Motor racing is arguably the sport that visually and viscerally translates best to the big screen. Movies such as Rush and Days of Thunder, the documentary Senna, and if you can permit a bit of poetic licence, the popularity of the Fast and the Furious franchise have shown the mass desire to watch cars drag, screech, roar, and race.
Now, Le Mans ‘66 steers its way into cinemas. Directed by James Mangold and starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon, the film depicts the dramatic story of how the construction company Ford hoped to topple the almost monopolic Ferrari, and focused on inflicting defeat on the Italian car company at the Le Mans race of 1966. It became remembered as a battle of ‘Ford v Ferrari’, and the moniker has even been used as the US title for the film.
The 24-Hour race was the exhibition for Ford’s GT40 Mark II. The narrative of the film revolves around the relationship between constructor Carroll Shelby (played by Damon) in charge of race operations for the American car company, and engineer and driver Ken Miles (Bale), a Second World War veteran.
The purpose of beating the Prancing Horse stems from Henry Ford II’s failed bid to buy Ferrari three years prior, leading to one of the most famous races in the event’s history. Ferrari had won five of the past seven Le Mans 24-Hour races ahead of ‘66. Ford, meanwhile, were behind Chevrolet and General Motors domestically.
Miles was the soldier-figurehead and both deserves and commands respect, being a focal figure of the major developments that would lead to success on the track. The 1966 crew chief Charles Agapiou explains: “Working with Ken was a blessing in disguise. I knew nothing about racing until I met Ken Miles. Working with him was magical. He was brilliant. He was a great engineer and he was a great race driver.”
And he came out of nowhere, barely heard of on major circuits to go to taking the lead car for the Ford project.
Intent on becoming the first American manufacturer to win Le Mans, Henry Ford II - who also took on the duty of waving the flag for the start of the race in France - had already handed out small cards to all of his drivers.
The message imprinted? ‘You better win.’
It was a statement Ken Miles did his utmost to adhere to. In fact, he drove so fast, it was quicker than had been permitted by his team, breaking lap-record after lap-record. He was however in fierce competition with another Shelby driver Dan Gurney, with the constructor having to at one point threaten both racers with a hammer in order for them to back off each other.
Despite the dominance Miles exhibited in the GT40, however, he did not win Le Mans.
Miles could have been the only driver to win the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and 24 Hours of Le Mans in the same year had it not been for the instruction of Ford’s PR team to slow down for a GT40 three-man finish, alongside the team of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, and Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson (for Holman & Moody). That led to McLaren/Amon being declared the winner on time travelled.
The point Ford had originally wanted to make was made though... not a single Ferrari crossed the finish line.
Ken Miles was unable to attempt the feat again though, as he was tragically killed just two months later in a car crash.
The team’s stunning improvements on the Ford vehicle, as dramatised in the film, included the revolutionary deployment of a dynamometer to measure force, power and speed, something which has taken motorsport to new level in the decades since.
The story has endured through the questionable documentation of the race, the enduring speculation as to the actual conclusion of Le Mans 1966 , as well as the sexy aesthetics of the iconic GT40.
It is a tale well worth its telling on the big screen.