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The Greatest Run in Le Mans History Started With Getting Fired

Mar 30, 2023

John Wyer and his small team beat the giants of motorsport, clocking back-to-back wins with a better Ford GT40 than Ford could build, and going on to take the first non-manufacturer win overall at La Sarthe. But it never would have happened if he'd never been fired.

On December 31, 1966, Ford paid severance to a stiff, tall man named John Wyer and his entire staff of Ford Advanced Vehicles in Slough, England, the British team that developed the GT40. This official break between Wyer and Ford started one of the most successful runs at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in its hundred-year history.

This story originally appeared in Volume 16 of Road & Track.

You see, Ford hired Wyer to run its whole GT40 operation. All of those fresh beginnings, the fragile early cars that blew transmissions, were built, maintained, and campaigned under Wyer's stern gaze. After all, Ford was new to endurance racing, and Wyer was not. When Carroll Shelby celebrated his win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 as a driver, wearing striped overalls and guzzling champagne, it was Wyer who’d led and managed that Aston Martin team. Wyer was patient, exacting, and precise, and he knew that 1964, the GT40's first full racing season, would be a learning experience.

But when the GT40 was ready to fly, Ford snatched it away from him. The GT40's debut year of 1964, Wyer thought, was going to be a learning experience. But when Ford watched in agony as Ferrari clobbered the 4.7-liter Mk. I at its first Le Mans, Ford yanked control over the GT40 to America. The ensuing 1965 season didn't make Ford's decision look wise, as Ferrari walked all over the re-organized team. Hell, at the Nürburgring, a puny 1.6-liter Ferrari beat Ford's 7-liter GT40. Ford answered the only way it knew how, nearly doubling its budget. The Americans poured some $7 million into the 1966 campaign alone, securing no less than 13 entries for that famous ‘66 Le Mans. Henry Ford II waved the flag, and though only three GT40s finished, they came in 1-2-3. Ford repeated the budget again for 1967 with the NASA-esque Mk IV and won again, basically buying the trophy.

If the GT40 story ended there, it would look like the American side of Ford had it right, and Wyer's English side was all wrong. Things are worse if you learned about the GT40 in the theater; Ford v Ferrari doesn't go past ’66.

But Wyer stuck to his guns and proved himself right. On January 1, 1967, the day after Ford Advanced Vehicles closed down, Wyer re-employed everyone under his new JW Automotive (JWA), his company formed in partnership with entrepreneur John Willment. Among his team was the Cambridge-educated engineer John Horsman, a stalwart from the Aston Martin days, now second in command. A later addition was racing manager David Yorke, a World War II fighter pilot.

Ford didn't completely cut its ties either. It set up a deal to keep Wyer in its orbit, contracting JWA to continue building GT40 customer cars, with built-in profit on every chassis it constructed. Ford even gave Wyer's new operation a $100,000 budget to support privateers racing these cars, but Wyer went a step further. In 1967, he debuted his first new creation, the Mirage M1.

The M1 makes sense as a kind of GT40 evolution. After all, Wyer still believed in his original GT40 concept. Keep the engine small, make the car reliable, stick to the plan. Its bodywork cuts tighter, with more aerodynamic development, and with uni-directional carbon-fiber strands incorporated into the panels for greater strength. Little canard flaps sprouted from either side of the M1's nose to combat the front-end lift inherent in the original design of the GT40. The M1 was better, but only as much as it needed to be.

Wyer's Mirage was more powerful, too. A month after the American arm of Ford won Le Mans with its 7-liter Mk. II, Ford released to Wyer all the most cutting-edge components it’d been reserving for the big engine car. "Suddenly," Wyer wrote in his autobiography, "everything we had been asking for was available in abundance. In this cornucopia we had reinforced cylinder blocks with four-bolt main bearing caps, forged crankshafts, fully machined connecting rods produced from Indianapolis forgings, forged pistons, transistor ignition sets, in fact everything we needed to build reliable racing engines." The "alacrity" that they arrived hardly a month after Le Mans ‘66 made it "impossible not to suspect that they had been deliberately held back after the 7-litre engine had won."

This is not exactly a conspiracy, but it's not far off.

The Mirage M1 raced only one year, and collected only two wins. With a young Jacky Ickx at the wheel, JWA scored brilliant and rain-drenched victories at the Paris 1000 km and at the treacherously fast Spa circuit, beating Porsche, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Chaparral, Lola, and all the GT40s present. But that wasn't the end of its legacy. For 1968, the 5.7-liter Mirage was knocked out of contention for the same reason as its big American cousins: New rules outlawed prototypes with engines bigger than 3.0 liters, sports cars with engines bigger than 5.0.

The trick was that Ford built enough of the smaller-engine Mk Is to qualify them as production sports cars. JWA took its GT40s back to Le Mans in 1968, with engines modestly beefed up to 4.9 liters and refinements learned from the Mirage M1. In Gulf blue and orange, JWA won the championship and Le Mans. The following year, JWA returned with the exact same car, chassis number P/1075, and won Le Mans again.

It was bold, sure, but it was also expedient. Wyer and his team didn't want a car any faster than it needed to be to win. "New does not always mean better" is how Wyer put it in his autobiography.

That's how he fell out with his next big partner, Porsche.

Porsche knew how good Wyer was. After all, JWA had beaten them using outdated Fords. So Porsche took on the team as one of several factory-­supported privateers to run the 917. It took him on as one of several factory-supported privateer teams to run the 917 in competition. Porsche was, at the end of the day, a collection of somewhat kooky German hot-rodders always cooking up a new part. The problem with Wyer was that he repeatedly turned their designs down. When Porsche developed a 4.9-liter engine for the 917, Wyer kept winning with the older 4.5. When Porsche offered the fast (and unstable) long-tail bodywork for Le Mans in 1970, Wyer declined. Was Wyer arrogant, or just practical?

JWA did innovate, it must be said, when it was critical to the support and safety of its drivers. While testing the 917 in Austria and receiving driver complaints about high-speed instability, Horsman and Yorke noticed a lack of bug strikes on the rear wing. Reasoning that rear downforce was lacking, the team quickly assembled a temporary fix that moved the rear spoiler into the airstream. The 917K "short-tail" was born and would win Le Mans in ’70 and ’71—though not for JWA's blue and orange.

Eschewing risk, JWA's Gulf-Porsche team was wildly successful, winning the World Sportscar Championship in 1970 and ’71, taking seven of 10 championship races in 1970 alone. (Le Mans wasn't one of them, though Wyer looked good until Jo Siffert popped a motor while in the lead.) "Our invariable rule," Wyer reflected, "when offered new features was to apply the test ‘Is it necessary or can we win without it?’"

When Porsche stopped chasing overall wins at Le Mans, thanks to another rule change for 1972 that effectively banned 5.0-liter homologation specials like the 917, the Germans took the car to the experimental playground of Can-Am. They didn't bring Wyer along with it.

What's interesting about Wyer, reading about him, there is no wild character to match his outsized achievements. He was never one to push the envelope or bend a rule. He's not a Smokey Yunick, or even a Carroll Shelby, who once threatened his own drivers with a hammer. Racing in the Sixties and Seventies was filled with bold technological leaps, daring wins, explosions, drugs, sex, and pirate teams running out of telephone booths. In the midst of it all was steady John Wyer, hands in his coat pockets, hair slicked down. His most famous nickname was "Death Ray" for his stare, and his friends worried for his health. He was always pale, with asthma, and he had tuberculosis as a child that did relapse. Speedworld called him "imperious," and presumed he only put down his stopwatch and let a smile creep across his face when he won.

Even his great win, Le Mans 1975, was far from a blaze of glory. It was a slower race than the year before it, run under new fuel economy regulations enacted in response to the first Energy Crisis. Ferrari pulled out, Alfa Romeo pulled out, and Matra retired before the start of the season having beaten them all for three years running. Wyer had been running his own Gulf-Mirage prototypes against those teams for years with only sporadic success. Now his only competition came from a couple ancient Porsche 908s and a promising Japanese entry under the name Sigma. The Sigma blew up, two of the 908s crashed into each other and pretty much all that was left was a bunch of Porsche and Ligier GT cars. To win, all Wyer's Gulf-Mirage GR8 had to do was make it to the end of the race, and do so only stopping for fuel every 20 laps--a rough fuel economy of 7 mpg. But that was Wyer's specialty! On those two warm, sun-soaked days in June, people sleeping open in the dry grass of the French countryside, he was the guy with the clipboard, making sure everything ran smoothly, simply, and efficiently.

Over the course of two decades, Wyer constructed a winning formula. At Le Mans 1975, his time came due. His military-grade operation produced an overall win with a car entirely of his own making.

He was the first independent to win Le Mans, the first privateer, and the first non-manufacturer to win overall with his own car. Only one other person has done it since: the rogue local Jean Rondeau, in 1980.

That's what there always was: Wyer. Running his show whether it was for Mirage or Porsche or Ford or Aston Martin before that. Whatever the car, whatever the engine, his spirit, his strategy, stayed true. I like that about him.

After 1975, Gulf ceased sponsoring Mirage, and the magic faded. The GR8 was still a contender, finishing second overall in 1976 and 1977, but Wyer never won Le Mans again. The Le Mans program survived all the way until 1982 when their car was disqualified on a technicality 20 minutes before the start of the race, and Wyer's attempt to skip over to the Indy 500 fizzled out. He convinced Renault, which had powered some of his later Le Mans prototypes, to back a new turbo V6 car, but when Renault abruptly pulled out of the American market in 1985, support for Wyer's program went with it. He died four years later.

I will be honest, I started writing this article with a sense of righteousness. I’d heard too many times that the early years of the GT40 with Wyer were a failure. But I knew Wyer's success in ‘68 and ‘69, the promising M1 and the victorious GR8, vindicated him. I wanted to absolve Wyer, as if he had been betrayed. He certainly got fired, and he definitely was held back by Ford when the American GT40 operation was in full swing. "Ford never gave the GT40 or the idea of a compact striking force a fair chance or enough time," Wyer told Sports Illustrated in 1970. "I believe we could have won with the car in 1965."

But the more I read from Wyer himself, in his own autobiography, the less I believed anyone had been wronged, even if I didn't feel like any conspiracy had been disproven. I saw an inner light burning in the guy. A sly look at things.

Wyer took a funny view of his own few years at Ford Advanced Vehicles, writing in his 1980 autobiography that he could never run his own racing team had it not been for what he’d learned at Ford. And he gets into everything that set him up to fail – the corporate mindset in America, one that designed by committee and pigeonholed bright minds. "[T]he British were regarded by many, perhaps not altogether without reason, as effete, opinionated and autocratic. I do not suppose I did very much to dispel this antipathy," Wyer says with a bit of humor. But he concluded, "[i]f I had formed my own company after Aston Martin it probably would have failed. After my experience with Ford it was a considerable success and for this I am grateful."

There is something sweet in this vision, or maybe just something pragmatic. To always take a lesson from what looks like defeat, to peer into those moments and find some kind of independence.

Road & Track's Deputy Editor who once got a Dakar-winning race truck stuck in a sand dune, and rolled a Baja Bug off an icy New York road, and went flying off Mount Washington in a Nissan 240SX rally car, and...

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