Ford vs Ferrari: A battle on and off the Le Mans circuit

Photo: Gerlach Delissen for Planetlemans.com

Fifty years after the first victory at Le Mans for the Ford GT40 and the first overall win for an American manufacturer, Ford was back at Le Mans this year. It was obvious that the ‘Blue Oval’ was aiming for a victory on its return, with no less than four brand new Ford GTs entered by Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. Once again they had to battle the Prancing Horse at Le Mans, as Ferrari had also brought its new weapon of choice: the Ferrari 488 GTE.

In front of 263,500 spectators Ford did not have a great start of the race. The No. 67 suffered gearbox issues even before the start and was pushed back into the box. After the race had finally started, the No. 66 and No. 68 were passed by the Ferrari and Porsches on the damp 13.629km long circuit.

Eventually Ford fought back and as the track conditions improved, the Porsches began to drop out of contention and eventually both works cars retired from the race. It soon became clear that Aston Martin and Chevrolet were off the pace, as they had been all weekend, and would not be in a position to challenge both Ferrari and Ford.

AF Corse, however, was also unable to challenge the Fords as both the No. 51 and No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTEs retired. Fighting the American Ford GTs was privateer team Risi Competizione with its No. 82 Ferrari and Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Matteo Malucelli managed to give the Ford drivers a hard time, until Vilander spun at the Porsche Curves. The unforced error made the live of Ford drivers Dirk Müller, Joey Hand and Sebastien Bourdais a bit more easy, but they weren’t in a position to relax.

Eventually the on-track battle ended with the No. 68 Ford GT crossing the line in first place, ahead of the Risi Competizione Ferrari and the No. 69 Ford GT of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon.

Fifteen of the 340 laps completed by the LMGTE Pro teams were led by Porsche, all other 325 laps were led by the three cars that ended on the podium. Risi led most laps (159), with the No. 68 leading 155 laps and the third-placed No. 69 car leading 11 laps.

But the battle between Ford and Ferrari wasn’t over after the finish, as it turned ot it was Ford that had lodged a protest towards the end of the race as one of the leader lights on the No. 82 Ferrari wasn’t working. The team refused to bring the car in, the meatball flag was converted into a stop-go penalty and eventually the case ended up in the stewards room after the race.

Risi Competizione meanwhile protested Ford, claiming the No. 68 Ford GT had been speeding in a slow zone and hours after the finish the stewards announced their decisions. The No. 68 Ford GT was given a 50 seconds time penalty, plus a further 20 second penalty for a non-functioning wheel speed sensor. Risi Competizione was not given a time penalty for failing to respond to the black and orange flag and was given a 5,000 euro fine and a 20 seconds time penalty. The penalties did not affect the outcome of the race, thus preventing a historic Ford 1-2-3.

The Ford vs Ferrari battle did leave a bad taste in the mouth for many though. The fact that Corvette, Aston Martin and Porsche were unable to keep up with Ford and Ferrari caused raised a few eyebrows. Both Ford and Ferrari were four seconds quicker in qualifying than they were during the Le Mans Test Day. Pre-race adjustments to the Balance of Performance didn’t seem to have any affect, as the Ford was still several seconds faster on race pace. It therefore remains to be seen what will happen to Ford post-Le Mans, although it won’t really matter as Ford already has what it wanted: victory at Le Mans.

The big question now is how Chevrolet, Aston Martin and Porsche are going to react. The new Ford GT was designed as a race car, with production cars based on the race car. If the three other manufacturers are do the same, we might have an arms race soon…with costs skyrocketing. Or will the manufacturers pull their resources and focus on other racing projects, knowing they won’t stand a chance against projects like Ford’s. Either way the ACO and FIA can’t be happy with the Balance of Performance issues at Le Mans and will have to act. If not it might put the LMGTE category in jeopardy.