1966: Ford's first wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring

1966: Ford's first wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring

It was fifty years ago that Ford scored its first 24 Hours of Le Mans victory, bringing Ferrari's dominance to an end with a conclusive 1-2-3 sweep. It was a repeat of the American carmaker's triumph at the 12 Hours of Sebring three months earlier. However, two dramatic events eclipsed the sporting achievements in Sebring that year.

We all know the story of the legendary showdown between Ford and Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Having failed in his bid to buy out Ferrari, Henry Ford II decided to go all-out to beat Ferrari on the race track and at the most emblematic event of them all – Le Mans. Despite a series of disappointments, Ford arrived at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans with a decisive psychological edge, having triumphed twice over Ferrari, first at the 24 Hours of Daytona then the 12 Hours of Sebring. The American also had a numerical advantage, fielding eight cars compared to Ferrari’s seven. In the end, none of Ferrari’s works prototypes crossed the finish line while Ford swept to a historical 1-2-3 finish.

However, the Blue Oval wasn’t content with defying Enzo Ferrari in Europe: Henry Ford II had also sworn that he’d beat the Italian marque in America and spared no expense in doing so. ‘Hank the Deuce,’ as Ford was known, achieved his goal at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1965 but had to wait another year until he could repeat the feat at Sebring and Le Mans.

After a podium sweep at Daytona in January 1966, Ford pulled out all the stops to beat Ferrari at Sebring the following March, fielding no fewer than seven factory Ford GT 40s, knowing full well that Ferrari would be unable to match that number. In fact, Ferrari considered not entering a works team at all. However, Sebring founder Alec Ulmann couldn’t envisage the race without the Italians so provided a financial incentive to make sure there were two factory Ferraris on the grid. On race day, there was a repeat of the Daytona scenario with Ford sweeping the podium once again before a huge crowd of spectators. Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby drove the winning Ford while only one of the two works Ferraris crossed the line, finishing fifth.

The overall result might suggest that it was an easy race for Ford, but that was far from being the case. The leaders, Dan Gurney, who would go on to win at Le Mans in 1967, and Jerry Grant had their hopes dashed by engine failure just a quarter of a mile from the finish line. Worse, earlier in the day, Ford driver Bob McLean lost his life in an accident. Before entering the hairpin turn, he hit the brakes hard on his Ford GT 40 which rolled over and hit a pole, damaging the fuel tank. The car burst into flames before coming to a standstill, its driver trapped inside. After this, a number of modifications were made to the Ford’s roll bars and fuel tank.

And there was further tragedy to come. Ultimately, rather than the year that Ford beat Ferrari at Sebring for the first time, 1966 would go down in memory as the year that almost saw the end of the American 12-hour race. Mario Andretti, at the wheel of a Ferrari entered by privateer team NART (North American Racing Team), lost control of his car, producing a cloud of dust and smoke that blinded a rival driver who spun off the track, ploughing down and killing four spectators. Future Formula One champion Andretti, who had a race scheduled in Pennsylvania the next day, left Sebring immediately after the race and was accused of running off before the police could question him. He always claimed that he’d been unaware of the incident as the race directors had kept it quiet, but the press and politicians had a field day. The 12 Hours of Sebring only owes its survival to several weeks’ rainfall in West Palm Beach, where Alec Ulmann was planning to move the race after signing a contract to build a new circuit there. However, atrocious weather conditions prevented building work at the new site and Ulmann was released from his contractual obligations, finally returning to Sebring. To fulfil the sporting authority’s conditions and allow the race to go on, major modifications were made to improve safety at the track.

The 12 Hours of Sebring has been held every year since, except for 1974 after the oil crisis. The flag will go down to start the 64th running of the race at 10:40 am (2:30 pm UTC) on Saturday 19 March.

Cécile Bonardel / ACO | Translated from French by Clair Pickworth

PHOTO: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS, SATURDAY 18 JUNE 1966. The Ferrari 365 P2/P3 #19 was in front of the Ford GT40 MK II #2 but later had to retire while Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon in the Ford went on to grab the top spot on the podium.