Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsFeatures
A Small American Team Succeeded at Le Mans in a Privately Owned Ford GT Super Car
Ford’s planned return to Le Mans with a machine bearing the GT badge evokes grainy black and white imagery of skinny-tied Ford execs huddled in intense conversation while men in grease-stained overalls tend to the Blue Oval’s latest creation spawned for world racing domination.
Amid the media hype over Ford’s Le Mans encore and nostalgia for 1960s glory, one chapter of GTs racing success at the Circuit de la Sarthe is often overlooked: 2011. That’s when Robertson Racing, a determined group of American privateers, drove a car that they practically built and developed themselves in the biggest and toughest auto race in the world. The “firsts” weren’t limited to the rookie team, as Andrea and David Robertson were the first married couple to share a car in the race’s 88-year history! They didn’t just drive their Ford GT in the race—they finished the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans in Third Place in the GTE-Am class. It was a historic feat not only for the Robertsons and co-driver David Murry but for the race itself too. 1931 marked the last time a woman stood on the podium at the 24-hour endurance classic.
The monumental accomplishment for this Georgia-based team came via sheer grit, perseverance, and ingenuity—traits shared by the team and its machine. The basis for Robertson Racing’s endurance racer is 2005-2006 Ford’s GT supercar. While Dearborn’s centennial flagship gained legendary status on the planet’s roads, dynamometers, and airstrips, the mid-engine GT never became competitive force in wheel-to-wheel racing.
Instead, the push for a modern road-racing Ford GT came from the car’s fans. One man who knows the Robertson Racing GT inside and out is Andrew Smith, known to his friends simply as “H.” He filled us in on the history and details of these fantastic machines.
“After driving a different car for a couple races in 2007, Dave and Andrea Robertson heard of a new Ford GT race car from Oliver Kuttner and Kevin Doran, and felt it would fit their needs for the 2008 racing season,” says Smith.
Being American drivers with an American team, they liked the idea that the GT was an American car. Smith went to Doran’s shop to help finish the car in January 2008, and it was delivered to the track just a few days before the 12 Hours of Sebring race.
“That was a big challenge,” recalls Smith. “Not a single wheel had turned, there were very few spares, and none of our mechanics have ever seen the car.” And they were supposed to race the car for 12 hours on one of the world’s most grueling circuits!
“Developing a new car at the track with a small but dedicated team was always going to be tough, but we were up to the challenge. We were making our own destiny without factory support, which made things somewhat difficult, but it gave us a free hand to try many different things without any corporate red tape.”
Over the next four years, Smith’s team refined the car into a Le Mans podium finisher. While the lack of financial backing of a manufacturer made things difficult, it also meant no one was second-guessing their changes or decisions.
Smith recalls the team’s path to Le Mans. “It was Dave Robertson’s dream to race at Le Mans. We knew we had a strong reliable car, so the main challenge was dealing with the nerves and fatigue of the drivers. It’s a tall order for the fittest and youngest of them.”
The Robertsons weren’t always destined to race cars. David Robertson explains, “Being a retired professional pilot, I considered racing airplanes. But part of racing is crashing. If you make a mistake racing an airplane, it can cost you your life. If you make a mistake racing car, it only costs you some money . . . usually.”
Smith is quick to credit Andrea and David Robertson for their leadership and steadfast support. “They are the nicest unassuming and generous people you will ever meet. Andrea is a determined firecracker of a grandma, and Dave is one of the smartest people I know.”
Now for the details of the car. Elan Power Products built the 5.0L endurance engine from an aluminum “cammer” block, Ford GT heads, and custom-built internals. Sucking through two mandatory air restrictors “the size of a quarter,” the mill thumped out 507 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque on the dyno. The engine revs to 7,500 rpm, with a shift point at 6,800 rpm.
The modular motor sends power to the rear BBS wheels and Michelin tires through a Emco six-speed sequential transmission with a Shiftech paddle system. All four corners of the suspension feature brilliantly machined unequal-length 7075 billet aluminum wishbones and uprights, Eibach springs, and Ohlins dampers.
When it’s time to brake for Mulsanne corner, Brembo six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers squeeze steel rotors. SE Composites made all the external parts of the car (except the roof). The car weighs about 2,500 pounds, so 245 pounds of ballast is added to meet the 2,745-pound minimum weight. Fittingly for a “GT40,” the car is 42 1/2 inches tall.
One aspect of the car—the electronic controls—is the domain of Ed Senf. One of his biggest challenges is making the paddle shift system work seamlessly. “If paddle shift torque cut and reinstatement isn't perfect, you can break the gearbox, or even the engine,” says Senf.
Electronic traction control is allowed, which employs a sophisticated strategy. Senf says, “Traction control has to be adjusted for every track and needs to be seamless and transparent, giving the driver the feeling that the car is simply able to put the power down perfectly at every corner exit. Most of my time at the track is spent pouring over data to find problems before any driver or crew member is aware of anything.”
Of all the accomplishments of the team, Smith is most pleased with, “the presentation of the whole operation: the cars, the people, the equipment, and the determination to always try to fix the car and finish the race, however far back we are. At Le Mans we succeeded where many thought we would fail. We proved them wrong. Le Mans was our greatest achievement.”
When recalling the Ford GTs history at Le Mans, enthusiasts might skip ahead from the 1960s to today without acknowledging that in 2011 a determined team from Georgia carved out some history of their own.