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  • Peter MacKay

Private Investigations: The tale of the Wynn's Ford GT

In 2019, the sleek Ford GT bowed out of competition after a four-year tenure in sports car racing. Built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first win at Le Mans, failure wasn’t an option. During development in a secret facility, deep inside Ford’s Michigan headquarters, every parameter of the new GT was optimised for racing. To comply with race regulations, Ford were obliged to sell a minimum requirement of road going GTs. These £420,00 monsters were built with the least concessions for road use possible. This vehicle had one mission, to win the 24 hours of Le Mans once more. Unsurprisingly, enthusiasts worldwide clambered over one another to acquire one of these coveted new Ford GT’s. Many were left disappointed, with demand outstripping supply.

Interestingly, even with total freedom to shape the ultimate race car, Ford’s engineers devised a shape that silhouetted the original 1964 GT with haunting accuracy. Thus, proving how far ahead of their time the original GT's engineers, Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles and Phil Remington were. Much like the original Ford GT, the new version had to slip through the air on the Mulsanne Straight at nearly 200mph.

Following a January 2016 debut at the Rolex 24 hour at Daytona, the new Ford GT promptly won its first race at Laguna Seca in May. Just in time to instil confidence prior to the grand return at Le Mans in June.

Leaving nothing to chance, Ford fielded four GTs to compete for honours at the world’s most famous race. Further still, the Dearborn giants enlisted the help of the prolific Chip Ganassi race team to run the cars. Employing a Hollywood line up of drivers, ensured every base was covered. With attrition rates so typically high at Le Mans, Ford couldn’t risk embarrassment.

Perhaps the largest spread bet in motor racing since the last Ford GT programme produced the result the American firm so desperately craved. Ford GT #68 driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Le Mans native, Sebastien Bourdais, claimed honours in the GTE-Pro class. Ford’s victory made ever sweeter by besting their bitter Italian rivals of half a century ago, Ferrari. 2016 will remain the only year in memory where the outright winner of the Le Mans 24-hour race didn't dominate the headlines the next morning. Such was the significance of Ford’s return.

However, like everything in life, particularly in motorsport, everything must reach a natural conclusion. After 4 years, 19 wins and an ever more turbulent automotive market, Ford decided to close the Ford GT race programme. Despite attempts to continue racing the cars, without Ford’s direct support, Team Chip Ganassi also decided to conclude their involvement with these extraordinary race cars.

Given the GT’s complex and sophisticated underpinnings, interest in keeping these cars racing, was limited at best. Most balking at the extraordinary cost of operating the cars. With four Ford GTs set for the museum, a Texan car dealer stepped in.

Third generation Ford dealer, Ben Keating, was the first to raise a hand and take on one of these thoroughbred race cars. However, the keen amateur racer had far bigger aspirations for his Ford GT than a life on a display plinth.

Casual observers of sports car racing may be surprised to know that many taking part, pay handsomely for the privilege to compete. In fact, global sports car racing lives and breathes on wealthy individuals indulging their passion for speed and competition.

Can you throw a touchdown pass in the Superbowl? Score a goal in the Stanley Cup? Ride a horse in the Grand National? Of course not. Can you take the chequered flag at Le Mans? You bet.

In 2019, Keating took his Ford GT to Le Mans to compete for glory in the hotly contested GTE-AM class. In GTE-AM, each team must contain a combination of amateur and professional drivers. In nearly every case, the amateur driver will provide the colossal funding required, in return for a place behind the wheel in the race. It’s quite possibly the ultimate indulgence for a petrol head to fund and compete with a team at Le Mans.

With the help of Riley Motorsports, Keating took his Ford GT to the start line with professional co-drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Felipe Fraga. Shrewdly, exercising leverage from his successful automotive retail empire, the gentleman driver was able to secure sponsorship from fuel additive firm, Wynn’s.

To celebrate their 80th anniversary, Wynn’s committed for the first time in their history to a major sponsorship of a team at Le Mans. A Californian firm, aligning with a major automotive American brand, to take on the world. Everything was fitting neatly into place.

Nothing short of breath taking in unpainted form, the Ford GT needs little help to grab attention. Running lower to the tarmac than a puddle, with a towering rear wing and cavernous buttresses flanking the engine bay. All adding to the visual appeal of this one of a kind design. So, when Keating’s new acquisition was painted in the eye catching, purple and orange, Wynn’s livery, the car was an instant hit with fans. To complement this bright colour scheme, the #85 car also hosted the world’s most famous tyre salesman on its bodywork-The Michelin Man.

To comply with race regulations, teams must ensure each driver completes a minimum time driving the car. In the GTE-AM class this is crucial. Team strategists must plot when to deploy their speedy professional drivers, and when to run down the clock with their slower amateur drivers. Often, the disparity in pace between the amateur drivers will be much greater than that between the pro drivers. Therefore, when to deploy your amateur driver is critical to race strategy. Thankfully, Ben Keating is arguably the fastest amateur driver in sports car racing.

Riley Motorsports played their ace card early, with devastating effect. Le Mans stalwart, Jeroen Bleekemolen and rapid Brazilian, Felipe Fraga, took turns to dispatch the opening 12 hours of the race. It worked, as their competitors floundered with amateur drivers at the wheel. As morning broke, the #85 Wynn’s Ford GT had built a lead that looked unassailable as the race reached the 16-hour mark. With a reasonable cushion, amateur driver Keating could then jump in to the #85 Ford GT and complete his driving time.

Despite a suspicious black flag to repair minor damage on the GT’s nose and a penalty for wheel spin in pit lane, costing vital time, nothing could stop the Wynn’s Ford GT taking the chequered flag in the lead. Exiting the final corner after twenty-four gruelling hours, Bleekemolen weaved the purple GT back and forth, with headlights furiously flashing, crossing the line to claim his first class victory since 2008. For Keating and Fraga, it would be their first taste of winners champagne at Le Mans.

Keating could now add a Le Mans triumph to his class wins at Sebring and Daytona. The gentleman set of sports car racing victories was complete for the 48-year-old, who started racing in 2006. To take the first privately owned Ford GT to Le Mans, and win, was beyond the wildest of dreams.

Following such significant initial investment in acquiring the car, Keating was widely rumoured to be planning a long-term programme of racing with his Ford GT but, sadly, it was not to be.

Following the race, after all the champagne spraying, honour and grandeur of the Le Mans podium, this fairy-tale story quickly spiralled into a nightmare.

Race stewards discovered that during the race, the #85 Wynn’s Ford GT had refuelled slightly faster than the 45 second limit, on 23 occasions. Despite multiple routine checks by the team, tolerances proved to be marginally too tight. A resulting time penalty dropped the purple GT to 2nd in class. However, the following day, further controversy was to follow.

Much to the surprise of the paddock, ACO race stewards continued to scour Keating’s car in search of further violations. What they found, resulted in complete exclusion from the race result. Like the initial refuelling time penalty, the infringement was miniscule. In a statement confirming the exclusion of the #85 car from the race, stewards confirmed that the capacity of the car’s fuel tank was at least 96.1 litres, exceeding the 96-litre limit. A growling twin-turbo V6 race engine, even with the assistance of Ford’s ‘Ecoboost’ technology, will devour 100ml in a fraction of the time it took to type this sentence.

In motorsport, any team looks for every slice of performance. Tolerances are so fine in racing and perhaps, with a brand-new car to the team, these were too tight. Nevertheless, as they say, the umpire’s decision is final.

Was there a vendetta against this car given Ford’s exit from racing at Le Mans? Perhaps not, but rarely have we seen penalties issued more than 24 hours after the race.

As race fans, we lament the fact that this wonderful race car will likely spend the rest of its days parked in the lobby of Keating Auto Group HQ. Perhaps we might have seen the car return to Le Circuit de la Sarthe for another valiant attempt at victory. Despite the controversy surrounding it, the #85 Wynn’s Ford GT will remain a captivating final chapter in the return of a racing icon.

To learn more about this intriguing motor racing story, click the link below to listen to the recent episode on The Peter MacKay Motorsport podcast.

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