(This post contains SPOILERS for “Ford v Ferrari,” starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale.)
A good chunk of James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” is devoted to a diligent recreation of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and it all leads to a climax that, if you don’t know anything about it, feels almost too strange to be real.
The real life Le Mans ’66 ended with a historic finish: Ford trounced the frontrunner Ferrari as all three Ford cars crossed the finish line in a dead heat. But there’s some additional drama in the “Ford v Ferrari” portrayal. In the film’s telling, once it becomes clear Ford will win, Ford executives, including Henry Ford II, realize that having all of its cars finish at the same time would make an excellent PR stunt — so they instruct driver Ken Miles (Bale) to slow down his pace to let the other two cars catch up.
The move achieves the desired photo opp, but Miles loses the championship he deserved on a technicality. Le Mans rules hold that in the event of a dead heat finish, the car that drove the furthest distance is the official winner regardless of overall standings in the race. And since the Ford car driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon started the race eight meters (roughly 60 feet) behind Miles (who was in the pole position), Miles is declared the second place driver.
But how close does the film’s depiction of Le Mans ’66 match with the real life events? Pretty close, as it turns out. Believe it or not, “Ford v Ferrari” doesn’t really take very many dramatic liberties. That glorious photo op really happened, and Miles really did lose his first place ranking on that frustrating technicality.
It’s all spelled out in the documentary “8 Meters: Triumph, Tragedy and a Photo Finish at Le Mans,” which you can watch above. In it, you can even hear the real audio from the day of the race (around the 17:15 mark) of the announcer explaining to the crowd what had just happened. “8 Meters” shows that there was genuine confusion among the drivers as to who actually won the race. And when Miles figured out what happened, he was devastated.
“I think we’ve been f—ed,” Miles is quoted in the documentary telling his crew chief.
Carroll Shelby, who is played by Damon in “Ford v Ferrari,” also said he wished he never agreed to the dead heat.
“I felt wonderful about us winning one, two and three in ’66, but Ken Miles, we made a horrible decision in seeing the three cars come over exactly together. It was good politically for Ford, and I worked for Ford. And I’m not going to go against Henry Ford,” Shelby said.
Mangold’s film however suggests that Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) was the real villain and conspired to stage the photo finish, even though he knew it would mean Miles would lose. Throughout “Ford v Ferrari” he’s shown with a grudge against Miles and even goes over Shelby’s head with orders for the racers to drive more conservatively.
But Beebe has been fairly vilified in real life, too. In “8 Meters,” it’s explained that Beebe was frustrated that Miles, McLaren and Amon were going above the speed the team had determined. In previous races, Ford cars crashed, exploded or failed to finish, so the priority was to keep both car and driver safe. And according to the biography “Go Like Hell,” Beebe even received a handwritten note from Ford II that said, “You better win.” The stakes were high.
Of course, the race didn’t go according to plan. We see in the movie that Miles was forced to pit after just one lap because his door wouldn’t close properly. That really happened too. McLaren and Amon’s car then had tire problems, and McLaren famously shouted to Amon, “go like hell” and surpass the agreed-upon pace.
According to “8 Meters,” Ford executives did eventually learn that a dead heat would not be allowed and there could be only one winner, but that was after they gave the order for Miles to slow down. Once the mistake was realized, there was no way to communicate to Miles to speed up.
Had Miles won, he would’ve been the first driver to win the triple crown of Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in a single year. But Miles died in a car wreck just two months after Le Mans, and history had forgotten his contributions to Ford until recently. Now “Ford v Ferrari” helps to immortalize his legacy.