The new Ford GT was meant to be a Mustang, you know. A Mustang with which Ford would return to Le Mans in 2016 to have a crack at winning a class, some 50 years after it won the whole thing outright with the GT40. At least, that was the plan. The engineers called it Project Silver, after the Lone Ranger’s horse.
Trouble is that, like Silver was a big nag, the Mustang is a big car, so it has a large frontal area, which is bad for aerodynamics and therefore bad for going fast. And the more Ford modified the Mustang for GT racing, the less of a Mustang it became, until they figured they’d never win a damned thing with it while it was recognisably a Mustang, and officially canned the project.
Making the Ford GT less Mustang, and more GT
At least, that’s how the story now goes. They say that the Le Mans project then became completely unofficial, a skunk-works outfit with fewer than 20 designers and engineers hidden in a design studio in a basement behind a padlocked door, determined not to let it go and coming up with an outline design for the rebirth of the GT instead, probably slipping some clay and wheels through on expenses as ‘new pencils’ or something.
Certainly, it put a few noses out of joint when they eventually showed it to the whole design and management team, but the upshot was that they had designed the new GT. And, oh my: grandma, what a small frontal area you have.
The GT, then – very much like the original GT40 and quite unlike the GT of 2005 – was designed primarily to go racing. But GT racing rules being what they are, if you’re not designing a top-pace LMP prototype, you have to make road versions.
It’s long (4779mm) and low (1063mm, or 41.8in), and wide (2003mm in the body, 2238mm to the mirrors). Not that you’d know it was that wide from inside the cabin, which sits its occupants almost as close together as you would be in a Caterham.
That’s not something that Aston Martin or Ferrari could do in a road car because you wouldn’t buy an Aston if you kept elbowing your passenger, but this isn’t fundamentally a road car. That’s a theme you might notice we keep coming back to.
Getting under the skin of the 2017 Ford GT
The passenger cell is a carbonfibre tub, light and stiff and with an integrated roll cage inside it at the point of production – something somebody making road-going GT cars wouldn’t, etc – behind which sits a 3.5-litre, twin-turbo V6 Ecoboost engine, which drives the rear wheels via a Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. (The race car uses a different sequential ’box.)
The engine is interesting: yes, it’s boosted to 647bhp, but fundamentally it’s a pure Ecoboost unit, with 60 percent parts commonality with one fitted to Ford’s F-150 pick-up. (The quick Raptor F-150, but still, a pick-up.) That’s one of the ways Ford has justified the GT’s cost: it says racing will improve the breed. That old chestnut. With the GT41.8, I think it’s true.
Because it’s a V6, the engine is relatively compact, wrapped close by bodywork, but the air into it takes a complicated route – coming in at the rear and channelling under the lower bodywork to the turbos, before being scooted back to the sides, up through those visible intercoolers, and then ducted across the buttresses to the inlet manifold.
Ford tested the engine in a North American IMSA GT race car and discovered it kept blowing head gaskets and ruining heads. Its engineers modified it for racing and, to their credit, fed the expertise back into road car engine design, where the lessons now form part of the engine design rulebook.
There are other race/road handovers, such as eight composite components in the GT’s chassis that are part of a development programme to reduce the cost and time taken to make lightweight materials. Today the GT, one day a Focus.
And you’ve got to keep reminding yourself of these road car links, I think, otherwise the GT could be a hard thing to warm to, regardless of how good, objectively, it is. Because, well, isn’t it a bit cynical, a bit unfair?
Totally in keeping with the rules, of course, and designed and made by very lovely people and everything. It’s just that it’s a perilous path to go down, should GT cars start to be designed as racing cars in the first place, rather than being race versions of road cars that you can see and buy.
Look at it this way: GTE regulations have this thing called the Balance of Performance (BoP). It’s designed to equalise the top speeds of the cars and keep the competition fairer. And while the GT makes 647bhp in road trim, the BoP limits the GT’s power to less than 500bhp as a racing car.
Yet it still wins. If the GT’s boost was allowed to be turned up fully, it’d be closer in speed to an LMP car than the rest of the GTE category. Of course, it would. Because it’s a flipping racing car. If I were racing an Aston GTE car, I might be a bit miffed.
What that also means, though, is that there’s an inordinate amount of technical goodness to get immeasurably excited about. Would a pure road GT car be given a carbonfibre dashboard that is a structural component and also channels ventilation air through it?
Would it get fixed seats with pedals that move instead, via a fabric pull strap? Would it be given a rear wing that not only moves up and down but also has a movable lower edge so that, in some positions, it makes lots of downforce but, in others, reduces drag?
Would they make the suspension’s lower arms so long, and fit pushrods with inboard springs and dampers, to clear as much of the underbody as possible of mounting points so they could work on the aerodynamics?
And don’t get me started on the suspension itself. Actually, do: there are two springs at each corner, a coil spring and a torsion bar. That this two-height suspension system that uses both springs in normal mode. But if you put it into Track mode, the coil spring is compressed and locked out hydraulically, but dropping the car 50mm to a 70mm ride height, whereupon the spring rate doubles.
When I say the suspension ‘drops’, oh man, does it ever drop. You might have seen or felt a supercar’s nose lift gently via an electronic motor, or an air-sprung 4x4 rise as its chambers are pressurised.
None of that nonsense here: you switch to Track mode, or push the nose lift, and in the time it takes to say ‘pssht’, so the GT has dropped or lifted, like a race car being hoiked on its air jacks. It’s mega. Too unrefined for a conventional road car, no doubt, but mega nonetheless.
It’s powered by a pump that also moves various spoilers and feeds the hydraulically assisted steering, which, once you’ve found yourself a decent driving position – the scuttle is low and so is the roof, so you don’t feel dropped on the ground in here – is pleasingly hefty in weight, and calm at 2.5 turns between locks.
Opening up the Ford GT’s sizeable taps
Turn the plastic dial to D – one of many interior plastics that would be too shonky for a Ford city car, let alone a luxury grand tourer – and tickle away. The engine is audible and the stiff passenger cell acts as an echo chamber for road noise – so far, so racing car – but the ride is just astonishingly comfortable.
Now, that’s the sort of thing that gets written about sports cars sometimes. I’ve said it about Lotuses and McLarens, and they are really very pliant indeed, until you step back into a Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
But they have nothing on the GT, which has a level of composure – that balance between ride and handling – that I’m not sure I’ve better experienced in 20 years of road testing. It’s so compliant, yet there’s so little roll, and body movements are so well controlled, that is genuinely astonishing.
What that doesn’t equate to, necessarily, is making the GT a thoroughly entertaining road car. Which is odd, because it should. But while the GT’s steering is pleasingly heavy and linear and self-centres as it ought to, it doesn’t feed back loads of road feel and nor does it gain much extra weight as you push into corners.
Most road cars let you know you’re building cornering force by giving you some steering weight to lean on – a bit of reassurance – but that’s missing here.
That the GT is quick between points isn’t in doubt; and it is satisfying, too, because it’s agile, predictable and responsive. I even like the noise. It’s a gruff note, a bit unsophisticated and gravelly, to the extent that, say, Aston or AMG wouldn’t let it out of the factory that way; but it’s an honest, effective noise and it comes with minimal lag (in Sport mode, there’s a very effective anti-lag system, too) and an extra kick in the back from 5500rpm to 7000rpm to make it feel as fast as the claimed sub-3.0sec to 60mph and all-in 216mph.
But with its phenomenal mechanical grip limits, absence of roll, and the slightly over-servoed brakes on our test example, it’s not as communicative a road car as, say, an Aston Martin V12 Vantage S or a Porsche 911 GT3. Not by a distance.
Maybe that’s because, perhaps inevitably, what you need to do to get the best out of it is to drop the suspension in a moment, feel the spring rate double and get the hell onto a circuit. And here, yes, the GT makes every bit of sense of its mechanical layout. Despite the ride height drop and spring rate change, there’s still sufficient softness here to attack kerbs – that damping really is extraordinary – and it’s a reassuring and pliable enough supercar that after just a few corners, you’ll be happily doling out the full 647bhp onto the next straight and leaning heavily on the carbon-ceramic brakes into corners. The line is adjustable. There’s a little understeer if you let it arrive, but it’s easily quelled and there’s oversteer on the way out of a corner.
Ford says its original performance benchmark was the Ferrari 458 Speciale, but then McLaren launched the 675LT, so it bought one of those and realigned what it wanted the GT to do. Ford’s engineers say the GT is quicker around every race track it has taken it to. And I believe them.
Does the Ford GT deserve the hype?
Whether it’s a more enjoyable car is a slightly different matter. But it’s enough for me that they do different things. The 675 was never designed as a racing car so is more engaging on the road. The GT has been engineered as a road car only because it had to be done. But what a car it has made at the end of it.
Ford is going to build 1000 GTs over the next four years, more than it needs to comply with racing regulations, and it has sold out of them at £420,000 a pop.
And this is where I find my cynicism about the GT somewhat failing. Because without the road car programme, Ford wouldn’t have done it at all. Besides, what the hell is it meant to do? Build a conventional £200,000 GT car and then think about taking it racing? Well, you wouldn’t buy it, would you?
No, the sensible thing would be to do nothing, but instead, this is a car maker whose stock in trade is selling Fiestas yet it had the cojones to say: here is a near-half-million-pound supercar and, if you’d like one, we’ll sell you one. I can’t think of many manufacturers who would have not just that bravery but also the ability to flog a half-million-pound road car.
So cynicism be damned. Yes, I worry what 10 other cars like it would do for GT racing and it’s not one of the world’s greatest road cars; but it’s pretty damned good on the road, absolutely superb on a track and immensely desirable while coming from people who usually bring you superminis. What a wonderful thing.