If you're a sports car racing aficionado, you know that Ford is returning to Le Mans this summer, competing with a modern incarnation of its famed GT40, a race car that first won the iconic 24-hour endurance race in 1966, then again in '67, '68, and '69. The big comeback was formally announced in June of last year, and enthusiasts have been buzzing about it ever since.
But your average driver probably doesn't know that Ford is getting back into the prestigious race, which has been held every year since 1923 just outside Le Mans, France, or even understand the significance of Ford's wins back in the '60s. To this day, Ford is the only American manufacturer to top the pack at Le Mans. Now the brand is launching a new doc series The Return, to tell the story of the GT40's epic victories, and the preparation behind this year's factory-sponsored return to Le Mans.
"With this documentary and the GT program overall, we really intended to speak to a new audience," says Henry Ford III, global Ford performance marketing manager. "To be honest, if we don't bring new people to this story and engage with them, then we haven't really accomplished anything because we're just speaking to the same people that we always speak to."
Created by Ford's agency Team Detroit and directed by Erich Joiner, the series is made up of five short episodes—easily digestible content was a must, according to Ford—rolling out every few weeks leading up to the race on June 15. A longer-form documentary aimed at those interested in a deeper dive into the subject will be released later this year, incorporating footage from this June's race and the aftermath of the outcome.
The first episode of The Return, released on March 17, presents the necessary backstory, explaining what drove Henry Ford II to get into the race in the '60s—it was a grudge!—when no one in the racing world thought an American manufacturer like Ford had even the glimmer of a chance of winning against dominant European brands like Ferrari.
We also learn why the company's current executive team was motivated to get back on Le Mans' famed Circuit de la Sarthe track to mark the 50th anniversary of that first historic win in '66. "Oh, sure it's a big risk, but not when you add in reputation, halo effect, and the morale boost it gives anyone who loves the Ford brand," Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, says in the video. Notably, he adds, "This car will—in the scheme of our earnings—not make much difference. But in the reputation of the Ford Motor Company, which is something I care deeply about, this car will be huge."
The automaker will indeed enjoy big-time bragging rights if it can pull off a win at Le Mans this year. In the meantime, Ford is using the story of the creation of the new GT for Le Mans to promote its drive to bring new technology to market—that's actually the focus of the second episode.
"It's really a way for us to showcase what we're capable of doing," Ford says of the making of the race car, noting that the designers and engineers who worked on the new GT pushed the limits in everything from aerodynamics to fuel efficiency. "Customers who will never drive the GT will still benefit from a lot of the learnings that went into that car."
The ambitious project also provides a way for Ford to celebrate its heritage. "We try to do that every so often because one of the great things about Ford is that we do have that longstanding history and legacy. It means a lot not only to my family, but to the larger Ford family, the employees, our dealers, and suppliers," says Ford, who is company founder Henry Ford's great grandson.
That said, the brand knows it can't live in the past when it comes to its global performance marketing effort. A balance has to be struck. "While everyone at the company is really proud of our heritage and our history, and we love to talk about it, we recognize at the same time that many customers are more forward-looking, or at least present-day looking, so we have to send multiple messages to multiple customers," Ford says, touching again on the company's mission to inform consumers about its achievements in two key areas—innovation and technology. "Those are ultimately the drivers that affect the decision to make a purchase."
Back to the race, Ford will attend Le Mans, of course, with his father Edsel Ford, a member of Ford's board of directors, as well his mother and brothers. "My dad was there with his dad [Henry Ford II] when we won in '66 and he hasn't been back since," Ford says. "So it'll be a lot of fun to see him relive a lot of what he was enjoying back when he was a teenager."