Are the Ford GT40s that dominated Le Mans in the mid-to-late 1960s the most important US-made racing cars in history? The GT brand went on to become a mythic brand for Ford on the back of racing dominance and this year, the new Ford GT, in both street and GT-Le Mans spec’, will come to Project CARS 2 …
The new Ford GT was never meant to be. Ford had other plans when they decided to return to Le Mans to end a half-century of exile from the world’s greatest endurance race—a plan dubbed “Project Silver”. Silver for the Lone Ranger’s horse, though pony would have been more accurate given Project Silver’s intent was to bring the Ford Mustang to Le Mans, this exactly one-half century from the day Ford had come to La Sarthe with the vengeful rage of bellowing big-block V8 American muscle. The day Ford exacted its revenge—revenge that had come on the back of countless cashed blank checks.
Fifty years on, and Ford was lining up, once again, to conquer Le Mans. The motorsport world waited with baited breath. Then, in late 2013, Ford executives took one look at the numbers for Project Silver and uttered a collective, “Uh-uh”.
“Ultimately, Mustang does not need Le Mans to be a global car,” Raj Nair, global product development chief at Ford, explained to Autoweek when asked for the reason why Project Silver had been shot dead like a lame pony. “To be candid, I still wanted to do [Le Mans] and I was actually a little bit mad … in fact, I was really mad.
Ford’s execs, Nair told Autoweek, had underestimated the importance of the 50th anniversary of their epic win at Le Mans. Not Nair, though. With Project Silver dead, he went in search of an alternative solution, a solution which would soon transition into a scheme squirrelled-away, quite literally, in the basement of Ford’s Product Development Center in Dearborn.
“Project Phoenix”—so secret that not a whisper would surface for two years—was born in 2013, with Nair coordinating the program out of a room once used to store foam; a room that became known as the “pleasure dome”.
“There were probably only 20, 25 people in Ford who knew about the project,” Moray Callum, Ford’s head of design, told the Detroit Free Press. “People knew something was going on behind those doors, but no one knew what.”
The chosen few were Ford’s best and smartest—a hand-picked group that included veterans and the best young talent at Ford. The veterans were there to ensure the team met one criteria; build a world-beating sportscar from the ground-up in less than 14 months. Oh, and it should also come in two specs’—road and race—and yes, the race version had win Le Mans in 2016. Aside from that, no pressure then …
The New Ford GT
In 2015, Nair had his concept built; a new Ford that would be both a street-legal supercar, and a race car capable (or so the remit held) of global endurance racing domination. Company executives, who had killed the Mustang project, were invited to Ford’s product development center in Dearborn, and there they were introduced to Nair’s new thoroughbred.
The return of the Ford GT.
The execs took one look at what had been cooked up in the “pleasure dome” and signed off on the project. The assumption, of course, was that the GT would win Le Mans at the first-time of asking. That was a year away.
The car was unveiled to an astonished press at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show—there had been no leaks and, as Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance, explained to Autoweek, Ford “wanted to truly surprise the industry with this product”. The media was duly surprised; and then they were thrilled when informed that Ford had every intention of not only going back to Le Mans for the 50th anniversary of that win, but were doing so with a GT.
The race version debuted at the Daytona 24 Hours in early 2016. Entered by Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, they finished way down the order and off the pace. Nair was suddenly faced with the uncomfortable realization that winning Le Mans was tantamount to a moonshot.
First on the road to Le Mans is homologation
There are not many cars that cost as much as the 2016 Ford GT. At $450,000, you can buy a new McLaren 720S, throw in a couple of 2015 Corvette Z06s, and still have some left-over change to feed the parking meter. That’s a big ticket item, the most expensive American production car in history, and Ford only accept 50 percent down on all purchases. Throw in some options, and you’re looking at $250,000 down on a car that has an engine Ford uses on its pickup trucks, and an infotainment screen you’ll find on a Ford Fusion.
But then you take a look at it … and your need begins to ache.
Ford will create only 250 of these machines a year, a production run that will extend until 2020—that’s exactly (and more importantly) only 1,000 units from inception to completion. The limited-run is part of the cost, and as an investment, a Ford GT is a pretty sure bet; the second most expensive car ever sold at auction in the US ($11 million) was a 1968 Ford GT40 Gulf/Mirage as used by Steve McQueen as the camera car for the movie Le Mans. And the GT moniker isn’t the only thing the new GT has in common with the Le Mans winning granddaddy; Multimatic’s facility in Canada, where the 1969 Mk.IVs were built, will also construct the new Ford GTs, both street and race spec’.
So what do you get for half-a-million dollars?
A whole new meaning to flying buttresses
The engine is a 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6. (Yes, it’s missing two cylinders.) The smaller engine, though, means the GT is leaner, and that means aero’ efficiency is increased with the classic tear-drop shape now fully to the fore. The keel-style chassis allows the air-flow to be channeled around the engine sitting mid-ship, resulting in some serious downforce; downforce that is heightened by a rear-wing that features multi-positional settings. The monocoque is carbon fibre, the subframes aluminium, the weight 1,385KGs, the horsepower 674, the suspension active, the ride-height adjustable (50mm drop in Track mode), and the two exhaust-pipes fat enough for combat duty in a war-zone.
What does all that amount to? Top speed of 216mph (347kmh), 0-100kmh in less than three seconds, and you get five drive modes to choose from. If you’re in any mode other than Track, you should probably consider the bus from here on in.
Track mode does more than lower the ride height; it also activates the aero’ package which amounts to shutting the openings to the nose of the car in order to suck the air into the chassis channels, and raising the hydraulically-controlled rear wing (complete with Gurney flap) which not only provides downforce, but also serves to increase braking potential by changing its profile when you’re standing on the go-slow pedal. With the buttresses, wing, and keel, you’re looking at close to 200KGs of downforce at 240kmh. The buttresses, aside from looking ace, actually function to add strength to the chassis, and to guide air-flow in order to reduce drag.
The engine may share the same block as the one you’ll find on the US’s most-sold vehicle (the F-series pickup truck), but it’s also the engine that Chip Ganassi Racing’s Daytona Prototypes have developed into a serious racing lump. The difference—aside from the pure grunt from the V6 and the tech’ on the engine—between the pickup truck and the $450,000 supercar is what the engine is doing to the turbo. Ford have developed an ultra-secret anti-lag system that continuously spools the turbos on the GT, so you’ll get the instant response of a normally-aspirated engine at anything near 3,000RPM.
Ford at Le Mans—race like it’s 1966
In 2016, Ford would line up at Le Mans for the first time since 1969. Back then it was with the GT40 Mk.IV (that you will find in Project CARS 2). That entry was also the last of a series of wins for their Ford GT40, extending all the way back to that epic race of 1966.
Ford came to Le Mans in 2016 on the back of a grueling schedule. Somehow they’d managed to build both a street and racing version of the GT simultaneously, in less than 14 months, but that meant any teething problems with the race car were happening right in front of the cameras.
The GT’s first race, at Daytona, did not go well. More issues curtailed their pace in the next two rounds of the championship, but at Laguna Seca, in early May, the GT came good, with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook charging to a maiden win.
“That win was not only because the car was capable, but the car was super fuel efficient, and we won on our race strategy,” Dave Pericak said at the time. “It’s like in the 1960s, we went out and showed the best in the world that we can engineer better than they can, and I think that’s what this program is all about.”
But the real test of that claim to world-beating engineering would be Le Mans one month later. Waiting at La Sarthe were some of the greatest motoring brands in the world.
Qualifying would prove the speed of the new Ford GTs. Stefan Mücke stuck a GT on pole and they captured second, fourth and fifth as well. The sixth-placed Porsche 911 RSR was an astonishing four seconds off the pace. Just like 1966, this was primed to be a Ford revival.
And so it would prove. The race was an absolute classic in GTLM with Sébastien Bourdais, Joey Hand, and Dirk Müller’s Ford GT having an all-night battle in class until finally, on the 20th hour, the Ford of Hand surged into a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“This is an historic moment for the Ford Motor Company,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman, Ford Motor Company. “We dared to dream that we could return to Le Mans, 50 years after the incredible 1966 win, and take on the toughest competition in the world. The pride we all felt when the Ford GT crossed the line at Le Mans is indescribable.”
Ford GT’s Le Mans victory came only 395 days after the car debuted on May 20, 2015, a testament to Ford and, of course, the Ford Chip Ganassi team. This was Ganassi’s 175th victory as a team owner, and that day he became the only team owner in history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Rolex 24 At Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and Le Mans 24 Hours.
“It’s a big deal to come back here 50 years after the Ford win in 1966,” said the winning driver, Joey Hand. “We drove like it was a sprint race for 24 hours.”
“Everything aligned for us today—the history, the Ferrari/Ford battle, 50 years on, and the Ford family being here. To come out on top of all that is an amazing feeling,” echoed team-mate Bourdais.
The Ford GT went on to be a force to be reckoned with in both the WEC, and in the US, where it placed second in the championship to the Corvette driven by Project CARS 2 physics consultant Tommy Milner. In WEC, things were not quite that successful, as Ford finished behind both Ferrari and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTEs (also coming with Project CARS 2) in 2016.
Fifty years was a long time to wait for Ford’s return to Le Mans. But if you’re going to wait fifty years, you might as well come back winning. The legend of the GT races on.
The Ford GT in both street and LMGT spec’, will come with Project CARS 2, released in late 2017 for the PlayStation®4 system, Xbox One, and PC. Project CARS 2 is now.