Ford’s new GT supercar embodies the company’s rich racing pedigree

Wind tunnel testing played a big part in the GT’s development, where 200km/h was the key wind speed used to flow over the car

Every inch of the new US-built GT has been considered and designed to serve a purpose. Even the glorious buttresses are hollow to help channel air to the engine and improve aerodynamics

Every inch of the new US-built GT has been considered and designed to serve a purpose. Even the glorious buttresses are hollow to help channel air to the engine and improve aerodynamics

 

Forget the hype: no one mentions Ford in the same breath as Ferrari, Bugatti or Lamborghini. It’s ridiculous to even countenance such a thought. The fact that Ford’s big bosses are bold – or foolish enough – to try to do so with its new GT can be judged as the motoring equivalent of Trumpian delusion. And yet.

Ford has a rich history in motorsport, particularly in rally and rallycross. Over the years it has also mastered the knack of transforming normal customer production cars into brilliant performance racers.

And there is a heritage of taking on the poster boys of the supercar market as well, though it dates back to the 1960s. Back in 1966 Ford’s all-conquering rear wheel drive GT ruled and put the famous Italian brands under its kosh on the track. Built on a Lola chassis and fitted with a mid-mounted V8 powering the rear wheels, the GT got the nickname GT40 because it sat just 40ins tall.

Admittedly that was something of a one-trick pony, created on the back of a thirst for revenge. Having failed to take over Ferrari, Ford set out to build a car that would beat the Italian on the track. Proving once more the innovative power of the snub.

The problem now was: how to revive the history of its 1966 Le Mans win. The answer has been a brand new GT racing car to return to the track: a car that was kept so tightly under wraps only a few people in Ford were aware it was being built.

Penned, built and tested in secret at Ford’s global HQ in Michigan, the GT went to Le Mans and the fairytale came true with first, third and fourth places in the LMGTE Pro class. A limited run of just 1,000 GTs is being built for the road and race track.

Three-car menu

So we find ourselves at Ford’s European proving grounds the car company’s performance division had set up a special day of testing. The three-car menu consisted of a refreshing 200hp Fiesta ST appetizer followed by a beefy main course of V8 Mustang GT with the sweetest dessert you can imagine to end with: Ford’s new 650hp GT supercar.

The Lommel proving grounds cover 325 hectares and feature 18 different tracks that offer a combined distance of 105km. The facility works around the clock and throughout the year.

Under high security all manner of vehicles are tested at Lommel, adding to the 8-12 million kilometers driven there every year. On any given day there are 100 engineers and 300 support staff on site plus between 50-150 visitors.

Performance testing includes brake testing, hill starts, side wind tests and even wading through water. Tests can be carried out in the lab and on the various tracks. Driver-assistance technology is also tested at Lommel, with mock ups of vehicles and people, some even robotised.

First up we took a quick spin on a highly technical track in the new 200hp Fiesta ST. The nippy front-wheel drive got our positional and steering responses up to speed.

The two-lane test track has jumps, hollows and off-camber bends among the hairpins and other contours, plus we would occasionally meet other vehicles undergoing testing. Fail to pay attention when pressing on and a test in the GT would be out, rather it would be a run to the nearest hospital. As one Ford test driver said: “Don’t miss the apex there or after you land the next thing you’ll hit will be a tree.”

Agile and responsive

The brilliantly agile and responsive Fiesta ST still had us sweating nicely after just a few laps. The three-cylinder petrol-powered hatchback proved lively and its suspension was up to the job, giving grip when needed. And I needed it.

Our next course was the Mustang in fully-fledged star-spangled banner V8 flavour. Lommel’s track 16 is a banked high speed oval that was quite relaxing after the technical course used for the Fiesta.

On the oval, lanes one and two have speed limits. Lane three only has a minimum speed regulation, set at 160km/h. We sat in and around at 210km/h, the Mustang’s V8 making a glorious burble and growl.

And then it was time for the supercar. Every inch of the new US-built GT has been considered and designed to serve a purpose. Even the glorious buttresses are hollow to help channel air to the engine and improve aerodynamics.

Wind tunnel testing played a big part in the GT’s development, where 200km/h was the key wind speed used to flow over the car and all of its aerodynamic aids, such as the huge active rear tail spoiler.

The exhaust system’s two huge pipes are mounted high up at almost taillight level on the GT and not under the body to aid airflow
The exhaust system’s two huge pipes are mounted high up at almost taillight level on the GT and not under the body to aid airflow

The exhaust system’s two huge pipes are mounted high up at almost taillight level and not under the body to aid airflow. Even the rear taillights are hollow to aid aerodynamic performance. The work has paid off as the GT has the lowest frontal drag in its class.

The lightweight body features copious amounts of carbon fibre and aluminium. Dutchman Lee Roeks, the chief at Ford Performance Europe told The Irish Times: “Primarily everything’s was designed to win Le Mans” yet Roeks stresses the GT can be driven on a daily commute too.

The 3.5-litre engine is, surprisingly, a twin turbocharged V6 petrol engine. The mid-mounted engine was chosen as it was already tested and proven at Daytona, but also because it was compact.

Witchcraft

The EcoBoost unit snarls to life with the press of a button. Not so long ago a road car with a power output of 650hp and 745nm would be seen as witchcraft, but in today’s world of 1,000hp-plus hybrid hypercars the GT’s output seems relatively modest. That said, the sprint from 0 to 100km/h takes just three seconds.

In normal mode the GT is a simple-to-use seven-speed automatic. A twist of the rotary dial to manual and a further press of a centre button in the dial confirmed we’d be controlling the gear selection.

In normal drive mode the soundtrack was pure race car as the V6 growled to life and small stones and dust from the track surface ricocheted off the inner wheel arches. The acceleration was smooth and linear as we tugged at the steering wheel-mounted gear shifters from first to second to third and then fourth without lifting off the throttle, up to about 6,000rpm. Then it was time to brake and settle the car back into third gear for a long left-hander.

Sighting the arc of the bend marked out by tiny cones through the side window we entered the turn with the car settled at the right speed to attack the arc at a constant speed and steering angle. The balance was instant and we were easily able to squeeze a bit more power without any complaints from the chassis.

The left-hander opened up for a quick dart in a straight line before grabbing some brake and second gear for a sharp right-hand bend, followed by another brief straight into a hairpin left that then turned into a very long left-hander in second with the revs high.

In a road car you could take the hairpin at about 15km/h with a lot of body roll, but we were touching 70km/h and the body was completely flat. Patience was needed as the limit of grip was almost reached, and that’s the astonishing thing with the new GT; mere mortals and not race drivers can feel exactly what grip there is and what the car is doing.

In sport mode, activated by a small dial mounted on the steering wheel, the GT comes more alive as the anti-lag system gives a 0.4 second improvement in throttle response time. The engine gets angrier and the changes between gears more dramatic as we lap faster again.

Track mode

In track mode, selected by putting the GT in park and twisting the rotary dial, the GT literally drops 50mm with a clunk. The active rear wing pops up and fills your centre mirror. The wing also acts as an air brake when needed.

In track mode the GT is ridiculously well balanced. The GT’s suspension is the real star. It features racing wishbones with inboard mounted active DSSV dampers/shock absorbers. The shock’s internal make up features two springs, one of which can be compressed and locked out to deliver track hard suspension and the 50mm lower ride height.

Before you ask, there is a waiting list for the 1,000 new GTs, built in the US at a price tag of over $400,000 before taxes. And only 50 are destined for Europe this year.

Ford is making much of its rigorous screening process for buyers, hoping to weed out speculators seeking to make a quick buck from the true fans. Potential buyers had to apply and, if selected, were invited to talks with the GT development team. Only after this process was complete and Ford was happy they had a genuine fan on the list, did the conversation turn to a sales pitch and pricing.

It’s perhaps a mark of honour for Irish petrolheads, therefore, that of the 50 destined for Europe, one of the new GTs has already been delivered to an Irish buyer, while another has reportedly landed on our shores in the last few weeks.

The blue oval may be too blue collar to be regarded in the heady world of Italian supercar brands, but it’s refreshing to see a firm still eager to preserve its racing pedigree at a time when resources are tight and so much focus is on the new age of motoring for an electric and autonomous future.

Ford will be a big player in both, but it is determined to do so on the firm foundations of its history and heritage, one that includes great achievements in motorsport. The new GT is physical embodiment of the sentiment. It just so happens it’s also incredible fun on the road and track as well.

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