What a difference a day-and 2890 miles-makes. After the first hour at this year's Le Mans 24 Hours, it looked as if Ford's expensive return to the world's most famous endurance race, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the brand's first overall victory, was set to unravel in dramatic fashion in front of 263,500 fans.
Before the race even began, the #67 GT had been pushed off the grid and back to its garage with a gearbox fault. It was eventually fixed but with a delay that took it out of contention for class honors. Torrential rain meant the race began behind a trio of safety cars, and when these were eventually called in 52 minutes later, the remaining three Fords looked to be off the pace.
It took just four minutes for the #66 GT that was running second in class to be passed by the #51 Ferrari 458. The leading GT, #68, soon proved equally powerless to keep the Ferrari at bay, and before long both they and the Ferraris were overwhelmed by the flying Porsche Motorsport 911 RSRs, which proved to be particularly happy in the damp conditions.
The grins that had been worn by the senior executives in Ford's corporate hospitality unit faded. Although this is Ford's first year in the World Endurance Championship, we were in no doubt that Le Mans was the primary target. "It's optimized not just for the class but for here; it was designed for this track," Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer, told us before the race began, also admitting that it would have made more sense for the GT to make its debut a year earlier, to gain experience for the bid to win on the 50th anniversary of the GT40's first victory. "To be honest, we had some false starts. We had a window there that could have allowed us to run in '15, put the car out, and then really make the run in 2016 for the 50th anniversary. But we didn't get the program approved in time."