Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Inauspicious Beginning

Chassis 102 at the Hotel de France, La Chatre sur-le-Loir, before LeMans, 1964.  This hotel was, and remained, John Wyer's favorite base of operations for LeMans from his earliest Aston Martin days.  This is a rare photo I'd not seen before.

In 2016, the Ford GT dominated LeMans from qualifying on and won the race in its maiden outing.

In 1964, the situation was precisely opposite.  The build of the first GT 40 was frantically completed at the end of March.  Instead of being endurance tested prior to LeMans Test Days (three weeks away), to John Wyer's disgust, Dearborn insisted that the car be flown to New York City for the Auto Show.  The only two GT 40's in existence did only four short test sessions at Goodwood.  Chassis 102 did only 25 miles.

At LeMans Test Days (April 18-19), Chassis 102 was damaged when Jo Schlesser discovered aero lift at only 150 m.p.h. (he was uninjured).  So much for small scale models "extensively wind-tunnel tested."  A rear deck spoiler was added, which solved the rear end problem for good, and was used on all GT 40's thereafter.  Fiddling with the front end began too, with "Version 1.1" shown in the pictures here.  The front was fixed permanently only with the complete revision by the "Len Terry Nose" in 1965.  Terry's revision became the standard (iconic) GT 40 nose for both factory and customer cars.

Chassis 102 in the LeMans race, 1964.  Note the modification of the nose and radiator intake from the picture above.

LeMans itself in 1964 was a disaster.  Chassis 104 (Richard Attwood/Jo Schlesser) burned to the ground when a fuel line broke.  Chassis 102 and 103 (#10, Phil Hill/ Bruce McLaren, and #11, Richie Ginther/Masten Gregory) retired early when their Colotti gearboxes failed.  The Colotti had been specified by Eric Broadley in 1963 for the GT 40's mother, the Lola GT.  Adequate endurance testing would have exposed its weakness.

Wyer immediately commissioned ZF to design a gearbox that could handle the torque of Ford's 289.  And he recommended that the GT 40 be withdrawn from competition until systematic endurance testing could be completed.  Instead, Ford entered the Reims 12 Hour race (July 4).  The cars again failed.  Wyer was removed from race team management and told to get on with the GT 40 production build.  Carroll Shelby managed the factory race team in '65, '66 and '67.  With the ZF gearbox and Len Terry nose, the GT 40 became all-conquering (on longer circuits with longer straights).

This was the car Wyer wanted to race.  But Ford blew by it with the Mk. II (7 liters) and the Mk. IV (a new chassis/body), which were Dearborn-developed.  Ford factory teams contested only at LeMans in '65, '66', and '67.  (Daytona and Sebring were used as tune-ups, but no European races were entered.)  This resulted in failure again (in '65) and then complete dominance (in '66 and '67).  Meanwhile,  Wyer had reasonable success in supporting customer cars at LeMans and other FIA races.

And he had the last laugh, when it came to the small block GT 40.  When Ford bailed on LeMans (in particular) and sports car racing (in general), it sold the rights to the car and everything that went with it to Wyer at a very attractive price.  This included the design, tooling, parts, spares and the Ford Advanced Vehicles building.  He would be responsible for continuing support of customer race cars.
Wyer updated the GT 40 with wider tires and a more powerful engine that featured Gurney-Weslake heads atop a full 5 liters.  He won a championship (something Ford had not attempted or accomplished) and LeMans twice more, in '68 and '69.  Pretty good "proof of concept" for a design that was six years old (a lifetime in race car years) at the time of its last major win.  Makes me wonder what might have been achieved in late '64 and '65 if the GT 40 had been thoroughly developed and tested in early to mid '64.

The '68-'69 Wyer-Gulf GT 40: essentially the 1964 car with wider tires and the Len Terry nose.

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