Whoa: We Drive Ford’s GT Le Mans Race Car and Mustang GT4 Racer!

An experience to remember at Virginia International Raceway.

ALTON, Virginia—Virginia International Raceway is located in the south of the state, a stone's throw away from the North Carolina border. I first competed here in 2003 driving a Daytona Prototype; my co-driver Terry Borcheller and I qualified on pole and managed to pull off a win. As a result and not surprisingly, VIR has been one of my favorite tracks ever since.

This place is old school: it's narrow, with a few technical sections and blind crests, and is generally very fast. In other words, it is not a place you want to make mistakes. And on this day, I definitely did not want to anything to go wrong: I was lucky to be one of a small group of journalists from the U.S. and Europe who Ford invited here to test both its Mustang GT4 and GT Le Mans race cars.

The U.S. media representatives had previously raced or tested at VIR, but none of the European guys had seen the place. To help everyone out, we spent the previous day in Charlotte, N.C., driving the cars on VIR using an immersive simulator at the Ford Performance tech center. For people with no experience of the track, this was a huge help in at least learning the circuit layout, even though Ford had insisted all media attending this event possess a racing license, pro or amateur.

I've been in professional motorsports for more than 30 years, so you might think I could be a little blasé about driving another couple of race cars for a few laps. But actually . . . heck no! I was not lucky enough to drive karts or race cars while growing up. I didn't actually participate in my first car race until I was 27 years old, in a secondhand IMSA Renault Cup car. I used all my savings plus a loan to buy that car for $6,000. To this day, then, every time a team or individual affords me the opportunity to drive a race car, I am beyond grateful. This stuff never gets old.

Since 2014, I've done the majority of my racing in GT3 and GT4 cars, in the SRO GT World Challenge America series and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. So, both the cars Ford brought to VIR were right in my wheelhouse; I couldn't wait to get out there.

Ford brought along two of its factory race drivers, Billy Johnson and Ryan Briscoe, to help us with car orientation. Johnson and Briscoe drove the Ford GT in GTLM-class races in IMSA and FIA World Endurance Championship races, inside and outside of the U.S.; Johnson also drives a Mustang GT4 in select IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series races.

The quiet morning air was soon ripped apart as Briscoe flew down the front straight at close to 170 mph. We were informed he was "warming up" the Ford GT. I wandered over to watch his entry into Turn 3, as it's a good place to watch and see how hard a driver is pushing and how well a car is working. You enter the brake zone while turning slightly left and scrub off a little speed as quickly as possible before turning harder left, then you quickly get back to steady-state throttle to maintain as much momentum as possible through the corner. It can be a tricky thing to get right. This was Briscoe's second time entering Turn 3; he flew out of Turn 2, went right on past where I thought he might brake, then hit the brakes while stuffing it left. This caused a very quick yaw rotation—so quick, it looked like a twitch. Before I could raise an expletive, he was through Turn 3 and gone. I sort of just stared at the space he had just trounced, confident that what I'd witnessed would be of no use whatsoever today. Very nice work, Mr. Briscoe.

He was the only one on the track at that point and we could clearly hear his gearshifts and the GT's screaming twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 engine all the way around VIR's 3.27-mile, 17-turn full course. That was, until Johnson went out to warm up the Mustang GT4.

I don't think I've heard many race cars louder than this Mustang, and certainly not a louder GT4 car. It has a Roush-Yates Engines custom-built, dry-sump 5.2-liter V-8 with four valves per cylinder and twin independent variable cam timing—plus an exhaust amplifier, I swear. Having very recently had a blast driving the Mustang GT350 and GT350R street cars on a track, I was especially curious to try the GT4.

If you're not familiar with the various classes, GT4 cars are designed to be much closer to street cars than are GT3 race cars. GTLM cars, meanwhile, are another level faster than GT3 cars. The GT4 Mustang looks like the GT350/GT350R street model but with a wing and a bigger front splitter. It also features a unique carbon-fiber undertray, doors, hood, rear decklid, and roof, all to save weight.

Driving the Ford Mustang GT4 Race Car

I was able to do four flying laps—six total including out- and in-laps—in both the GT4 and GTLM cars. I was happy to find the seat position and height in the GT4 were perfect for me. Johnson was there to give me last rites, or maybe he was doing so for the car? Either way, I was soon heading down pit lane. The Holinger RD-6 sequential paddle-shift transmission had a solid shift feel, just as a race gearbox should have. I could hear the 3.31:1 Mustang GT4-specific limited-slip differential whining nicely as I eased slowly onto the track.

I was the second person out in the Mustang, so the tires were already warmed up. I was quickly on it, figuring out what amount of brake-pedal pressure triggered the ABS and playing with the rear end on turn-in. I was quickly impressed with the Mustang's front end, as it was quick to respond but compliant. That meant I could slow down my hands after a quick initial steering input to give the chassis time to talk to the rear, and there was no snap oversteer. I have driven the Audi and Porsche GT4 race cars this year and spent much of the 2018 season in the Black Dog Chevrolet Camaro GT4. In a steering sense, the Mustang felt a lot like the Audi. The reaction of both cars to initial steering is a very quick response by the front end.

By the time I started my third timed lap, I was continuing to push the car's handling envelope by braking later and lifting quicker off the brake as I turned in. The Mustang's shock/suspension setup is superb: The front has adjustable ride-height Multimatic (Ford's racing partner) DSSV struts with two-way adjustable Mustang GT4-specific damping and a Multimatic adjustable blade sway bar. In the rear, Multimatic designed lower control arms and adjustable ride-height Multimatic DSSV coil-overs with two-way adjustable dampers. The Bosch Motorsports M4 ABS works incredibly well with this whole suspension package, allowing almost psychic communication between my steering inputs, each tire's contact patch, and the chassis; this is one sorted race car.

VIR's uphill esses are flat-out in fifth gear at about 140 mph; I had been doing a quick partial lift entering the very fast right-hand Turn 9 at the top of the section. The Audi and Camaro GT4s both liked a partial throttle lift here, otherwise they would understeer slightly off line; without the lift, I couldn't readily reposition them for my preferred turn-in for the fast, blind, and off-camber Turn 10 left-hander.

The Mustang's front end, however, was so good through the uphill esses, including the right-hand Turn 9, I had one of those thoughts that start with, "I wonder if…" It's the type of thought that's better to have at the kitchen table, not necessarily on a racetrack. I had gone quicker on each of my first three laps (according to the in-car timer) and I was now on my last attempt. The Michelin racing slicks were hanging in well on the 18-by-11-inch Forgeline GS1R wheels, so all felt good. As I came flying out of Turn 6 onto the long stretch up to the esses, I was convinced "my thought" was grounded in solid research; I definitely didn't need to lift for Turn 9 at the top—as long as I maybe closed one eye.

At almost 140 mph, the esses aren't a place to have doubt. As a speed comparison, a C7 Corvette Stingray maxes-out, grip-wise, around 115 mph through Turn 9, and that's if you don't mind sliding the car a little. On this lap, I felt the GT4 was going maybe 3 or 4 mph quicker as I entered. I turned in and the feisty Mustang stayed true, right on line. As I blasted past the apex, I opened my other eye and breathed out. At that moment, I believe a smirk impulse may have left my brain, but it was quickly rerouted to my rear end. The GT4's back end let me know it wasn't happy, and the car started to oversteer. A quick steering correction and partial throttle lift caught the slide, and I wasn't more than a couple of feet off-line entering Turn 10. I finished out the lap, and it was my quickest.

Why did the rear give up and create the oversteer moment? My take is that the Mustang GT4's overall aero is very similar to the Audi's and Camaro's. I had to perform a partial throttle lift in those other two cars to keep the front from understeering on entry to Turn 9, whereas in the Mustang I had to do so to control the rear after passing the apex. It feels to me like all three of these GT4 cars have a relatively close Balance of Performance—the formula that racing series use to level the playing field between different cars—in terms of aero grip. Yes, setup changes might make a difference, but my experience says all three cars are close.

The way the Mustang GT4 was setup suited me perfectly; I have always liked a car that tends toward a small amount of rear-led yaw on initial turn-in, as I am comfortable manipulating or steering a car's rear end. I had a blast pushing limits while driving the Mustang; it is a competent and completely correct GT4 race car. With the cost of entry into GT4 competition much lower than many other forms of professional racing, it is no surprise the class is growing fast, but its biggest plus is arguably just how much fun these cars are to drive.

Driving the Ford GT Le Mans Race Car

I had a two-hour break after driving the GT4 and before saddling up in the GTLM. Luckily, I was able to use Briscoe's seat insert; I only needed some extra support padding. As I listened to Briscoe give me the lowdown, I was trying to get my head around the fact I was actually sitting in a Ford GTLM race car. I remember testing the Cadillac GT3 car at Sebring in 2015 at the same time as Ford was initially testing the GTLM, and I was struck by how much lower the Ford was than our Cadillac. But now inside the cockpit, I was pleased to find excellent visibility through the windshield.

The EcoBoost V-6 sounded like a monster the second I woke it up; I tried to be nice and gently slide it out of the pits without too much fuss, stalling the car in the process—very professional. Once I got rolling, I immediately channeled GT3 race cars I've driven at VIR to help step my brain way up from GT4 speeds. The GT3 spec is not as quick as a GTLM, but it's close enough to help. I also made sure to remember that the GTLM does not have antilock brakes.

The GT engine's anti-lag immediately made itself known, popping wildly during off-throttle and partial-throttle moments. Anti-lag helps maintain turbo boost, which cuts down on turbocharger lag. I also immediately felt a huge difference in grip between the Mustang GT4 and the GT upon entering the left-leaning braking area for Turn 3 at well more than 100 mph. The faster you go in the GT, the more downforce and lateral grip you build, and it's mighty impressive. Turns 3 through 6 at VIR are slow- to mid-speed corners with some fairly bumpy curbs. I was just so impressed with how well the GT handled the curbs, along with how much grip the 18-inch Michelin race tires generated. (The Michelins run on 12.5-inch-wide front and 13.0-inch-wide rear wheels.) I was actually able to use the same amount of curb in these slower corners as in the GT4, which says a tremendous amount about the shocks and suspension setup. For a 2,800-pound car with this much downforce capability, I was amazed by the compliance.

I was on my way to the uphill esses when a story Briscoe had shared played in my head. He told me that at the beginning of the GT program in 2015, all of Ford's GT factory race drivers spent substantial time on the simulator at the Ford Performance tech center. This was all part of learning the car, plus the various tracks they would eventually race on; it was also early days for the full immersion simulator at the tech center.

At the time, the program the simulator used for VIR was not ideal. From their real-world driving experience, the drivers all felt they should be able to attack VIR's uphill esses at full speed with no throttle lift, at somewhere close to 160 mph. But every time they entered the first jump part of the esses with no throttle lift in the simulator, the car would just take off vertically, flip over, crash, and end up somewhere in the next county. Despite the engineers agreeing with the drivers that the sim program was wrong in that regard, Briscoe said about 18 months passed before one of them was brave enough to take that part of the track in real life with no throttle lift. Who said you can't teach race car drivers anything?

Trying to forget this tale, I entered the esses with a quick partial throttle lift, still doing more than 150 mph. I rocketed over the little jump and flew around Turn 9 like it was nothing. The speed increase and g forces compared to the GT4 are extreme; I had to massively speed up my hands on the steering wheel just to make sure I was lined up for Turn 10. Turns 9 and 10 happen as fast as you can read this: in, up, over, turn, align, dab brake, left, gone. The car felt especially stuck to the road as it went through the off-camber Turn 10, a corner well known for producing understeer. Note to self: less brake needed here; this car is so freakin' fast.

I had a quick thought harking back to when I first had a chance to drive the Ford GT street car in 2017, a very interesting and capable supercar on a track, but still a street car on street tires. What always struck me most about the street GT was the rate at which I could feel it build up downforce as my corner speed increased; it was much more capable in this area than other supercars, at least to my butt dyno. And it did all of this without a huge wing hanging off of the back. I always put the GT's downforce down to the unique flow-through keel design of its body and how well the whole thing channels and works the air. But in the race car, ooph, it's other worldly.

As I left Oak Tree corner and began firing gears out of the GT's six-speed sequential transmission, I already had the biggest grin on my face and this was only my first lap; three more to go. The braking zone into Turn 14 at the end of VIR's long back straight, is entered from a dip in the road to a short uphill, while turning slightly to the left. In the last part of the brake zone, the steepness of the hill disappears. It is not a particularly tricky brake zone as long as you brake hard enough, early enough, making sure to use the steepest part of the hill for the heaviest braking. I made a mental note to hit the brakes especially hard, early in the brake zone, to get extra help from compression into the hill. When you're going 160-plus mph, you have enormous downforce in a car like this, so it's when you're at maximum speed that it's time to hit maximum brake-pedal pressure; especially when you don't have ABS. The GT really throws out the anchor, exhibiting incredible deceleration. The brake pedal was more compliant than I expected, with excellent feel, and I was having a blast. A good street supercar such as the Porsche GT3 RS has fantastic brakes and a lot of downforce for a production vehicle, but the GTLM on full brake feels like double the deceleration force. I swear you can feel your eyeballs leaving their sockets. This brake effect is brought to you by Brembo, with six-pot calipers in the front and four in the rear, with vented rotors all around.

Coming out of VIR's Hog Pen corner (Turn 16) and onto the front straight was also an amazing experience. The Mustang GT4 was really good in this area, sliding around a reasonable amount as I tried to maintain momentum. Despite moving around, the GT4 still feels more stuck and quicker than any performance street car in this section. The GTLM is a whole different animal. As I dropped over the hill and entered the right-hander onto the front straight, I was carrying serious pace. I could not believe how much grip the GT generated, as I could feel both compression and lateral load in my neck and torso at the same time. I immediately knew there was more speed there, which was rather amazing.

The next couple of laps went by way too quickly, my lap times moving in the right direction. The fastest corners kept getting more ridiculous, as I stayed on the gas longer and stayed off of the brakes. By lap three I was entering the high-speed esses with no lift; it was crazy how quickly I had to move my hands on the wheel to steer the car into correct position to enter the esses. It really felt like a video game. The grip in Hog Pen continued to amaze and I began to get much more comfortable moving the car around in the slower corners. The GT transmits front and rear slip amazingly well and controlling any small slide with a little steering input or a throttle manipulation was great fun. The brakes and Michelin race tires took everything I could throw at them with a mere shrug.

As I came onto the back straight during my third lap, I could see the GT4 Mustang maybe six seconds ahead of me up the road. By the end of that lap I was getting quite close and backed off my pace, just in case the driver didn't know I was coming. The Mustang did move over to the side of the track once I got behind it, but I didn't set much of a time for my fourth lap. But it didn't matter, as lap times were not the point on this day. What counted was that the experience of driving the Ford GTLM was incredible, and it's sad to think the car will not be raced in 2020 by Ford and the Chip Ganassi team. Maybe another team will step up to run this amazing car. After driving it, I surely hope so.

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