal rating with the last New Zealander to compete regularly in Formula One, in a 13-year career that ended in 1976.
“Back then my priority was F1 of course but because of the way things turned out this was the single-biggest event I won, really. I guess some of the misfortune I had in F1 fortunately didn’t follow me in sports cars.
Looking back now: “Well, yes, I’ve said to a number of people that it has really turned out to be the major win of my life. I’m certainly proud of it.”
As for this weekend? Well, he’s seen the schedule planned for Alex and his wife, Wendy, arriving in Le Mans tomorrow from their London home. It’s full-on for a son who, at 35, is slightly less than half the age of his dad.
“He will be running. They’ve got a lot on – on Friday, he has TWO lunches, one with the media, one with the drivers! He’ll cope.
“Like I say, Ford has been great. They’ve have taken care of all the arrangements. Alex and Lucy are in for a wonderful time. Everyone else in the family is very jealous.”
The reason why this weekend is as much as Ford family event as it is a Ford company one goes back to the GT40 itself.
Henry II, Edsel’s dad and Bill Ford’s uncle, created and drove the massive racing campaign as a revenge against Enzo Ferrari, fired by a failed bid to take over the Italian brand.
Ford’s response to the humiliation of being spurned at the 11th hour was to set up a special vehicles department to develop its own high performance car for road and racetrack. Ferrari was back then king of the sports car racing scene. Ford wanted a Blue Oval-developed and branded machine whose horsepower would make those Italian stallions look ordinary. He wanted it done yesterday and didn’t care how much it was going to cost.
The challenge turned out to be tougher than anyone imagined. GT40s ran at Le Mans in 1964 and ’65. The first year they were unreliable and too slow. The second they ran super-fast, but still broke.
In 1966 Ford pulled out all the stops. Eight cars in common mechanical fitout run by three teams, all factory-sanctioned and Ford funded, but each allowed a certain degree of independence.
‘The Deuce’, meantime, turned up the heat. His race managers and senior company staff were given personal cards that simply read ‘you better win’. The message could not be clearer … the result, all the same, was beyond expectation. First, second and third to Ford. It didn’t stop there; GT40s won in ’67, 68 and ’69.
It is fitting that, in addition to remembering the past, Ford has also been prompted by this year of celebration to write a new chapter, by returning to the track, with four new-era GTs are lining up against 56 other cars at Circuit de La Sarthe, each bearing the numbers of those race-winning years.
The race hasn’t changed: As in the GT40 era, the fast cars are prototypes. But that’s not the class the GTs are running in; though they clearly take styling cues from one of the world’s most recognisable and stunning racing cars, the GTs are derivatives of a road car that Ford will soon put on sale, so race with a sub-category called GTE-Pro. They’re up against the old foe – Ferrari and Porsche in particular – but are a secondary show to the premier LMP1 class, high tech missiles that will be up to 100kmh faster down the famous Mulsanne Straight.
The only hope of Ford getting an outright win will come if every LMP1 fails, an unlikely scenario and not one New Zealand race fans would presumably like to see anyway, given that our world sportscar champion Brendon Hartley is back racing a pre-event favourite, the Porsche 919 Hybrid, for the third year.
Ford has ensured an ongoing NZ link in its own effort, with Scott Dixon racing in the Chip Ganassi-run team.
Quite ironically, though, the biggest threat to their bid will likely come from an equally strong Porsche representation which includes Earl Bamber, last year’s outright winner for the Weissach team.
With his team having cut back from three 919s last year to just two for the 2016 race, he has been assigned to drive a works 911 and has vowed to spoil Ford’s party. Nothing personal, of course. Away from the track, Dixon, Bamber and Hartley are great mates.
Dixon already has a mountain to climb, be a Le Mans rookie. Until this week, he had never seen the 14km circuit except in a computerised simulator. He admits it will be “a lot of ‘eyes wide open’ taking in the experience.”
The Ford GT seems something of a dark horse entry, one so far showing uneven promise. A win at Laguna Seca in America was a big moment, but World Endurance Championship rounds in England and Belgium were troubling. For Le Mans, it has been allowed a weight reduction which might bring it back into contention.
In some ways, this is almost history repeating, because the GT40 had its fair share of problems, too during its Le Mans prep.
McLaren was closest to this than anyone else, since he had had been the programme’s test driver from 1963. The other driver with vast GT40 experience was Ken Miles, who co-drove with Hulme and worked for Carroll Shely.
History records Miles and Hulme always thought the race should have been theirs. They lost out when Ford decided the three lead cars should finish together; even though Hulme crossed the finish line marginally ahead, the officials ruled that, as Amon and McLaren had started further back on the grid, they had also travelled a further distance and were therefore the winners.
Regardless of who was right, the Ford 1-2-3 remains a significant achievement in the brand’s motor racing history.
When the race’s 40th anniversary was celebrated, the then Ford Motor Company chairman, William Clay Ford, wrote a tribute to Amon in which he said: “Making history is only for the great among us, and your efforts 40 years ago certainly rank you among the greatest … as a central figure of the team that took Ford to its first-ever victory at Le Mans, your place in our company's history is forever ensured.
“That victory, to this day, has solidified the Ford GT as one of the greatest cars of all time. And while history often glorifies great cars, we know the truth: it is brave men behind the wheel who make these cars perform!”
Amon is reluctant to take too much credit. He always held that the win was due to it being a team effort – by a team that was larger, in scale, than any other in motorsport before or since.
By ’66, he said, Ferrari was no longer the threat it had once been; not least because star driver John Surtees had left the team. The main competitors would be the other Fords.
“In ’65 we were so much faster than Ferrari until we had reliability issues,” said Amon, recollecting an event in which he shared with Phil Hill and McLaren with Miles.
“I remember when the race started – Bruce and I had both been told to take it easy because they thought the gearbox was fragile.”
Both drivers kinda did what they were told. A photographer had got a good picture of the start and the black marks left by the tyres told a different story. Anyway. “The cars were fast. Bruce slipstreamed me down the Mulsanne and when I looked in the mirror as we braked for the corner, the closest Ferrari was 300 yards way!”
In ’66, McLaren and Amon’s Shelby car had no less speed. The problem was with the tyres.
Said Amon: “Bruce drove the first stint. It was damp and we were running on intermediate Firestone tyres and at 210-220mph on the Mulsanne the tyres were shedding tread. “
Had they remained on Firestones, the brand to which McLaren was contracted (and Amon, as his employee, had run testing for), the race would have been done.
Obviously, they had to swap to the Goodyear rubber. Here’s the story as Amon told it to me for a magazine piece 10 years ago.
“By Saturday evening we’d had two extra pitstops and were three laps behind the leaders, and Bruce said, ‘I’m going to sort this out.’ He went to the Firestone people and said, ‘We’re either going to withdraw the car, or we’re going to put Goodyears on it.’ So Firestone said, ‘Put the Goodyears on.’ They called me in, changed the tyres, and Bruce shouted to me, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. Just go like hell.’
“It rained off and on during the night, but we both drove flat out, and by Sunday morning we were in the lead, about a minute ahead of the Miles/ Hulme car.
“Ford hung out the EZ sign which Bruce took some notice of, but Ken didn’t slow down one iota and took back the advantage we had.”
At the next pitstop, something weird. They weren’t due a tyre change, yet the Goodyear guy, without even looking at the tyres, ordered the mechanics to change one of the fronts. Was this a delaying tactic?
“I guess he didn’t want Firestone-contracted drivers winning. So Ken was back in the lead. Bruce was getting aggravated now. It rained some more, and it was unbelievably slippery. Bruce got past Ken again, and then Ford told us they wanted to stage a dead-heat.
“The two cars crossed the line more or less side-by-side, but the French decided we were the winners, because we’d been 20 yards behind Ken in the starting line-up. Afterwards Ken was very bitter, he was literally in tears.
“The tragedy was Ken was killed a few weeks later, testing the Ford J-car at Riverside.