As Le Mans beckons for the new Ford GT next year, the Blue Oval's chiefs tell Autocar how racing has informed the road-going version too

Confirmation last month that the Ford GT will compete next year at the Le Mans 24 Hours enabled company chiefs to tell the whole story about the development of their new supercar for the first time.

Ford has confirmed the specifications of its road-going GT. Click here for more.

With news of the GT’s competition intent top secret until mid-June, the men charged with developing the car had previously been unable to emphasise just how extreme and driver-focused the road-going version will be. 

Review: Ford GT

Video: Autocar drives the Ford GT

With news of the race and road projects out in the open, however, Ford’s top brass have lifted the lid on how the two cars are intertwined from a development perspective.

At Le Mans, Autocar sat down with Mark Fields (president and chief executive of Ford Motor Company), Raj Nair (chief technical officer) and Jim Farley (president of Ford in Europe, Middle East and Africa) to get the full story on the GT’s gestation.

Why is Ford returning to GT racing?

Ford is undeniably proud of its endurance racing achievements. On the wall of the offices in Dearborn, Michigan, next to the elevator, is a black and white photo of the GT40’s 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966. But that achievement is now distant history for a company that’s changed immeasurably in the half-century since.

The arrival of the new GT has been the catalyst. With this car, Ford can both celebrate Ford’s past and look to its future. Yes, it will doff its cap in the direction of the GT40’s achievements, but it will also add lustre to the new Ford Performance sub-brand, highlight the cutting-edge technology Ford is introducing and provide an exciting focal point for brand devotees, many of whom will join the throng heading to La Sarthe in June 2016.

“This is not just about going racing because Raj and his team wanted to produce a really cool race car; that’s part of it, of course, but the other part is that we want to link it to things we’ve been doing in other areas,” says Fields.

“In a practical sense it gives Raj and his team the opportunity to prove some technology and some engineering tools and to train some engineers at a very demanding race. At the same time it instils a lot of pride in all of our employees because of that heritage linking to our racing.

“The other point is about how this helps all our customers. The GT is a culmination of over a decade’s worth of work that Raj and his team have been doing on innovation around light-weighting, aerodynamics and engine technology, and that says for all of our customers ‘you can get a piece of this innovation’ in any of our vehicles when they walk into a Ford showroom.”

Ford’s entry into the closely fought GTE category at Le Mans will bring it head to head with some premium makes, including Aston Martin, Corvette and Ferrari. Surely the company would be better served fighting its mass-market rivals in, say, touring car racing or back in rallying?

“No, I think it harks back to Ford’s heritage going back to the mid-1960s with the big Ford versus Ferrari battles,” says Fields. “We think those rivalries from the past, even though there with luxury rivals, will just help burnish the entire Ford brand.”

What will the road car feel like to drive?

The road-going Ford GT will be “as close as possible to a GT racing car that can be driven on the road”, according to Ford’s chiefs.

They also reveal that the new GT has been designed from the outset with both race and road use in mind and that the two versions share a large amount of commonality in design and components. This, Ford said, will bestow the 600bhp-plus GT with particularly engaging on-road dynamics.

Nair says: “If you look underneath it, you’ll find that this design of the race car is very common with the road car, which isn’t always true with a GT car.

“The road car is pretty maxed out. We’ve got very high expectations for it in terms of the power-to-weight ratio, downforce and low drag, so it’s going to be an extremely capable vehicle.”

Farley confirms: “When people drive this vehicle I think they are going to feel differently from all the other supercars out there,

“I don’t want to say raw because that would imply that it isn’t sophisticated, but it is just a very direct car. There’s not a lot in your way. It wasn’t meant to be roomy for a road trip across the US.

“It’s there to get the ultimate in performance. And it’s a balanced car. It’s light – very much the Lotus idea. It’s a real statement of technology.”

How closely related are the road and race cars?

Ford hasn’t been shy about communicating the track pedigree of the carbonfibre-bodied GT since the road-going version was unveiled at the Detroit motor show at the start of this year.

The £240,000 road car was developed in collaboration with Multimatic Motorsports, a Canadian racing team that’s also part of Ford’s road car supply chain.

The Ecoboost V6 that powers the GT has spent two years being developed in Daytona Prototype racing cars competing in the US-based Rolex Sports Car Series.

Nair says the technology flow is a two-way street: “Some of the components that we’ve had on the Daytona Prototype over these past two seasons have been test parts for the 2017-model-year [MY17] production engine. We’ll be modifying the MY17 engine based on some of those learnings.”

In other aspects, though, the road GT is even more extreme than the racing version. For example, endurance racing regulations don’t permit the GT’s new three-stage active rear aero system to be used in competition, so a fixed rear wing has to be used instead.

“It’s pretty difficult to put an actual percentage on what’s the same, because there are some aspects of the [racing] rules that force change. But the majority of the structure, body panels and suspension - less the alterations for travel - is all common,” saysNair.

But developing the car with road and track in mind also threw up some challenges, as Nair explains: “In credo and in spirit it is pretty easy to think in that way; getting into the engineering is another story.

“The levels of travel you need on the road car versus the amount that you need on the race car are very different. The aspect of the durability cycle. Even aspects on the race car – you want maximum ‘ram air’ [forcing air into the engine] effect for the engine; on the road car you actually don’t want ram air because it is difficult to calibrate the engine for it at idle and cruising speeds.

“So there’s differences in the intake system and exhaust system between the race and road car. That’s one of the examples that we had to think through.

“Most of the time you start with a design that is optimised for the road and for GT racing you take it and say ‘what can I do to make this a race car?’. Thinking all of that ahead of time makes it so much easier to create a race car, but it does make it more difficult to develop the road car.”

How does Ford Performance fit in?

The GT is the halo car for the new sub-brand that will spawn at least 12 dynamically involving vehicles in the coming years. The intention is for the exotic technology and cutting-edge ideas incorporated into the GT to filter down through its mainstream model range.

For example, the company is working closely with carbonfibre specialist DowAksa on ways of bringing down the costs of production processes and the raw material from which carbonfibre is created.

“The carbonfibre that you see on the GT is probably a predecessor of an increased use of carbonfibre in mainstream vehicles,” says Nair. “Certainly, cost is the challenge right now, but we’re working on it.

“Going forward, because of fuel economy requirements, lightweight technology is going to be increasingly important, so you’re going to see more deployment of lightweight and fuel efficiency technologies.”

Nair highlights an example of the current F-150 pick-up, which incorporates lessons in aluminium body structures first used on the previous GT in 2005.

“When we did the 2005 GT we were really pushing the boundaries of what we could do with aluminium at the time and that saw its way into lower-volume production with some of the premium brands that we owned at the time and then obviously with the F150 we’re in high-volume production of aluminium body structure,” he says.

Fields says Ford Performance aims to highlight, “the vibrancy of the Ford breed. Whether it’s the design, performance, fuel economy, smart technology and so on, we want to say that Ford is a brand looking to set the trends not only today but in the future.

“But we’re not trying to enhance something new to our company. It’s about nurturing a key element of our brand going back many years, just growing that even further and providing a halo for all of our products.”

Nair points out that ‘accessible performance’ is Ford’s policy: “I don’t think performance is exclusive to premium brands or multi-millionaires and we have a long history of helping them get that. We have a very different view than Aston, Ferrari etc in that we don’t think performance should be restricted to that budget. Things that you see in the GT that are about having just as much fun in a Fiesta ST. It’s absolutely part of our credo.”

With the GT sitting at the top of the Ford Performance pyramid, the second tier is filled with cars such as the Focus RS and Mustang GT350, and the third tier are the Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Mustang GT. Strict parameters govern each strata, and Ford is adamant that it will steer clear of badge engineering.

Fields: “Raj and his team are very disciplined about this because when we look at those tiers, we want to make sure that it delivers a level of performance above other production vehicles. We never want to be accused of doing just a ‘paint and tape’ job. That doesn’t ring true with our customers.”

Nair adds: “We have very specific engineering metrics that if we’re going to do a performance version of a vehicle, an ST version, we have to have not just spoilers and body kits but we expect a level of performance in the suspension or in the powertrain, depending on what kind of car we’re talking about.”

Why has Ford outsourced the build of the GT?

Ford has pulled in a lot of partners to work on the road and race versions of the car, including Multimatic Motorsports, which is responsible for the build of the car. Is this a sign of large OEMS making increasing use of smaller, more agile specialist companies to achieve their goals? 

“The industry has a long history of partners,” says Nair. “Whether its suppliers or specialists, they’ve always had that aspect of the business. What you’re going to increasingly see is modern partnerships with non-traditional automotive partners. So that’s certainly a transition for us, you’re probably likely to see it in the industry as well.”

Fields adds: “You can use the Silicon Valley example; we just opened a large research and innovation centre in Silicon Valley and the purpose there is to be within the community and learn how to work with either start-ups or small companies to discover and uncover these technologies that Raj and his team can then deploy in the production vehicles.”

Even with a large proportion of the work outsourced, this is a Ford project and its engineers will be dropped into the race team to gain experience.

“Our race engineering team was intended to actually develop engineers, so we’ve got a rotation of younger engineers coming through and even some of the senior managers come in,” explains Nair.

“There are many times when technology from production engineering is ahead of race engineering, either because of development restrictions in the racing rules or the pure size of the organisation. But on the other side the race engineers are nimble and innovative and there are things that they come up with more quickly than production engineering that we feed back in. So it’s a great both technology and personnel exchange.”

Will Le Mans success help Ford sell Mondeos and Fiestas?

Although the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT40’s first win at Le Mans will add a retro tinge to next year’s campaign, Ford is insistent that this project is about the company’s future, not its past.

Farley puts it in a nutshell: “We had the opportunity to go racing with a car that looks forward and not backward. That is really important, even to those of us who really love the Ford history. We have to be a company of the future. And so the car itself was appealing enough in its statement of innovation connected to our mainstream technology.

Another opportunity, says Farley, was to capitalise on customer enthusiasm for Ford’s performance products, from the spirited Fiesta ST through to the full-bore Focus RS and up to the GT itself.

“In racing, there aren’t too many opportunities right now to surprise people and to do something where you really can sell on Monday,” he says.

“Enthusiasts pay attention to brand a lot. I think when you look at our brand in Europe, especially the UK, we’re a very popular brand but it is harder for people to say what really makes us special and unique. These are the kind of things that can be special.

“I think people know that we’ve stood for you know, great design, road-holding, all those things, but we also sell a lot of Fiestas and Focuses too.

“Any mainstream brand, as to remind people what its DNA is and how it is different. This kind of project tells enthusiasts who really do care about the company emotionally that we’re looking forward.”

Farley is confident that Ford’s exploits at Le Mans will resonate with the drivers of standard Blue Oval products, although not to the same degree as it will with petrolheads.

“I would hope that the average person would say we are using our road technology in racing and vice versa, like Audi did with Quattro,” he says.

“I would hope that we would be good enough at promoting this that they would go ‘wow, okay, Ford is at Le Mans’ using the technology that’s in my 1.0-litre Fiesta three-cylinder engine.

“We’re talking about the technology that people can buy. It wouldn’t work for us if we didn’t connect it with what people can buy.

“But no doubt the enthusiasts are going to feel more strongly about this – and there are a lot of them. We shouldn’t portray them as a small group of people,” he says.

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