A racecar in street-car camouflage
The 2017 Ford GT may have faults, but you need to be an F1 driver to figure them out
The track session is out of the ordinary, as these types of things go.
Only one car at a time is allowed on the west course at the Utah Motorsports Campus. Helmets are mandatory, as are head-and-neck support devices. Occupants are fastened to the car using six-point racing harnesses. An instructor in the passenger seat – someone with a deep understanding of the racing line and, possibly, a slight death wish – is deemed necessary.
These directives make sense, from a safety standpoint.
After all, this is the global drive debut for one of the most hotly anticipated supercars. A supercar with 647 horsepower under foot. A supercar armed to the teeth with race-bred technology. A supercar that has, in its brief time, already won two of the most prestigious races on the calendar, the 24 Hours of Le Mans (last year) and the Rolex 24 at Daytona (this year).
But, curiously, the introduction of the road-going version of the 2017 Ford GT is presented as a challenge to participants.
For the track drive only, the car was fitted with onboard cameras as well as the Ford Performance App – to capture speed, braking performance, cornering forces and, yes, lap times. The lap times and top speeds of the two Ford GT factory race drivers, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller, have been shared beforehand as a point of reference.
This rarely happens at press events. This is the throwing down of a gauntlet. This is a challenge, I can only assume, to really – no, really – put myself in the shoes of the lucky few who already are, or who will soon be, Ford GT owners. You see, this is not your typical supercar, it's a racecar adapted for road use. And there's a difference.
In 2012, the 50th anniversary of Ford's historic win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans was fast approaching. A small group of Ford executives, engineers and external consultants began to meet, at night and on weekends, in the basement of the Ford Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich. Their mission: to develop the best supercar in the world and to use it to win at Le Mans in 2016.
"We had just one chance to repeat history," said Henry Ford III, great-great-grandson of the company founder, and global marketing manager for Ford Performance. "[And] to compete at Le Mans, you're up against the best in the business."
The development process was exhaustive, in part because time was so short. From the time the Ford GT concept first appeared at the Detroit auto show in 2015, work was under way behind the scenes to build the racecar and the road version in parallel. To fast-track the project and ensure a high standard of performance, Multimatic, of Markham, Ont., was enlisted to help drive development. The firm has expertise in a number of critical areas, such as lightweight construction and suspension design.
"One of the key objectives for the Ford GT was to use it as a proof-point for what we can do," says Ford III. "Achieving a sales target was never an objective. We wanted to use the project to find ways to mass produce carbon fibre and to push the EcoBoost technology to its limits."
On paper, the Ford GT certainly pushes limits.
That 647-horsepower engine is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V-6 engine that churns out 550 lb-ft of torque. It's mounted in the middle of the car and linked to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. In sport and track mode, an anti-lag system keeps the throttle body open and the turbochargers spinning to improve engine-response time. This trick feature makes its presence felt with a crackling, popping sound that is just the right amount of cool.
The inherently sleek shape of the GT is aided by the latest in active aerodynamics. The rear wing deploys automatically at set speeds to help create downforce at the back; it also extends under aggressive braking to act as an air brake. In track mode, the active dynamics system lowers the ride height, making the GT appear slammed to the ground, and increases the spring rates on the suspension system.
The car is largely constructed of carbon fibre (the monocoque) and aluminum (the substructure). The main exception is the FIA-spec integrated roll cage, which is made of steel. This supercar is no poseur, it rolls off the assembly line ready to hit the track running – all that's needed is the six-point racing harness in place of the standard three-point shoulder belt.
This is where the gauntlet gets thrown down.
As I am strapped into the Ford GT, I feel 50 per cent encouraged and 50 per cent dared. The ability to bring this ultra-exclusive supercar back in one piece is of significant concern. A small team of Ford Performance representatives studies the proceedings from behind pit wall; I can only assume they would frown upon damage of any kind. But setting a respectable lap time also runs through my mind. There's pride at stake, after all, and this could be my best and last chance to drive the GT in anger.
The acceleration is, as expected, prodigious.
The dual-clutch transmission is pure racecar; the speed and certainty with which shifts happen is profound. The shift lights along the top of the steering wheel streak from left to right and change colour in lightning-like fashion. Getting the timing of shifts perfectly right takes both practice and patience.
The cornering grip of the Ford is so formidable, I may need to reassess my love for the Tilt-A-Whirl. The 325/30R 20-inch rear wheels, clad in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, create a big footprint and massive G-forces. But the GT is also remarkably predictable; slides are easy to anticipate and easier to control, surprising for such a technologically sophisticated car.
But it's the performance of the carbon ceramic brakes that strikes me as the most significant. The brake pedal feel is strong at the start of the session and never falters. The active rear wing is like a parachute fitted to a dragster. It's the most stopping power I've felt since testing a Formula One car from the late-1990s.
As the laps reel off, I get faster and edge closer to the theoretical limits of the Ford GT. I'm still not sure where these limits may be; in part, because I'm not Joey Hand or Dirk Muller. It's also because the limits are stratospherically high and 10 laps behind the wheel are not nearly enough – this thing is just that good.
- Base price (estimated): $400,000 (U.S.)
- Engine: Twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V-6
- Transmission/Drive: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic/Rear-wheel drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 21.4 city, 13.0 highway, 16.8 combined
- Alternatives: Ferrari 488 GTB, Ferrari 812 Superfast, Lamborghini Aventador S, McLaren 720S, Porsche 911 Turbo S
- Looks: The Ford GT is clearly an authentic supercar, but it’s anything but typical. A thinly disguised racecar in street-car camouflage, the GT features bespoke engineering from tip to tail. The aggressive air vents buried in the hood, radically tapered shape of the car, flying buttresses, dual exhaust pipes tucked into the rear bodywork, and active rear wing are all noteworthy.
- Interior: The interior is clearly designed for track duty: it is carbon-fibre minimalism at its best. The steering wheel appears lifted directly from the race program. The digital instrument panel, fixed seat, moveable pedal set and adjustable steering wheel, likewise. But some competitors deliver a similar level of raciness with more overt luxury, in case that’s your thing.
- Performance: In a word, wow. Of course, the GT is quick in a straight line. But other aspects of the car are even more impressive. The active suspension system makes it incredibly compliant on the open road, the braking system is stupendous and the handling is sublime.
- Technology: The GT has five drive modes, including one for wet weather, one for track driving, and one to reduce drag so you can get close to the car’s 348 km/h top speed. Switching from one mode to the next triggers changes to the engine response, transmission response and suspension settings.
- Cargo: Even by supercar standards, the cargo area, behind the engine compartment, is small. There’s enough space for a pair of gym bags and maybe a pack of gum.
The Ford GT may have faults, but you need to be an F1 driver to figure them out.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.