Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the Ford Motor Company’s attempt to become a racing powerhouse by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966. Matt Damon plays automobile designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale plays race car driver Ken Miles, both of whom were enlisted by Ford to design and race the car capable of beating the unbeatable Ferrari. But just how close to reality is the movie version of the story?
As with most “based on a true story” movies, the basic plot is accurate, but a few details have been altered, time has dilated and a couple things have been entirely invented or omitted in order to make the story work better as a movie. In that regard, Ford v Ferrari works pretty well, but here is the real story.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s Characters Are Close To Reality
At the core of Ford v Ferrari are the two main characters. Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver-turned-car designer, who helped develop the GT40 which would go on to complete against Ferrari at the end of the movie. As far as the facts of Caroll Shelby’s life go, the movie gets them pretty right. Shelby was a former winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race who was forced to retire from racing due to a heart problem. From there, he transitioned into becoming an automobile designer.
Ken Miles fought in World War II before coming home and focusing on racing. He was both a colleague and friend of Caroll Shelby. While Miles was a great driver, he also had a particular talent as a designer, specifically as it pertained to being able to drive a car and then give detailed notes about where the vehicle was exhibiting problems, something we see Christian Bale’s character doing multiple times during the design of the GT40. It seems Miles was also somewhat difficult for many at Ford to work with, which becomes one of the core conflicts of the movie.
The Ford/Ferrari Rivalry Was Just As Petty As It Appears
In Ford v Ferrari, we see that the rivalry between the two companies came from a couple of owners who just got angry with each other. The head of Ferrari kills a multi-million dollar merger to avoid losing control of his racing team, and the head of Ford decides to beat Ferrari at its own game for insulting him by killing the merger. Surprisingly, that’s basically what happened.
The movie implies that Ford suggested the merger first, though it seems Ford heard that Ferrari was the one interested in being purchased. The actual deal took years to iron out, which is, of course, sped up in the movie, but that’s part of why Ford was so frustrated when Ferrari backed out. Also, while Fiat did eventually buy Ferrari instead, that happened years later. As in a couple years after the events of the movie are over, not immediately, as the film suggests.
Ford Actually Got Into Racing Earlier
The movie implies that Ford was only involved in NASCAR racing prior to Lee Iaccoca’s suggestion that they compete on the world stage. This isn’t actually true. The Ford/Ferrari deal collapsed in May of 1963, but in January of the same year, Ford had already introduced the Lola Mk6 GT, a new car design that was being groomed to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The car did race, but it didn’t do very well. The engine of the Mk6 GT was the starting point from which the GT40, the car we see in Ford v Ferrari, was designed. Even that was done before Carroll Shelby, Matt Damon’s character in Ford v Ferrari, ever got involved. It was only after the GT40’s failures that Shelby was brought in to try and improve it, which he did.
Ford’s First Win Wasn’t That Dramatic
Before we get to the big race in Ford v Ferrari, Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s characters see their first big win at Daytona. While this was the first win for the GT40, the movie makes it look like Bale’s Ken Miles just barely took the win, after being intentionally held back until Miles just quit listening. The truth is far less dramatic
The car being driven by Ken Miles and his co-driver Lloyd Ruby won the race by five laps, so there was no dive to the finish. Also, Ken Miles wasn’t even the one driving at the end; Ruby was. While Ford v Ferrari doesn’t dwell on it, these 24 hour races are shared by multiple drivers, so there’s a pair of people who win or lose together.
Shelby And Miles Lost At Le Mans Before They Won
It’s implied in Ford v Ferrari that following the big win at Daytona, the team went straight to the goal, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and won. That’s not the case. The Daytona race took place in February of 1965 and the big win at Le Mans happened in June of 1966. There were other races in between, including, most importantly, the 1965 Le Mans race, which Ken Miles raced in and did not finish.
In Ford v Ferrari, Christian Bale’s character is left home during an earlier Le Mans race where all the GT40’s fail to finish, much like what actually happened. The only difference is that Miles didn’t stay home, he was in the race and he lost.
The Photo Finish at Le Mans Was A Little Different
One of the most controversial moments in racing takes place at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, and as wild as the intentional photo finish is, it really did happen. Ken Miles was laps ahead of his competition and intentionally slowed down so that the Ford cars could all cross the line together. However, in doing so, Christian Bale’s character doesn’t tie for the lead, but in, fact, comes in second, due to an obscure rule.
All of that really happened. The movie shows a three-way photo finish, but in actuality, only two cars crossed the line together, with the third Ford car close behind. The reason for the photo finish in Ford v Ferrari is explained to be a publicity stunt, and it was that. But Leo Beebe, the man who orchestrated it, and is set in the movie as Ken Miles’ main antagonist, always argued it was also done to make sure the cars didn’t break down or crash as the drivers attempted to race each other to the finish, as that would have deprived Ford of the win entirely.
There’s a lot of different, and some conflicting information about the end of the race, so it’s hard to know exactly what happened.
A lot of the details of Ford v Ferrari and the characters played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale are accurate to history. As a final note, Christian Bale’s Ken Miles really did die in a crash only two months after the 1966 race. It was certainly a tragic end to an otherwise heroic story.