Last year, Ford Performance chief Dave Pericak found himself standing next to Edsel Ford II at the edge of a certain pastoral French racing circuit that has witnessed 84 years of glory, gore, grudges, and relentless grit. “You know,” mused Ford, according to Pericak’s recollection, “I was here 50 years ago with my father, when we won it. Now I’m here with my son.”
When you work at FoMoCo, you work for a family. Pericak, who, with a small group of volunteers, took over a padlocked basement room in Dearborn, Michigan, and labored on his own time and after hours for months on “Project Phoenix” before it was even approved, tells me with a faraway look: “To bring that trophy back and hand it to that family, to return the most coveted prize in family history, that’s what it was about.”
The Wait Is OverLe Mans veterans will tell you that if you bring a new team, you should keep your expectations in check. And the GT’s attempt last year to celebrate Ford’s 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans victory with a class win started ominously. In sheeting rain, one of the four GTs, already saddled with last-minute weight and boost penalties, suffered a stuck gearbox right before the green flag. Wanting to be near the action, Pericak’s boss, Ford executive VP and chief technical officer Raj Nair, leaped a rain-slicked pit wall, slipped, and broke his elbow. Amid the tension, nobody even noticed.
Almost a year later, we’re standing beside another circuit, a 2.2-mile slice of the Utah Motorsports Campus west of windy Salt Lake City, next to the roadgoing version of the Ford GT that will trickle into buyers’ hands at the rate of 250 annually over the next four years. Finally, after the surprise January 2015 reveal at the Detroit auto show, after countless magazine covers and breathless coverage, a few lucky members of the fourth estate will at long last get to drive Project Phoenix.
I am in that group, about to pilot the first cousin to an honest-to-Ronnie-Bucknum Le Mans car! The GT is pure Ford history and enthusiasm condensed against all odds and business sense into a drivable carbon-fiber Hot Wheels toy that forever will remain rare enough to drop jaws wherever it goes. And I get to drive it. On a circuit.
Because the GT’s narrow, vertical buckets don’t move (the pedals and steering column do, with wide latitude for different body types), most of the car’s buttons cluster on the rectangular wheel so you don’t have to reach to the architecturally sculpted dash of carbon-fiber bridges and buttresses. This car is not at all retro like its 2005–06 predecessor with its comparatively giant cabin; all data comes via digital screens, the one in front of the driver flashing the speed, revs, and plebeian messages such as “Driver Door Ajar.” A big anodized button in the slim center console lights the twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6, and the nearby rotary shifter seems a little out of place, like something from a Ford Fusion.Nobody is luckier than me, I think, as I stride up to the GT, doors levitated to a spread eagle, and thrust my right leg in, twist sideways, and . . . ah, no, that didn’t quite work. Let’s try sitting down on the wide sill, swinging a leg in, and—ow!—just bashed my head on the FIA-spec roll cage hidden behind the low-hanging headliner. Okay, stand up again, right leg in, twist while bending the left knee a bit, and—pop!—I feel a tendon go. There’s a white-hot flash of shooting pain in my knee, and as my left leg collapses like the bridge on the River Kwai, I tumble backward into the GT and voilà! I’m in!
A CGI image of the car appears in the dash screen when you change driving modes. Put the GT into Track mode via the thumbwheel on the steering wheel, hit the “OK” button to confirm, and the car suddenly falls a couple of inches with a startling lurch while hydraulic actuators compress the coil springs, as if the pit crew has dropped you off the jacks. Take it out of Track mode and it jumps up again with equal haste. This thing means business.
It’s a Natural
Back at Le Mans last year, luck continued not to favor Ford as it diced with Ferrari for the LM GTE Pro class lead. Loose wires caused the lead GT’s mandatory position lights to wink out, and Sébastien Bourdais, one of the team’s most seasoned vets, had to find his way through the darkness with a fritzing electrical system. In the wee hours, Nair, determined to stand with his colleagues for the entire race, approached Pericak. “I can’t hold a cup of coffee,” he said.
In Utah, Billy Johnson, just 29 when he drove the #66 car that finished fourth in class in 2016, slides in next to me. For a vehicle that is more than 15 feet long, putting two people into the GT is like stuffing a couple of bedspreads into a Maytag. As in a Lotus Elise, the seats are squeezed together, inboard of the Ford’s carbon-fiber tub’s thick structural side boxes. You will want to shower beforehand and wear only the mildest cologne, as you and your passenger are about to enjoy an intimacy Tinder users only dream about.
The affable Johnson waves me forward and we burble menacingly onto the track. A big V-6, especially one all stuffed up with turbos, doesn’t always sound fabulous, but this 647-hp unit does. It makes a proper wail, the rising, ragged tones of its exhaust sealing the car’s racing connection. You can hear the turbos whoosh a bit, but you can’t hear any of that crass pish, pish, pish, which would make it sound like just a jumped-up Mitsubishi Evo.
We start picking up the pace, Johnson reminding me of the track layout on the intensely flat, sometimes confounding course. Third and fourth gears are fine here; you can press deeper into the throttle and flood the turbines with exhaust gas without lighting up the tires. The grip is obviously tremendous and the ride not quite the body slam I was expecting. The GT swallows curbs and camber changes with sang-froid, the roll and body motions minimized but not choppy.As I warm the big Michelins and learn the track, the GT feels light and ready to play. Co-developed simultaneously alongside the competition car over a couple of short, intense years, the roadgoing GT, made up of approximately 250 carbon-fiber pieces, is not an all-or-nothing racing scull. It’s happy to motor at moderate speed with a gently progressive throttle and brakes that are easy to modulate. Considering how quickly the car was engineered and that its primary purpose was a class victory at Le Mans, it feels surprisingly refined and cohesive. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic shifts quickly, and I can’t even detect any serious turbo lag, although the engine does get a little more urgent above 3000 rpm as it beelines for the 7000-rev redline.
Push, Push, Push
The morning sun well up at Le Mans, the Grand Marnier crêpe booth was doing a brisk business and the big Ferris wheel was running at its roughly 0.5-rpm redline (with stops) when the #68 Ford GT passed the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 for the lead. The stands erupted.
Pushing myself now, I detect a bit of understeer in the tighter corners, and I’m also able to provoke the GT sideways on the exit just a little too easily. Is it loose? Johnson, next to me, starts coaching. You don’t drive the GT as you do lesser-powered cars such as—at the risk of hilarious overstatement—my old Spec Miata racer, which likes to corner under acceleration that settles and stabilizes the car. The GT has so much power and such a relatively light curb weight of about 3250 pounds, ideally distributed, that it easily overdrives its front tires. In clumsy hands it behaves clumsily.
At Le Mans, with the #68 Ford GT leading its class, the prize almost at hand, Nair and a superstitious Pericak had been doing their best to “keep the jubilation under control,” Pericak recalls. Then the lead LMP1 Toyota quit in front of the pits with one lap to go. “After that you could hear a pin drop in our garage.”Johnson advises me to do my hard braking in the traditional straight line, then trail-brake or coast as needed all the way to the apex. The GT, thus decelerating, now wants nothing more than to rotate around its axis like a gate swinging on a post. You can also feel this effect if you lift suddenly in an overcooked corner. Even in a scrubbing understeer flail, the GT’s helm will snap to and answer. On the exits, you have to be patient; mat the throttle too soon and the 325/30R-20 rear tires will break loose as the boost builds. To be fast you must learn to be smooth with this car, just like the pros. If you’re not, it’ll still play along, the breakaway terrifically gentle and the various stability-control modes letting you get more and more sideways without risking any damage.
The Utah highways beckon, and the GT loves an undulating road as much as a track. The driver feels plugged into the Ford through the quick steering and the wide pedals, and placement of the nose is easy as it flows contentedly from bend to hairpin to sweeper. Ferrari drivers, spoiled by perfect steering, will not complain.
Without helmets to muffle the noise, however, the GT’s cabin is downright loud, the exhaust in certain gears at certain throttle positions turning painfully boomy. The seats with their weirdly tufted cloth inserts barely recline, and the passenger well has a big footrest across it that is just a bit too close to the seat for a comfortable leg stretch. The “trunk” is a joke, filled to capacity by two rolled-up windbreakers. The new GT is gorgeous garage candy for a lucky few, but unlike the last GT, it won’t be much fun on a long club rally.
From Dearborn into History
Landing in Detroit after the race and the all-night parties, Pericak had to help Nair pull his suitcase down from the plane’s overhead bin. Nair looked at him and asked: “Did we just win Le Mans?” For Pericak, the victory effort and the spectacular if somewhat uncomfortable road car that it produced are “bittersweet—there were a lot of casualties,” from Nair’s arm, which eventually went into a cast, to the families who didn’t see their moms and dads much for two years.
This is a car built on sentimentality. Sure, there were other reasons for the GT, such as creating a technology test bed and taking Ford’s brand onto the international racing circuit to be enhanced by its reflected glitz. But ultimately, a family with serious resources just thought a class win at Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of Ferrari’s famous drubbing would be cool. And with a lot of sweat, a few tears, and a dash of luck, their people made it possible. All of that is embedded in this car. The experience is singular.[“Source-caranddriver”]