A sports car with one of the most famous lineages in motor racing made its 24H SERIES debut in Dubai. Of course, as Lambda Performance explains, even this wasn’t the car’s biggest talking point…
Admittedly the second entry in our ‘On The Grid with…’ series might seem a bit peculiar, given that, at time of writing, the Ford GT3 has competed in just one official CREVENTIC event to-date. We haven’t fully fallen down the rabbit hole with this one though. For one thing, the Ford GT was one of THREE cars making their 24H SERIES debuts at this year’s Hankook 24H DUBAI, ably demonstrating just how unpredictable the entry list can be.
For another, to ignore a lineage that legitimately changed the motor racing landscape as we know it – particularly when it lands on our doorstep – borders on blasphemy. Built in 1964 as a two-fingered salute to Ferrari after all, the Ford GT40 would go on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times on the bounce from 1966 to 1969, cementing a legacy so lauded, it saw the GT40 not only re-invented for 2004, but also return to – and win at – La Sarthe four decades after that breakthrough win.
2011 though is where this particular story begins, a year Lambda Performance became an official Ford tuner and acquired the rights to homologate both GT1 and GT3 versions of Ford’s new GT from previous incumbents Matech Concepts.
Ironically, despite illustrious lineage, the 2004 Ford GT was not designed with a racing program in mind. Matech owner Martin Bartek though, confident in the GT’s low slung aerodynamics and superior grunt, thought otherwise, requesting the team’s lead engineer Andreas Hainke to fashion a new aero package, re-design the rear quarters and tubular chassis to improve traction, and rip what he could from a kerb weight that almost tipped 1,550kg. From the 25 road-going chassis purchased from Ford, Matech amassed 18 GT3s in just three years, each of which was eligible for global GT3 sports car competition. Championship glory would follow in 2008, although the Swiss company’s bankruptcy in early 2011 meant the Ford GT3 program was seemingly dead in the water.
Enter Harald Georg Müller, a German entrepreneur, engineer and avid Ford GT40 enthusiast who took the partially maimed GT reins and ran with them, determined to bring the only all-American built Le Mans winner back to endurance racing prominence. It was a popular decision.
“I’ve driven basically every brand there is out there, and the Ford GT is amazing!” explains Frank Kechele, a GT PRO who’s raced with Lambda Performance since the team’s foundation. “The road car is basically a race car, in that the seat is really low and it’s very tight [in the cabin], but it’s also unique to drive. It’s not as technical as the new Audis or Mercedes, and it’s more…let’s say, ‘rough’” – a description, as Frank’s enormous grin explains, that’s meant in the nicest possible way. “The Ford gives you great feedback, the handling is really good, and it’s a car I really enjoy racing.”
Less than a year after Matech’s demise, the first-ever Lambda Ford GT / E – designed and built against the clock at the German team’s base in Wiesbaden – made its competitive debut at the 2011 ADAC GT Masters season finale at Hockenheim. Granted, much like Ford in 1964 (see sidebar below), its debut wasn’t the blistering success the team had hoped for, the GT / E notching up a 21st classified finish and a retirement from its first two races.
Nevertheless, plans were quickly put in place for further ‘test outings’ in 2012 before a full-ADAC GT Masters assault in 2013. Guided by former Ferrari F1 chassis design legend Enrique Scalabroni, the now three-year old – and renamed – Lambda-Ford GT3 EVO received significant chassis tweaks, a new AP racing monobloc braking system, overhauled electronics, brand new suspension, and a mid-mounted ‘Cammer’ Rousch Yates 5-litre V8 capable of punching 575bhp through a new Xtrac six-speed sequential gearbox. Ironically, as in Dubai five years later, outright speed wasn’t the Ford’s key strength on-track…
“The GT is really low so the aerodynamics are very strong,” Kechele continues, “Plus, it has awesome traction and really stiff in the fast corners. And that’s important, because we probably have the same straight-line speed as the Mercedes [AMG GT3].”
Aboard the heavily revised Lambda-Ford GT3 EVO in 2013, and alongside Dominik Schwager and 2018 Hankook 24H DUBAI teammate Nico Verdonck, Kechele dutifully took five pole positions, three victories and a further three podiums in 2013. A championship campaign surely beckoned for 2014, and on the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT40, no less. Until tragedy struck…
“This was a dream project of my father,” explains Andreas Müller, Harald Georg Müller’s son and his successor as Lambda Performance team manager. “Unfortunately in 2014 he grew seriously ill, so the rest of the family had to take over the day-to-day running. The plan eventually was to compete in America with a view to maybe racing at Le Mans one day. Of course, midway through that year, everything was put on ice…”
Harald Georg Müller’s tragic passing in August 2014 was mourned throughout the ADAC GT Masters paddock, and the race team he had founded, without its “racing spirit”, dissolved shortly after. Much like 2011, that should have been the end of the line for the Ford GT3 EVO, but despite lethargic interest from customer teams and sponsors alike, the phoenix rose once again.
“In 2015, we decided that, hey, my father had already bought several chassis, and we had a whole garage of stuff we could to fit together!” Andreas continues. “This was his wish, and we didn’t want to leave his vision this way. We wanted to prove something, so that year we put a lot of work into [re-fashioning] the moulds that we had to refine the bodywork and get Lambda Performance back on-track. It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of emotion, but it’s been a great motivation for the whole team.
“Up until then, we’d only competed in sprint races, and we did a few ‘test races’ in 2015” – which included a remarkable 2nd place at the 2015 ADAC GT Hockenheim, once again with Kechele and Verdonck at the wheel. “But we wanted to prove the [Ford] was capable of endurance racing too. It was important for potential customers to see that the car can survive 24 hours. And that’s when the idea for Dubai came up.”
Fast forward to the 2018 Hankook 24H DUBAI, sight of the Ford GT3 EVO’s first official 24H SERIES entry, and Lambda Performance’s first race entry in two years. The team is now overseen by Andreas and his mother Helga, and during the German team’s two-year hiatus, Ford announced, and launched, a brand new second generation Ford GT in 2016, the same year American racing powerhouse Chip Ganassi returned the Blue Oval to Le Mans for the first time since 1969.
The 2013-built Lambda-Ford GT3 EVO feasting iPhone camera lenses in the Dubai Autodrome paddock – chassis chno701 – now features CFD-designed aerodynamics made from carbon fibre, yet another overhaul of the electronics, and a new, mid-mounted 5.3-litre naturally-aspirated ‘Speiss’ V8, although power for the 1190kg bruiser was restricted to ‘just’ 510bhp in A6-Pro.
Preliminary testing of a new long-range fuel tank, plus subtle changes to the sequential gearbox and the suspension damping, was conducted during a 24-hour simulation run at Navarra, just a few months before chassis chno701’s first ever 24-hour race. The results, give or take some necessary panel beating, were largely positive, and while a full day of racing with almost 100 other cars would ultimately prove an altogether different kettle of marine life, finding customers for six of Lambda’s operational race chassis – even at €1 million a pop – was starting to become a reality. Not that this was the team’s only goal with the Lambda-Ford GT3 EVO.
“This is kind of a memorial race to [Harold], and to honour him, so it’s a very special weekend for all of us,” Frank explains. “Plus, everybody loves the car, and everyone who drives it doesn’t want to get out of it: when you get in the car, you immediately feel ‘on it’! It’s a shame the homologation runs out in 2019, but we also want to enjoy the last year and a half. It’s a pleasure to be here.”
As is often the case with motor racing, the fairytale win was not to be, brake maladies and a couple of hefty on-track clouts ultimately dropping the #8 entry to 7th in-class at the flag, 22 laps down on the leaders. Not that the result really mattered. Sure, had the five-year old Ford GT3 EVO won a prestigious 24-hour race on its competitive return, the headlines would have written themselves. But that would have missed an altogether bigger picture…
“I think my father would be proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” Andreas explains. “And who knows? Maybe one day we can add Le Mans to the list too!”
- Words – James Gent
- Images – Petr Frýba, Tom Richardson and David Benson
Andreas Müller and Frank Kechele were speaking with James Gent at the 2018 Hankook 24H DUBAI. This article also appears in the 2018 Hankook 12H IMOLA magazine, available for digital download below.
600Nm (443lb ft) @ 8000rpm
Xtrac six-speed paddle shifter
KW, Double wishbone (front and rear)
378 x 32mm (front), 355 x 32mm (rear)
BBS, 12 x 18in (front), 13 x 18in (rear)
30/65 R18 (front), 31/71 R18 (rear)
Lambda Performance (#8)
7th in-class at the Hankook 24H DUBAI
(Nico Verdonck / Jesse Krohn / Daniel Keilwitz / Csaba Walter)
2nd place overall at the ADAC GT Hockenheim after a near two-year hiatus from racing
(Nico Verdonck / Frank Kechele)
Two 1st place finishes at the ADAC GT Hockenheim
(Dominik Schwager / Frank Kechele)
First pole position and win at the ADAC GT Spa
(Nico Verdonck / Frank Kechele)
First podium at the ADAC GT Sachsenring
(Nico Verdonck / Jesse Krohn)
Spurned by Il Commendatore Enzo Ferrari reneging on a deal to sell a percentage of his eponymous racing team, Henry Ford II vowed in 1963 to make the prancing horse pay at an event it had toppled for three years on the trot, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Steel-bodied, ‘inspired’ by the aluminium bodied Lola MK6 and standing just 40in tall, the Ford GT40 debuted awash with blood, sweat and furious tears at the 1964 New York Auto Show. A powerful statement, sure, but also a bit rudimentary given the Blue Oval’s rushed ‘mission’. Such was the power from Ford’s 255 cu in (4.2-litre) V8 for example, the high performance, two-seater sportscar prototype could reach 200mph during early Le Mans tests, but such was the instability of the aero package that the GT40 threatened to go airborne above 170mph. DNFs at that year’s Nürburgring 1000km, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Reims 12 hours, plus gearbox/clutch-related issues at La Sarthe in 1965 failed to wipe the smile from Ferrari’s face, which, in the meantime, extended its Le Mans-winning streak to six.
Under the stewardship of the legendary Carroll Shelby though, Ford’s hard work would finally pay off in 1966. Now packing a Shelby Cobra-sourced 427 cu in (7.0-litre) V8, the GT40 Mk. II secured 1-2-3 finishes at both the season-opening Daytona 24 Hours and Le Mans, Ferrari’s humble pie made all the more sour by a rain-affected race that saw its highest placed 275 GTB finish 47 laps down at La Sarthe. By 1970, just one year after Ford’s GT40 production had ceased, a further three Le Mans victories and the 1968 International Championship for Makes had been added to the trophy case.
Jumping ahead to 2002, and as part of Ford’s campaign to revive some of its heritage names, the GT40 Concept – inspired by the GT90 that appeared seven years earlier – made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show after a development period assisted by none other than Carroll Shelby. Deliveries of the new renamed ‘GT’ began in August 2004, and while a racing iteration wasn’t originally on the cards, a modified GT3 would be raced in the FIA European GT3 Championship between 2007 and 2011 by Matech.
Fast forward once more to 2015 and the second generation GT – now boasting an Ecoboost 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged V6 – was launched at the 2015 North American Auto Show, Ford making no secret of its desire to return to Le Mans with its officially developed GT3. How apt that, 50 years after its defining 24-hour win, Ford would return to the very same race under the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing umbrella, and win its class. The runner-up in LMGTE Pro? Ferrari.