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Wednesday 7th June
Le Mans 2016

Top Gear drives the Ford GT40... to Le Mans

In honour of Ford's return to La Sarthe, we pilot the gorgeous GT40 and GT to France

  • Well, how else would you get to Le Mans, as Ford revs up for an assault on La Sarthe exactly 50 years since its epochal 1-2-3 win in the world’s greatest race?

    The GT40 is arguably the most genuinely iconic 1960s racing car of all, and there’s one sitting in front of Team TG right now. Lordy. It’s in good company: alongside it is a 2006 GT road car, the Blue Oval’s last go at rebooting the coolest corner of its sprawling heritage. TG editor-in-chief Charlie Turner and I will be piloting this pair from the UK to Le Mans. In our own small way, we’re feeling a smidgeon of the pressure that is gathering around the team a few hundred miles south, as the weird and wet weather that’s been plaguing Europe plays havoc with mid-France. Carefully minted race strategy goes out the window when the heavens open. We don’t have a strategy, other than to simply get there, but even that feels like a bit of an ask right now.

    Photography: Richard Pardon

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  • Before that, though, there’s… Dagenham. This is home to Ford’s magnificent heritage collection, although the contents of said collection are perhaps more magnificent than the facility they’re housed in (although the meeting room has the original board room table and a gorgeous grandfather clock). Ford has long been integral to this heavily industrialised bit of Essex, and if the buildings here could talk, the tales they’d tell would delineate not just Ford’s history, but also an important chunk of the socio-cultural fabric of the UK itself. It explains why the MK I Fiesta, Cortina Crusader and Granada Ghia in the heritage wing still pack a big punch – once ubiquitous, they’re now a rare sight – alongside the likes of an Escort Mexico rally car, no fewer than three RS200 Groupe B rally weapons, and the legendary Supervan.

  • Naturally the GT40 lords it over the whole lot like a T-rex wandering across the primordial plains. And we’ve got to drive it. We know various things about this car. Famously, the 40 relates to the car’s 40in height, which is very low. The doors and roof are sort of conjoined, and open very wide. You get in by standing on the side of the chassis and then the seat, before sliding in feet first, taking care not to snag the wood-topped gear-lever up your right trouser leg as you go. It’s also said to get hotter than the surface of the sun in the GT40 cockpit. The rear tyres don't look as though they’d shift much in the way of standing water, either. This car, black and wearing a lovely no.2 decal, is the original 1964 press car rebodied to look like the one that won Le Mans in 1966. It’s worth north of £5m.

    Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

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  • Charlie does the first stint, leaving me in the relative comfort of the air conditioned GT, whose 550bhp, supercharged V8 and 205mph top speed suddenly seem remarkably tame. I drove one of these to Paris for TG back in 2004, and tame is not how I remember it. Intergalactically fast is closer, and amusingly lairy in the wet given the absence of traction control. Watching CT pick his way out of the Ford complex, onto the streets of Dagenham, is surreal beyond belief. The roadworks that greet us on the A13 are sadly far more real world. CT burbles across the walkie that the ’40 is struggling a bit to clear its vast Weber-carbs-assisted throat. Even four cars back in the queue, we can hear the beast at work. (The car, not Charlie.)

  • Down the M20 we go. The GT40 revels in some clear air, revving with such vocal mechanical thunder it’s enough to part the clouds above. This is the most privileged convoy I’ve ever been part of. We’re near the Channel Tunnel when the fuel pumps suddenly pack up.

    This car, like all of Ford’s heritage fleet, is meticulously maintained, but sometimes s**t just happens. Fortunately, Ford’s tame mechanic Andy is not the sort of guy to get flustered by such a turn of events, and ingeniously runs a connection off the battery to the left hand pump (the GT40 has two fuel tanks). It’s a phenomenal piece of improvisation, if an imperfect quick-fix on a car whose 4.7-litre V8 generates a lot of heat and horsepower, and guzzles fuel like the world’s most committed barfly, but we continue. There’s a chance we might have to abandon the old girl at Folkestone, but after security – unsurprisingly, things are quite lively in that department, too, what with a certain football tournament going on – we make the decision to push on.

  • My turn. Charlie, a man with a great deal of mechanical sympathy and lots of experience in gnarly historics, reckons it’s as tricky a car as he’s ever driven. With that, it falls to me to drive it onto the Channel Tunnel train. The clutch immediately reveals itself to be both heavy and to have a biting point that’s the gear-changing equivalent of a vigorous head-butt. It needs a bootful of revs and a gentle yet simultaneously firm left foot to get it moving without looking like an ocean-going imbecile. I try my best.

    Staring at the two cars on the train with the English Channel above our heads is enough to make my brain frazzle.

  • We have to push it off the train as we arrive in Calais. Dear God. For the briefest of moments, it looks like old no.2 isn’t going to play ball. Then the engine catches, and we rocket off. Now I can really get to grips with this thing. Like all old cars, it bites and bitches at you until you get it right, at which point it becomes the best thing you’ve ever driven. When I say that the GT40 makes the greatest noise I’ve ever heard a car make from 3000 to 6000rpm in third, fourth and fifth gear, well, it’s actually an understatement. The gearbox is never less than tricky, and as a sequential you have to work up and down it in sequence. But as every prod on the throttle pedal elicits a giant roar, the main challenge is simply not just to mess about with the ’box for the sheer hell of it. There is no assistance, on anything: on the steering, on the brakes, in the chassis. You’re utterly on your own, and the thought of slamming down the Mulsanne straight in one, at night, in the rain, at 180mph, makes my head swim. Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, Dan Gurney, Jacky Ickx and all those other huge names in 1960s endurance racing must have had cojones made of Kevlar-reinforced titanium.

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  • It does rain on us, south of Rouen, Biblically and post-apocalyptically. In fact, it rains so hard that it’s actually raining inside the car; this is because the shut lines in the door/roof above the occupants’ heads are approximate. I’ve never been in a car that has a roof but still lets in water. My grip on the Moto-lita steering wheel is rather intense at this point, but the GT40 sails across the standing water without actually setting sail. Occasionally, the walkie crackles into life. Above the thrum of no.2’s V8, all we can hear is the sound of laughter.

  • Soon, the road signs declare that Le Mans is almost upon us. There is soooo much more to say, but let’s leave it there. This has been the drive of a lifetime, leading up to a weekend that means a huge amount to anyone who cares about Ford or indeed motor racing and its heroes – both on two legs and four wheels.

    Over to the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Team. Do it for old no.2.

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