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Ford v Ferrari and the Era of the Ford GT 40

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Tags: Motorsport, Heritage
Janine Vogler, December 12, 2019
Janine Vogler Vintage cars related to ZF-products have been at the heart of the journalist. Outside of work, she enjoys to ride motor bike or to be accompanied in nature by her dog.
With the movie Le Mans ’66, another milestone in the car racing film genre was produced for the second time with spectacular and authentic footage and a top-notch ensemble of acting talent. Millions were thrilled by the challenge and fascination of the legendary racing battles of the 60s and 70s on the endurance testing proving ground. The film, a huge production featuring 30 replica vehicles, tells the story of the friendship between two underdogs and the battle between Ford and Ferrari. It is a film about legends – legendary people and legendary cars. And, as the latter of the two are usually equipped with ZF products, we decided to take a look behind the scenes ...

Le Mans still has the reputation of being the most punishing endurance race in the world. With its association with powerful engines in combination with perfectionism and professionalism, a victory in the world’s most famous endurance race represents a unique opportunity to bolster one’s image and benefit economically for both racing teams and manufacturers. Many manufacturers were already putting their trust in innovative ZF technology back then.
The racing success of the Lotus in the early 60s spurred manufacturers and racing teams to seek the assistance of the drive specialist based near Lake Constance: While attention was initially focused on the smaller 5 DS 12 and 5 DS 20 versions, it quickly became clear that a larger version was necessary in the area of long-distance racing as well as in volume production of sports cars. The fact that the heavier-duty transmission version 5 DS 25 was primarily in use at the traditional Le Mans 24-hour race – the emotionally charged zenith of endurance motorsports – was for the following reason in particular, which is also explained in the current blockbuster Ford v Ferrari, aka Le Mans ’66:
Henry Ford II decided to go to war with Ferrari, which maintained a Le Mans winning streak from 1960 to 1965 – and a replacement had to be found for the Colotti transmissions previously installed by Ford. After Ford ventured to Le Mans for the first time with the GT 40 in 1964, shortly after the first test runs with this race car in April, several of the 4.2-liter vehicles had to abandon the race due to transmission failure despite having set a new lap record and top-speed benchmark. Ford then awarded ZF the contract to develop a reinforced racing transmission that could withstand the 24-hour race, resulting in the next performance stage for the series, with an integrated differential and featuring 250 newton meters of torque: the 5 DS 25. However, this racing transmission was also able to transmit more power.

ZF representatives from Friedrichshafen and from the French ZF customer service centers at the time traveled to Le Mans to support the teams and conduct post-race analysis of the parts. Correspondence and travel reports from this period still exist in the archives, showing which versions of the Ford GT 40 vehicles were equipped with 5 DS 25 transmissions: In 1965, for example, two cars with 6,982 cm³ engine displacement had Ford four-speed transmissions (Kar Kraft KKL-108) and four others had the ZF 5 DS 25 in 4.7-liter or 5.3-liter versions. After Ford suffered complete defeat again at the 1965 race, ZF was held responsible in the French media for the weakness of the transmissions – the war was still fresh in people’s minds back then. The journalists even blamed ZF for the failures of Ford’s own transmissions. When the French ZF representative in Paris, M. Lefebvre, had the circumstances investigated in detail, it soon was found that three of the vehicles equipped with the 5 DS 25 had been eliminated from the race due to engine failure, as had one of the large 7.0-liter versions. There was one transmission failure in vehicle no. 15: After 15 laps and 200 kilometers of travel, the second and third gear could no longer be shifted after 51 minutes because the transmission was running too hot. Further investigations of the only transmission failure with a ZF unit resulted in the discovery that the young John Wyer racing team had obviously overhauled the transmission themselves shortly before the race and had filled it with too little oil. This was subsequently confirmed in writing by the driver of the car, Maurice Trintignant: It is clear from M. Trintignant’s reply that the failure could have been prevented if there had been enough oil in the transmission.

Nevertheless, in 1965 the first seven vehicles (all Porsche and Ferrari) crossed the finish line with ZF products installed …

Nevertheless, in 1965 the first seven vehicles (all Porsche and Ferrari) crossed the finish line with ZF products installed …

In general, the ZF 5 DS 25 was only used on the GT 40 versions with 4.7-liter and 5.3-liter engines at Le Mans. In addition, the large 7-liter engine with a Ford four-speed transmission was only used until 1967. Starting in 1968, the GT 40 cars only competed with the ZF five-speed transmission in the smaller engine displacement version: After several new records had been set the year before, the FIA limited engine displacement to three liters for sports prototypes and to five liters for sports cars (provided at least 25 cars were built).
The major victory in 1966 was achieved with three Ford GT 40 race cars with 7-liter engines without ZF participation. In addition to Ford, numerous other vehicles were gradually also equipped with ZF’s 5 DS 25: In 1967, striking models were raced with the 5 DS 25, such as the Wyer Mirage 5.7-liter (a specially equipped version of the GT 40), the Matra 630 (with a V8 Ford B.R.M. engine), the Cooper Maserati, and even the Ferrari legends 330 P3/P4 and the Ferrari 412 P.

In 1968, the race in Le Mans was postponed until September due to the political unrest among students. ZF was almost always strongly represented among the top ten finishers at Le Mans with its transmissions, steering systems, or locking differentials. However, of particular note were the victories of the 4.9-liter versions of the Ford GT 40 with the ZF 5 DS 25 transmission unit in 1968 by Pedro Rodriguez (Mexico) and Lucien Bianchi (Belgium) as well as in 1969 by six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx (Belgium) with Jackie Oliver (GB).