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Chasing History: The New Ford GT Goes Racing

Ford hopes the new GT matches the racetrack exploits of its illustrious namesake.

As he stands on the grid at Daytona International Speedway between a pair of red-white-and-blue Ford GTs glinting in the sunlight, Dave Pericak looks like a freshly minted father about to hold his newborn infant for the first time: proud, excited, and just a little bit apprehensive.

With closely cropped hair and an immaculate corporate uniform, Pericak is the meticulous engineer who heads Ford Performance, responsible for everything from bolt-on go-fast parts to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series program. But at the moment, the biggest items on his plate are the GTs, which will make their race debut when the Rolex 24 starts in less than an hour.

“This has been a long time coming,” he says, a sea of calm among the jostling crush of fans milling around the cars. “There were a lot of long days, long nights, weekends, holidays, a lot of sacrifices. It’s as close as a man can come to having a baby.”

Ford GT 06
Ford performance boss Dave Pericak saw another step of his dream unfold, as throngs of fans came out to see the new GT make its public competition debut in one of the world’s top sports car races.

The Ford GT is, by many measures, the most ambitious car Ford Motor Company has ever built. By the end of this year, a limited-edition, 600-plus-horsepower supercar will go on sale with an anticipated price tag around $400,000. But the car is also designed to compete in the brutal jungle of GT racing, and its avowed goal is to return to Le Mans in June and win the world’s most important sports car race its first time out.

Dirk Müller, one of the six men who will drive the pair of Ford GTs at Daytona, walks over and envelops Pericak in a bro-hug. “You ready?” Pericak asks him. “Can’t wait,” Müller says. Pericak grins. “This is history in the making.”

Ford GT 07

Fifty years ago this June, the original Ford GTs scored an epic 1-2-3 finish at the Circuit de la Sarthe in France. The next year, an even faster car driven by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt won again. The GT40 would also claim victories at Le Mans in 1968 and 1969, though the cars were run as privateers rather than factory Ford entries. To this day, this string of success marks the apogee of American participation in international road racing.

“It’s all about relevance. What we learn and develop on the GT will ultimately make it back into normal production cars. For us, this class is more appropriate.” — Dave Pericak

Realizing there was nowhere to go but down, Ford ignored Le Mans for nearly half a century. And when company honchos decided to return, they chose to compete for class wins in the GT category instead of fighting for overall victories against the exotic prototypes from Porsche, Audi, and Toyota—cars so technologically advanced and with budgets so stratospheric, they seem to have more in common with space programs than road cars.

But competing in the top-of-the-line GT class isn’t going to be a cakewalk. Elsewhere on the grid at Daytona are cars backed by Chevrolet, Porsche, Ferrari, and BMW—natural rivals for Ford’s new supercar. “It’s all about relevance,” Pericak says. “What we learn and develop on the GT will ultimately make it back into normal production cars. For us, this class is more appropriate.”

Ford’s imperious chieftain, Henry Ford II, was royally peeved, and he ordered his lieutenants “to whip Ferrari’s ass.”

Although Ford developed the GT on an accelerated basis, the test program revealed no major problems other than usual teething issues. But racing is a harsh mistress, and a 24-hour enduro is the evil spawn of the Marquis de Sade and the Wicked Witch of the West—especially when it’s your coming-out party.

Ford GT 04
Team boss Chip Ganassi, left, and Ford product development czar Raj Nair know that challenges often portend racing success.

A mere nine laps into a race that will last more than 700, Ryan Briscoe pits in the No. 67 car with his transmission locked in sixth gear. By the time a shift actuator valve is replaced, he’s lost 17 laps and is out of contention. Next, Joey Hand—who’d actually led a few laps—loses power in No. 66 for no apparent reason. Recycling the electronics solves the problem. But he’s delayed in the pits when a brake line is knocked loose during a tire change.

“The car’s function is to win Le Mans. So our aerodynamic targets and functional goals drove the design … suspension choices, the size of the cockpit, and the engine choice were driven by the aero.” — Raj Nair

The gremlins keep coming. Three hours into the race, Hand’s gearbox sticks in first. Back to the garage to replace another actuator valve. A rear tire on the second car goes down and disintegrates. The flailing rubber damages the diffuser—but nobody realizes it at the time. So when the car returns to the track, the dislodged diffuser cuts down a second tire.

Ford GT 12
Problems aside, the two factory-backed GTs were on the pace when they weren’t in the garage for repairs.

“It’s always the flukey stuff, isn’t it?” says Chris Baker, director of motorsports for Michelin North America, commiserating with team owner Chip Ganassi. Ganassi just rolls his eyes. There are still 19 hours to go.

In 1963, Enzo Ferrari invited and then cavalierly rejected Ford’s offer to buy his company. Ford’s imperious chieftain, Henry Ford II, was royally peeved, and he ordered his lieutenants “to whip Ferrari’s ass.” The original Ford GT was the product of the Deuce’s command. After losing badly in 1964 and 1965, the car did indeed whip Ferrari’s ass. Twice.

Bill Ford, the Deuce’s nephew, watched on closed-circuit TV as the GT won Le Mans in 1966. He was 9 years old, and a lifelong infatuation with the car was born. As an adult and Ford’s chief executive officer, he was a prime mover behind the creation of the modern but retro-styled Ford GT road car. After production ended in 2006, he lobbied for yet another Ford GT. Every year, the idea ran up the flagpole, and every year, the costs were deemed too high to justify the project. But come 2013, Ford and the larger economy had rebounded from the recession, and engineering advances created new opportunities.

Ford GT 02

“We’d been working on low-volume prototype tooling and rapid prototyping,” says Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technology officer. “So we could make very high-quality parts at very low investment.”

Nair put together a proposal to build 250 supercars a year. “I green-lighted the project the second I saw the concept,” Ford says. “But Raj was the one who said, ‘I really think we ought to race it also.’ ”

There’s a long history of road cars being developed into race cars. And some race cars have been transformed into road cars, usually with less than satisfactory results. But the Ford GT, version 3.0, is an example of a road car and race car being created in tandem. Imagine designers working with crash-test regulations and EPA fuel-economy tables in one hand and the FIA GT rulebook and lift-to-drag coefficients in the other, and you’ll have the general idea.

Ford GT 14

The car, code-named Phoenix, was designed by a nimble cadre of stylists and engineers in a top-secret room at the end of a long, dingy corridor in the basement of Ford’s Product Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Meetings with outsiders were held after hours, and the doors could be opened only with one of a dozen or so metal keys; installing an electronic card reader would have alerted passers-by that the former storeroom no longer housed foam scraps and other junk. From the beginning, the team agreed to build the tub and body panels out of carbon fiber. A family resemblance to the original Ford GT was high on the wish list, but not if it compromised performance.

The engine is a race version of the 3.5-liter, twin-turbo, direct-injection EcoBoost V-6 found in the F-150 and  Taurus SHO.

“The car’s function is to win Le Mans,” Nair says. “So our aerodynamic targets and functional goals drove the design. The fact that it came out beautiful is fantastic, and the team did a great job. But the suspension choices, the size of the cockpit, and then the engine choice were driven by the aero.”

Ford GT 13
Ford has assembled what it believes is a premier lineup of team members, from drivers to engineers to racing-program bosses.

The engine is a race version of the 3.5-liter, twin-turbo, direct-injection EcoBoost V-6 found in the F-150 and Taurus SHO. Built by Roush Yates Engines, the stock-block motor debuted in IMSA’s Daytona Prototype class in 2014, and it powered a Ford Chip Ganassi Racing DP to victory at Daytona last year. The V-6’s compact dimensions permitted the design of a seemingly shrink-wrapped, wasp-waisted fuselage as well as flying buttresses—the car’s signature styling element—that generate downforce while channeling air to the intercoolers.

“My car got better and better as the track rubbered in. After my last stint, my comment was, ‘This is the best the car has ever driven.’ ” — Joe Hand

Two critical outside vendors were brought in early on. Ganassi was hired to race two cars in the IMSA Weather­Tech SportsCar Championship and two more in the FIA World Endurance Championship. (Le Mans’ organizers have invited all four cars to their race.) Multimatic, a Canadian company that scored a class win at Le Mans in 2000 and that supplies front suspensions for Ford F-150s, was entrusted with developing the race car and building the street car.

Ford GT 09

In January 2015, 14 months after the project commenced, the Ford GT was unveiled to a stunned audience at the Detroit auto show. The following May, longtime Multimatic driver Scott Maxwell shook down the first race car development chassis at Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa. “Scotty could tell right away that this was a good birth,” said Larry Holt, Multi­matic’s vice president of engineering.

“I’m glad it broke. Otherwise, we never would have learned about the yellow-flag mapping problem. At this point, we’ve turned the race into a 24-hour test.” — Larry Holt

The first two race car chassis were delivered to Ganassi’s shop in Indianap­olis in mid-December and were assembled into race cars during a thrash that continued through the holidays, including Christmas Day. Neither of them had turned a wheel before arriving at Daytona for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test in early January, yet they ran perfectly for three days.

Ford GT 15

Practicing and racing, however, are two entirely different propositions.

Dawn usually raises spirits at the Rolex 24. But after a solid run through the night, first light brings more headaches for the Ganassi boys. The gearbox in No. 67 fails when a dog ring breaks—this seems to be related to unexpectedly long caution periods—and has to be replaced.

“I’m glad it broke,” Holt says after the car returns to the track. “Otherwise, we never would have learned about the yellow-flag mapping problem. At this point, we’ve turned the race into a 24-hour test.”

To add insult to injury, the alternator dies shortly after a new gearbox is installed, necessitating yet another trip to the garage. But after that, both cars circulate swiftly and solidly to the finish, 32 and 162 laps behind the class-winning Corvettes, and everybody in the Ford camp smiles—wearily—when the checkered flag falls. The good news is that, while they were on the track, the Ford GTs were on the pace, good on fuel, light on tires, well balanced and easy to drive.

My car got better and better as the track rubbered in,” Hand says. “After my last stint, my comment was, ‘This is the best the car has ever driven.’ ” So the internal takeaway is generally upbeat. “The testing went so well that we were kind of surprised by what happened,” Nair admits. “But we’d rather have a fast car with reliability issues than a slow car that’s reliable.”

The team has five races—three in the United States and two in Europe—before Le Mans to get the cars dialed in. After that, no more mulligans, and that’s fine with the GT team.

“Yeah, the first year is always tough,” Bill Ford says. “But we’re not doing this to practice. We’re doing it to win.”

Road Vs. Race

Ford GT 01

Production of the Ford GT road car is slated to begin in October in a new facility near Multimatic’s Markham, Ontario, headquarters. In total, 250 units will be built annually, with deliveries starting early next year. The first cars will go to buyers who can not only afford the anticipated $400,000 price tag but who can also demonstrate their abiding passion for the Blue Oval through an online application. Ford likes to say that the race car is as close to a “no-waiver” model as you can get, meaning very few special allowances are made for motorsports. But the street car will have some significant differences from the race car:

  • Two seats instead of one. But leave the golf bag at home.
  • Active aero through a movable rear wing, which is illegal in racing.
  • Driver-adjustable spring rates, another no-no on the track.
  • A seven-speed dual-clutch Getrag gearbox instead of a six-speed, Ricardo-based sequential with dog rings.
  • Twin exhausts running through the body and out the rear instead of the sides, which should improve the engine’s sound.
  • Although the ram air intake will be deleted, the street car will get a Roush-built, next-gen version of the EcoBoost expected to make 600 horsepower, close to 100 more than the race car.

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