When Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon drove to victory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford wasn’t the only American company making its mark on the world stage. The famous black GT40 Mark II had started the race on rubber from the company’s big rival in the so-called tyre wars, Firestone, but took the chequered flag on Goodyear tyres.
The stars for Ford’s spectacular triumph over Ferrari began to align in 1959.
When a heart condition brought former Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby’s driving career to a premature close, he turned his attention to winning the distribution rights for Goodyear race tyres in the western states.
It was to be the start of a successful racing partnership that propelled Shelby’s American team onto the international stage and led to the development of the iconic Cobra and Shelby Mustang.
In 1963, when negotiations to buy Ferrari ended in failure, Ford set its sights on beating the Italians on the track. To accelerate Ford’s Racing programme, Ford enlisted the help of a hand-picked team of designers, including Carrol Shelby.
It was Shelby’s racing pedigree that led Goodyear to fund the creation of the first Cobra-based Daytona Coupe, designed by Peter Brock. This sleek racer, with its pioneering aerodynamics, went on to do the impossible and beat the Ferrari 250 GTOs to a GT-class win, finishing fourth overall at Le Mans in 1964. However, better was still to come.
With Shelby finally behind the wheel of Ford’s GT40 programme, the iconic car quickly began to gain momentum. However, it was to be an inauspicious start. In1964, none of the much-vaunted new Fords finished Le Mans, or any other race.
As Shelby proudly noted however, they did succeed in striking fear into Enzo Ferrari, notching up 218mph on the famous Mulsanne Straight.
1965 was a similar story, with Ferrari sweeping the Le Mans podium once again and not a single GT40 crossing the finish line. 1965 was also the year that the North American Racing Team’s (NART) Ferrari 250 LM, driven by Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt, unexpectedly gave Goodyear its first overall victory in the 24 Hours.
As Le Mans approached, Ferrari remained the clear favourite. Ford however, was determined to make an impression, entering eight of the 7-litre (427ci) GT40 Mark IIs into the race.
Remarkably, despite Shelby’s relationship with Goodyear, Wingfoot tyres were not fitted to every car. At the time, tyre contracts were often agreed with individual drivers rather than entire teams. And the drivers of the black #2 car, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, were both contracted to Firestone.
At 4pm, the race began in damp conditions and it quickly became apparent that the Goodyears were better suited to the wet than the Firestones. While two of the Shelby cars – the #1 of Ken Miles/Denny Hulme and the #3 of Dan Gurney/Jerry Grant – were happy with their tyres, Mclaren discovered he was losing chunks of tread on the Mulsanne at more than 210mph.
When Mclaren pitted to hand over to Amon at 5.33pm, he immediately sought out the Firestone representative and negotiated a switch to Goodyears.
This calculated move, contributed to a deficit that would only be wiped out when Miles in the #1 slowed to allow McLaren to catch up for the controversial finish.
The delay also lead to McLaren’s famous war-cry, “Go like hell!”, as Amon prepared to depart the pits. With Ford and Ferrari neck and neck, the race narrowed to a duel between Miles’ GT40 and the Ferrari 330P3 on the Mulsanne.
As the Ferrari struggled to compete with the straight-line speed of the GT40, Bandini’s engine exploded. And the rest was automotive history.
As 4pm rolled around the following day, the surviving #2, #1 and #5 Fords lined up for a staged finish.
Interestingly, while the controversial “dead-heat” between the two Shelby machines continues to be debated to this day, history records that McLaren and Amon were given the win based on starting further back and therefore having travelled a greater distance in the same time.
Without the early switch to Goodyears, many believe they would not have been in contention.
Shelby, Ford and Goodyear returned to Le Mans in 1967 recording a second straight victory with the Mark IV (and Goodyear’s third). In subsequent years, Goodyear would achieve a total of 14 wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In recent years, Goodyear has developed a new range of tyres for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In September 2020 Goodyear also helped British squad JOTA and the French outfit Panis Racing to secure a podium finish in the LMP2 category.