While Ford makes its highly anticipated factory return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, five years ago, a husband-and-wife team, running with a fraction of the manufacturer budgets, took their own self-built Ford GT to an unthinkable podium finish in the world’s greatest endurance race.
It stands as the most recent outing for a Ford or Ford-powered car in the race, prior to this year’s four-car Chip Ganassi Racing effort.
The story of Robertson Racing began in 2008 when commercial airline pilot David and Andrea Robertson, an airline dispatcher and private pilot, etched out plans to take the Ford GT racing in the American Le Mans Series.
It was a bold endeavor at the time, with the car, initially built by Doran Racing, struggling in the highly competitive GT2 category in the ALMS.
The Robertson’s small Georgia-based team, led by Andrew “H” Smith and lead engineer Lee Penn, took it upon themselves to carry out extensive development work, without the support or backing of Ford, in what turned into one of the true privateer efforts of its time.
The team made the trek to Le Mans in 2011, in what was initially meant to be a two-car effort, with Colin Braun, Boris Said and Anthony Lazzaro tabbed to drive its Michelin-shod GTE-Pro car, but was not granted a race entry and remained on the reserve list.
It left David, Andrea and longtime co-driver David Murry to pilot the team’s solo No. 68 entry, in the new-for-2011 GTE-Am category, which saw a stacked 10-car grid. The trio rolled off from 2nd to last on the grid but made progress in the race.
“We ran a pretty clean race and gradually moved up, benefiting from some misfortunes of others,” David Robertson told Sportscar365. “We did have our own little issues. One of us ran over some carbon fiber off a prototype, lost a tire, and had to drive the whole track at 1/3rd speed.
“Then we lost some laps later with a paddle shift failure but we did something other teams didn’t do. We left in all of the linkages for the sequential shifter. So we had the problem, limped around, came in, disconnected it and got all the stuff for sequential in and away we went. We were back out pretty damn quick.
“That was probably one of the best forth-sights of our crew, in doing it that way. That was a key thing in making the podium. The Ferrari we got by late in the race was having the same kind of problems but they didn’t have a quick, easy solution like we did.”
Despite the few hiccups, the Robertson’s and Murry claimed a surprise third place class finish, in what was the highlight of their racing careers.
“To be on the podium at Le Mans on your wedding anniversary with a husband-and-wife team… how do you top that?” David said. “It was absolutely special. We were lucky.”
It turned out to be their one-and-only Le Mans race appearance.
“I would have loved to have gone back and be able to be flat out and not be so conservative and just trying to finish,” David said.
“I looked at the costs and on the way home decided that it was time to wind this down. Even the result at Le Mans and [the fact that] a lot of people care about the car, it didn’t lead to any kind of sponsorship.
“As I told people at the time, you could only spend 40 times what you make in a year, for a finite period of time, before you need to stop. So we started winding it down.”
The team completed the remainder of the ALMS season, with moderate success, before the Robertson’s shifted their focus to historic racing the following year, and still to this day enjoy racing their Ford GTs.
“We love the cars too much to sell them or park them,” David said. “So we’ll keep driving them and having fun as long as we can keep climbing in. But we can’t afford to get back to that level.”
Taking the story full circle, David, Andrea and their longtime team leader “H” are set to return to Le Mans this month, along with their 2011 GTE-Am podium-finishing Ford GT.
The car will be on display in a Ford GT corral at the track and will also take part in a parade lap on race day morning, with Andrea at the wheel, prior to a run at the Goodwood Festival of Speed the following week.
For David, seeing Ford’s factory return and level of commitment excites the now-61-year old retired pilot, especially knowing they too have played a small part in the Ford GT’s success story at Le Mans.
“We certainly would like to see a good result,” David said. “We know some of the people involved and genuinely like them. People like Joey Hand were very, very nice to us when we were [at Le Mans in 2011].
“We felt some happiness for the car itself and the people that designed it and got it out there. It was a pretty adventurous thing for Ford to to [in 2005, with the previous-generation model]. When you looked at the economics of how they decided to do it, it was a crapshoot.
“I really respected them for doing it and making something beautiful. And they made something that kept a lot of design cues from the predecessor, so you sensed a line of continuity.
“I liked what they did and I like what they’re doing again.”