Ford chasing history at Le Mans
Dearborn — Edsel Ford II sat at the original wooden desk of his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, and delivered a simple message to Joey Hand and Ryan Briscoe, two of the drivers who will pilot the Ford GT in its historic return to Le Mans this weekend.
It’s the same message his father, Hank the Deuce, once told Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and other drivers before they competed at the 24-hour race a half-century ago:
“You better win.”
The message was conveyed with a smile and laugh, but underscored the importance of the race. Ford invested heavily to resurrect its storied GT supercar in time for the 50th anniversary of its 1966 win over heavy favorites such as Ferrari and Porsche, and top executives have hinted that anything less than a podium finish would be a disappointment, even for a first-year program.
“Not only is Le Mans the biggest stage for endurance racing, this means a lot to the Ford family,” said Dave Pericak, director of Ford Performance.“You’re talking about the best drivers, the best cars. ... We know that everybody is expecting us to do well. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re going to go give ’em hell.”
Ford is sending four cars — Nos. 66-69 — and 12 drivers to the race, which begins at 9 a.m. eastern time on Saturday. They’ve been fine-tuning the GT since its disappointing debut at the Rolex 24 in Daytona and have recently gained momentum with a win at Laguna Seca and a second-place finish at Spa in Belgium.
Briscoe and Hand’s recent trip to Dearborn was a nostalgia-filled celebration meant to give the racing duo a taste of history and a sense of belonging to the Ford family before their trip to France. They met with Executive Chairman Bill Ford, President and CEO Mark Fields and engineers of the original 1966 GT; were given the original French flag that flew over Ford’s pit row during the historic race; signed autographs for Ford employees; and toured the secret design studio where a small group crafted the ’17 supercar.
“At first, I hadn’t grasped the importance of Le Mans as much,” Hand said. “We’ve been driving race cars for 25 years. It’s another race car, and our job is to drive it fast. But especially on a day like today, you can’t ignore it.”
Edsel Ford also gave Hand and Briscoe two oval pins, replicas of souvenirs Henry Ford II and other top executives received before the 1966 race. It says “Invite D’Honneur” (guest of honor) with the name of the race and the year. Edsel Ford added the initials “HFII” to the re-created pins he gave the drivers.
Henry Ford II was instrumental to the automaker’s racing program in 1966 — when his son, Edsel, was 18 years old — and helped lead the effort that resulted in an improbable podium sweep. The GT won again in 1967, 1968 and 1969 — the last year it competed.
“You have to tip your hat,” Edsel Ford said. “This year, I thought it would be very important to tip my hat to my father.”
Program gains momentum
Ford officials and drivers characterized many of the GT racing troubles earlier this year as “teething pains,” saying the cars recently have run well. Even the No. 66 car that was nearly demolished after a crash at Spa last month has been rebuilt and is race-ready.
“As a program as a whole, we’ve been gaining momentum and that’s a good thing,” Briscoe said. “We’ve been learning a lot and starting to see some of the results. It gives you a bit more confidence going into the race, but you have to treat Le Mans as its own deal.”
The 8.5-mile road course is part of a grueling race that tests the drivers for up to five hours at a time. It’s known for its sharp curves and high-speed Mulsanne Straight that includes a few chicanes — an artificial narrowing or turn in the course — that Hand said can be especially tricky.
Both Briscoe and Hand have experience at Le Mans for other teams. Hand finished on the podium in 2011 when he drove for BMW.
“When I was done, I was mentally exhausted, way more than I had ever been from a race,” Hand said.
The team will have plenty of time to prepare. There was a test day on the track last week, an open practice is scheduled for Wednesday, and qualifying will take place Wednesday and Thursday.
Briscoe said he doesn’t have any superstitions, but Hand is known for eating a McDonald’s Sausage Egg McMuffin on race days. In between their driving stints, both say they’ll eat, get a massage and attempt to sleep.
“It’s a much different 24-hour race,” Hand said. “It keeps you on your toes.”
Writing a new book
Hand and Briscoe were treated like celebrities on their recent trip to Dearborn.
A handful of drivers stopped to take pictures of Hand as he cruised around the city in a white and blue Shelby GT 350. And dozens of Ford employees greeted the duo at the ground floor of the Glass House where they signed autographs for about an hour.
Some asked for signed pictures for their children, others brought model cars, and at least one brought a book about the history of the GT and the 1966 Le Mans race.
“When I signed my name, I wondered if 30 years from now this will be a historic thing we’re doing,” Hand said. “I’m just hoping we make more history. Thirty years down the road, when they do another one, the next book young drivers sign might be about us.”