New Amazon Prime documentary follows the race car from design to pole position.
Dearborn, Michigan – We all know that Ford’s return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a huge success last year, with Ford GT race cars coming first, third, and fourth place in the GTE Pro class. But the journey from deciding to race in Le Mans to crossing the finishing line was far from straightforward. A new documentary launching today, “The Return,” tells the entire story with first-person interviews of everyone from designers and engineers to the racing drivers themselves.
The documentary starts at the very beginning with Ford’s history in racing, as well as the entire origin story of why Ford went to Le Mans in the 1960s. After a failed merger with Ferrari, Ford wanted to beat the Italians on European soil. In 1966, Ford triumphed, with GTs coming 1-2-3 at the 24-hour race.
Fast forward nearly five decades, and Ford decided to return to Le Mans to repeat that performance for the victory’s 50th anniversary. The rest is now history: A skunkworks team hid out in a basement to develop both a road-going Ford GT and the racing model at the same time; in 2016, four GTs went to Le Mans and, once again, beat Ferrari (a Ferrari race car came second in the GTE Pro class).
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. Filmmaker Erich Joiner's "The Return" pulls no punches in telling the story, showing the team’s many low points and struggles along the way. At a screening of the film for Ford employees and the media, he said he wanted to show the real story behind the GT’s path to victory.
“I didn’t want to make a film that was just another ‘rah rah’ kind of racing adrenaline piece. I wanted to get to the heart and the soul of the team and the company,” he said.
Having followed the process so closely, Joiner had a monumental task ahead of him when he sat down to edit the film. He said that between interviews, race video, and more, he had more than 1,000 hours of footage.
“I walked away with those interviews, I got on the plane, and I said, ‘OK, I have a great film here,’” Joiner said. “To tell that story succinctly in the way that I wanted to do it, it was just grueling … But I knew I had a great story.”
Joiner documents the process without any narration, but rather entirely with interviews with everyone involved in the process, including Ford North America president Raj Nair, Ford Performance global director Dave Pericak, Multimatic Motorsports technical director Larry Holt, and even racing drivers and mechanics who had a hand in getting the cars to victory. There’s close-up footage of the design and prototyping stage of the first Ford GT racers, the earliest track tests at Calabogie Motorsports Park, and even internal meetings evaluating and debating the car’s performance.
There was, of course, plenty of hardship we didn’t see in the film. After the screening, Nair recalled just how tense things became with Ford executives after the GT struggled with technical issues and crashes in early races.
“That first race [the 24 Hours of Daytona] was bad, I mean the car was fast and it looked great but it just wasn’t reliable. We were embarrassed,” he said.
“When we had troubles in Daytona and we had not the best race in Sebring, there were questions,” Nair continued. “You know what though, the company was always behind us, and certainly the 12th floor [the executives] was always behind us.”
Still, the team overcame those early struggles and met its goal of winning in France. So, where does that leave Ford Performance for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans test? With even more pressure to succeed.
“No one expected us to win last year,” Pericak said. “But this year I think everyone’s saying, ‘Well, are you going to do it again?’ And there’s a high expectation by everyone, and that’s our expectation as well.”
A lovingly shot and edited documentary, “The Return” is a great watch for anyone interested in seeing the nitty-gritty process of developing a new race car from scratch and entering it in world-class competition on a short timeline.