FORD v FERRARI: The underdog story which sparked an epic corporate battle

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When Henry Ford II decided he wanted the Ford Motor Company to enter the racing world in 1963, he knew the quickest avenue would be to simply acquire an existing sports car, so he approached Enzo Ferrari in the hopes of striking up a deal.

Ford offered $10 million for Ferrari – and just when it all seemed to be a done deal, Ferrari yanked the plug because of a clause in the contract that would give Ford full control of the Ferrari racing team, something Enzo Ferrari refused to surrender. This failed deal became the catalyst for one of fiercest corporate battles ever fought.

With a deal off the table, Ford II instead focussed the company’s funds on developing its own race car, one he hoped would wipe the floor with Ferrari’s vehicle on the world’s biggest endurance racing stage: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It’s also the premise of new film, FORD v FERRARI, which focuses primarily on two central figures in this story: car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), brought together by revenge to create one of the greatest race cars ever built. According the reviews, the duo deliver an incredible performance with plenty of on-screen chemistry.

It was a battle fuelled by little more than two enormous egos, but it did birth one of America’s best underdog stories. While developing a race car might seem like a straightforward venture to the layman, Ford didn’t just want to compete, it wanted to win, and in the 60s, developing that kind of technology was no easy feat. It’s also worth remembering that Ferrari had a decent head start in the racing world and according to Popular Mechanics, it was only selling street-legal cars to fund its racing exploits.

Shelby and Miles, two mavericks united by a passion for innovation, along with a team of engineers, overcome incredible odds to achieve something extraordinary: the Ford GT40. Considered an absolute legend of motorsport, the car was the result of countless hours of research, development and critical testing. In fact, it took Ford several iterations before it actually came out on top at Le Mans.

In both the 1964 and 1965 Le Mans, the GT40 was fast but plagued with problems, particularly when it came to braking. After implementing a quick-change brake system to overcome this, it gave Ford the pit-stop advantage they needed to get ahead of the other teams, allowing them to take out the winning position at Le Mans in 1966. According to A.J. Baime, the author of Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, Shelby told him that Ford had “won [Le Mans] on brakes”.

Ferrari certainly wasn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, either, with one trailer for FORD v FERRARI revealing that the battle between companies even devolved into childish name-calling at times. “[Mr Ferrari] said Ford makes ugly little cars in ugly factories. And he called you fat, sir,” one line spoken to Ford II – played by Homeland and The Big Short actor Tracy Letts – says.

And while a corporate battle of egos ensued between two companies, another was waged within Ford’s own boundaries. The way in which Shelby and Miles tackled this monumental challenges went against many of the corporate principles held at the time, creating even more barriers to success, an aspect of the real-life story explored in the new film.

“This movie is about characters striving for excellence, trying to push against the onset of corporate market-tested group-think,” Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Mangold said. Business Insider writer Kirsten Acuna even says the director “delivers an Oscar-worthy film”.

“It’s an essential struggle in the 21st century in our country, the risk-taking and daring and leaps of instinct that were required to invent a lot of the things that define our country are things that we’re almost too frightened to do anymore.”

The results of victory for the greater Ford company were seemingly worth the effort, as it managed to shake the “fuddy-duddy” image it once had, twisting its racing efforts into something of a marketing campaign, particularly when it came to the computer-driven testing used throughout the GT40 engineering process, Popular Mechanics said. Something considered incredibly cutting edge for its time.

Overall, it’s estimated that Ford spent more than $25 million to secure its Le Mans victory, but when the subsequent benefits of the win are factored in, it looks like a worthy expense.

FORD v FERRARI is set to be an incredibly authentic telling of the battle between the two companies, opting mostly for real cars throughout the production process. According to Mangold, of the thousands of shots in the movie, only around 2 include a digitally created car. Alongside Damon and Bale, the film also stars Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, JJ Feild, Noah Jupe, and more.

The story of this epic underdog battle and the friendship between Shelby and Miles can be seen in FORD v FERRARI, which hits cinemas on the 14th of November.

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