The team behind the 2017 Ford GT has faced one particular question, even internally, since the program began secretly in late 2013, which explains the half smirk on Dave Pericak’s face. It also accounts for why Ford Performance’s global director has polished his go-to response, as many successful Fortune 500-level executives do, into an adagio of Teflon diplomacy.
“It’s hard to answer: Did we do a race car first or did we do a road car first?” he says. “We didn’t do any one first. We did them at the same time. We had to because the clock was ticking. I know a lot of people want to know, did you design a race car and make it a road car? I always say, at the end of the day, does it really matter? We have a road car, and we have a race car, and it’s all legit. I’m not trying to be coy. It was a matter of circumstance. It was, if you want to race and you want to make a road car … it’s all gotta happen now.”
An entire book is necessary to chronicle every stage and, in automotive industry context, bullet-quick gestation of the internal drive, desires, and challenges that led to this late April day at Utah Motorsports Campus, formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park. Indeed, Automobile friend and longtime motor sports journalist David Phillips has written it. The compressed version: Prior to the GT’s conception, a team including Pericak and now-executive vice president and chief technical officer Raj Nair launched Project Silver, aimed at taking the Mustang, of all cars, to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The 2016 installment of the endurance-racing classic would mark the 50th anniversary of Ford’s historic, 1-2-3 podium-dominating result at Circuit de la Sarthe with the GT40 — a world-famous, endearing, and enduring middle finger to Enzo Ferrari. Long intimately familiar to the sports car and racing cognoscenti, the tale has since grown to near fabulist proportion. What better time then to stage a return? But the navigation of prohibitively exhaustive hardware changes necessary to put the ponycar on equal footing with established world-class race cars from the likes of Porsche, Corvette Racing, and Maranello among others, meant the top-level suits with final say over Dearborn’s course ultimately deep-sixed Project Silver. In the end, it was the best thing to happen to Ford’s subsequently on hold but still aspirating Le Mans ambitions.
In its wake a new project emerged, codenamed Phoenix, a nod to the countless times people inside the company over the years spoke of resurrecting the GT. Pericak, Nair, design chief Moray Callum, and a small, modern Skunk Works team of sworn-to-secrecy members set about to create a blank-sheet, mid-engine design. Channelling the spirit of the original GT40 program, they whittled away after hours in a padlocked basement room of Ford’s Product Development Center, often late into the Midwestern darkness — and only after each team member’s official workday concluded. Few knew the concept existed, and it was a risk to raise the Phoenix sans approval from the Blue Oval’s upper echelon. But once the smokescreen dissipated and the potential of the machine behind it emerged, final approval arrived swiftly. The GT concept made its debut at the Detroit auto show in January 2015. Ford would gun for the 50th-anniversary win at Le Mans after all, and it would succeed. And the car would become the closest thing in years to a racing-homologation special.
The 2017 Ford GT sits on UMC’s pit road early in the afternoon on a chilly spring day. An ovoid, Alcantara-covered Formula 1-style steering wheel sits in front of me, positioned via manual, two-lever multiplane adjustment. The deep, carbon-fiber driver’s seat features a rake-adjustable back but no fore/aft slider; it is bolted to the carbon monocoque’s floor in the name of an improved center of gravity. An adjustable carbon-fiber pedal box — pull a nylon strap next to your right leg to unlock it, then push on the dead pedal to slide it forward, or lift your foot to allow it to spring toward you — teams with the steering column’s dexterity to suit a wide range of driver sizes. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, I’m comfortable, and there’s just enough headroom to accommodate my helmet without wedging it against the roof. The cockpit is the definition of spartan, but it’s functionally cool, with a clean industrial design resplendent in leather, carbon fiber, Alcantara, and aluminum. But from the manual ergonomic adjustments to a distinct absence of luxury nods, this is not a working environment familiar to Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche owners.
Push the red start button on the center console to stir the 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6. It isn’t a world removed from the basic architecture of Ford’s other 3.5-liter EcoBoost offerings, sharing the same aluminum block. But compared to, say, the 450-horsepower version available in the F-150 Raptor, with which Ford says the GT engine shares about 60 percent of its parts, it rocks up to the dance with 647 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 550 lb-ft of torque at 5,900 rpm, thanks to bigger turbos and bespoke manifolds, among other changes. Much of its development was done with it bolted to the back of IMSA-spec Daytona Prototype race cars, beginning with Michael Shank Racing during the 2014 season and, of course, continuing with Chip Ganassi Racing, Ford’s eventual competition partner for the GT program. (Ford motorsports PR still chuckles about how, for some time after the Daytona Prototype effort launched, the media didn’t figure out just why it was supplying such an engine in a class powered traditionally by nonturbo V-8s.) Fueled-up curb weight should come in around 3,265 pounds, all for a 0-to-60-mph time of about 2.9 seconds and a top speed of 216 mph.
Engine idling, my left thumb spins a black plastic dial on the steering wheel to switch from Normal to Sport to Track and … bang! I’m startled as the GT drops off its air jacks and hovers just above the tarmac, just like the race version during a pit stop. Except there are no air jacks built into the road car. The jolt here is the result of the GT’s hydraulic active suspension, which is comprised of pushrods, torsion bars, actuators, springs, and Ford GT constructor Multimatic’s Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers. The latter has seen duty in top-level pro racing from F1 to sports cars, and the setup, which eschews traditional coilovers, allows for variable spring rates based on the car’s different modes. In Track and V-Max top-speed settings, it compresses a spring inside each hydraulic actuator and effectively locks those springs out of play, reducing the ride height from 4.72 inches to a staggeringly low and almost un-streetable 2.75 inches and increases the suspension’s overall spring rate.
In other words, the experience feels quite like driving a race car before you ever hit the throttle. So it’s eye-opening at speed to find the car is a performance monster without being remotely intimidating to drive, the polar foil to something like a Viper ACR. Then again, ease of use rather than barely controllable chaos is a noted hallmark of today’s best GT competition cars. This GT’s hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering with a 14.8:1 ratio is the first thing you notice after grinning from the EcoBoost’s linear pull — thank you, anti-lag-boost system — to its 7,000-rpm redline. Much to the anticipated applause of the electric-steering haters’ brigade, it is very direct, with an almost spring-loaded feel on both street and circuit.
Our in-house hot shoe, Andy Pilgrim, takes a few laps of his own and notes immediately how well you feel grip-level and chassis-behavior changes through the steering wheel and the seat of your pants. Feedback is at a race-car level and so immediate you find yourself with what feels like extra time to react, which in turn allows you to lean on the car hard using throttle and steering adjustments that are slower than you’d expect. This makes it intuitive to maintain momentum and to keep your velocity up rather than having to wrestle with the GT, a driving style that tends to scrub speed. And when the car’s front or rear does break away, it does so in an easily controlled, almost giggle-inducing manner, even on this day when the 46-degree ambient temperature is far from ideal for its 20-inch Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber.
The engine can sound coarse and produces a fair amount of drone if allowed to dawdle along at low-to-medium revs in a relatively high gear, and history will not remember it as an all-time orchestra. Flat out, though, it is satisfyingly delicious as you work the seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch ’box, cracking off 70-millisecond gear changes as the steering wheel-embedded shift lights illuminate. Hair on fire, it delivers a racket of a score inside the cockpit, with all manner of induction noises whistling behind your head. This car offers plenty for enthusiasts to geek out over, not least of which is the fact that air enters the large openings in front of the rear wheels and into the charge-air coolers before being ducted through the exterior buttresses and down into the V-6’s intake. Technically minded race fans will likewise swoon at the front suspension’s “keel” design, a layout familiar to F1 anoraks. It allows the pickup points for the lower A-arms to move far inboard, which in turn means other suspension pieces can be mounted within the chassis to cause less airflow disruption.
Ah airflow, another major contributor to the GT’s capabilities. For starters, there is the body’s radical, wind-tunnel-sculpted Coke-bottle tapering and a large underwing. Active aero elements including the Gurney flap-equipped rear wing, which also functions as an airbrake, and closable slots in the front splitter trade grip for outright speed as needed. Combined with the careful and considered manipulation of air around, over, below, and through the body, Ford says the GT creates 400 pounds of downforce at 150 mph. You feel how aero efficient this car is on top-end acceleration, especially the way it pulls above 100 mph. Throughout the rev range it mimics the torque of a steam locomotive, from down low all the way to the rev limiter with stunning mid-range surge. Coming hard out of the track’s Turn 5 hairpin lights up the fairly liberal traction control, even in second or third gear. More giggles.
The GT is equally wild yet controllable on the street. The roads near UMC are far from inspiring, but we finally encounter a few miles of twists and turns that confirm the feedback from the track: This is a light touch, fingertip-rewarding chassis that likes to dance as it changes direction brilliantly with supreme, instant confidence. We might call its agility severe were it not so intuitive. Drive smoothly yet with commitment, and the rear end works in step with you, rotating through corners with authoritative grace and no trace of evilness.
If one performance question lingers, it concerns the monster Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, a setup with excellent pedal feel and neck-bending stopping power. However, Pilgrim’s on-the-limit lapping in the hairpins reveals an issue that initially feels like brake fade or glazed discs, a diagnosis that makes little sense after an inspection. We instead suspect ripples and heaves in braking zones are causing the ABS system fits. Because a tire is in the air for a fraction of a second over any ripple’s low-point, ABS senses this and releases some brake pressure. This in itself isn’t an issue, but the system needs to resume full pressure quickly when it recognizes grip has returned. In these situations, however, the GT doesn’t give back full bite for the remainder of the braking zone, something the on-site engineers say they will investigate. Perhaps we’ll soon be able to add that lesson to the filing cabinet full of things Ford learned on racetracks while testing this most addictive of supercars. The street version, as one example, received more robust front anti-roll bars as standard equipment after the race team broke more than a few.
One thing it certainly won’t bust is the six-figure sports-car sales record, as Ford limits total production to 1,000 over a four-year period. The first 750 are sold, with the application process for purchasing one of the final 250 set to open in early 2018. Fittingly, though, considering what this car represents, even its customer-delivery schedule is part of the competition story. The rulebook says a manufacturer must build 100 production cars in the same year as it begins campaigning a race version. Ford might have delivered as few as two by December 31, 2016, though it did receive a waiver from the FIA and Le Mans authorities allowing it dodge the letter of the law—to the irritation of some rival team bosses, one of whom describes the situation as disappointing and “unfortunate that they have taken advantage of a good opportunity.” But hey, racing wouldn’t be racing if everyone was always 100 percent satisfied.
Circling back to Pericak, I take a marginally different — granular, really — tact with the original question. When it comes down to it, was the overwhelming desire to build a production car to sell or to win Le Mans — not to mention the seven other victories and 10 pole positions the race version has so far recorded from 26 global starts?
“The main goal was to win Le Mans,” he finally allows, the half smirk spreading into a satisfied smile. For anyone who drives Ford’s greatest supercar to date, everything about the new GT makes it impossible to forget that fact.