2017 Ford GT First Drive: Race-Winning Purity You Can Drive On The Street
– Tooele, Utah
Surrounded by two beautifully snowcapped mountain ranges and an arid desert plain, a technically demanding race track is sprinkled with a half-dozen glimmering examples of one of the most enthusiastically awaited supercars of the past few years. Only, this isn’t merely a supercar. It’s the Ford GT. As just the third generation of a lineage dripping with sentimentality and overflowing with history, very few cars can command the kind of respect on name alone as the GT. It’s seductive, and for a moment I’m like an awestruck teenager witnessing the female form for the first time. But there is work to do in this demi-paradise.
With 250 cars slated to be produced annually for the next four years, only a highly select few – handpicked by Ford – will get the privilege of paying north of $450,000 for one. And only one: Ford wants no repeat customers for its pride and joy. Profit margin is hardly a consideration here. To be successful, the needles the GT must move are systolic and diastolic, rather than financial. That means it has to remain true to the original without coming across as a hackneyed interpretation. Even then, though, it absolutely must be devastatingly quick or nothing else matters.
However arrestingly beautiful the Ford GT may be, the car’s raison d’etre is very much in-line with its GT40 grandfather: win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Period. To that end, the race car (which did fulfill its life’s purpose at Le Mans last year) and the road car are incredibly similar. Unlike virtually all other production cars today, this was designed literally from day one to be a race car first.
Naysayers slight the car for its V6 instead of the “traditional” V8 engine, but that misses the point entirely. Every millimeter of beautiful bodywork on this car is highly functional, in keeping with the best of race car tradition. The skin is so tightly wrapped around the mechanical bits that without the twin-turbo EcoBoost V6, the car’s form would be radically different. Gone would be those bold side pods that house the turbos’ intercoolers, and the flying buttresses that house their plumbing. Since those buttresses are also used for structural rigidity and to shape the flow of air toward the rear wing, they’re far more than just a defining characteristic of the car’s shape. A V8 would have ruined this Ford GT, however glorious the sound.
Climbing into the GT is both easier than most race cars and more demanding than your typical supercar. There’s a steel, FIA-approved, race-legal roll cage, and you’d never realize it from looking at or even sitting in the car. That’s simply not possible in most cars. On your way out, the extra wide door sill provides a suitable posterior resting area for anyone lacking in graceful egress skills. For reasons of both a legal and safety nature, the seats are fixed in place to prevent occupants that are Napoleonic in stature from scooting forward, lest they sit too close to that roll cage. Instead, there’s a nylon strap located at about knee level: pull on it, and the entire pedal box – including the dead pedal – slides toward your feet.
Pressing the shiny red start button triggers an aural accompaniment that serves as a reminder that this car was built not merely to pay homage to its heritage, but to continue its ancestor’s mission. Once it screams to life – and it is most definitely a scream – the 647-horsepower, 550-pound-feet EcoBoost V6 is actually more powerful in the production car than the quartet campaigned by Chip Ganassi Racing on both sides of the Pond, thanks to class regulations.
I turn a knob on the steering wheel from N (normal), past S (sport), to T, for track mode. The car asks for confirmation that I really want this – um, yes! – before a hydraulic actuator compresses the inboard-mounted coil springs until they no longer move. The chassis drops by two inches (50 millimeters) in under a second. The result is that the suspension is now “sprung” by a single torsion rod’s resistance to twisting. It’s a neat trick, made possible only by the nearly infinite adjustability of the state-of-the-art DSSV (that’s Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve) dampers. It’s as beautiful for its elegant simplicity as its revolutionary functionality.
The Ford GT isn’t merely closely related to the GTE and GTLM race cars, it’s the Clark Kent to their Superman. Out on the race track, it’s breathtakingly quick. I need a lap and a half before I can even put my right foot completely to the floor on the short straights. Squeeze on the brake pedal, and the GT’s active rear wing folds itself into a vertical air brake. Smoothly apply throttle again, and it reverts to a heavy downforce setting that even sees a minute Gurney flap pop up at the wing’s trailing edge. As it does so, two flaps in the front of the car close, forcing air to either pass through the iconic nostrils that house the radiators, or beneath the car, where the floor is shaped to create a vacuum over the front axle before directing the air out through a large vent behind the front wheels.
Powering out of a hairpin, I keep my right foot firmly planted. Driven in anger, the wail of the EcoBoost V6 is decidedly more Boost than Eco. I’ve been floored for barely a second before I have to grab fourth gear, which happens instantaneously. The engine repeats its glorious climb through the rpm range, but as I shift into fifth, it’s the farthest thing on my mind as all focus is on locating the rapidly approaching braking point. As I squeeze on the left pedal, the wing does its thing, and the transmission shifts down through the gears so quickly, blipping the throttle each time, that it truly feels closer to a single seat race car than a normal sports car.
The old school hydraulic steering rack is perfectly direct and an able communicator. Mid-corner, the car is sublime in its balance, easily adjusted with the accelerator or brake. It’s such an easy car to drive that it can make an average pilot feel like a stud, yet it’s perfectly set up for someone with elite skills to search for the (very, very high) limits of adhesion. The GT doesn’t break the laws of physics; it merely uses them as its personal playground.
Driven with restraint on public roads, the car is a bit of an enigma. The comically large intercooler pods in front of the rear wheels proudly loiter in the side mirrors, giving the impression that the car is much wider than it really is. With the wing deployed, much of the view through the rear window is obstructed, but rearward visibility isn’t a problem, because you can see through the large, aerodynamic channels between the intercoolers and the compact V6.
Turning onto a mountain pass, I’m immediately aware that there’s gravel strewn across the pavement. The clatter of pebbles bouncing off the undercarriage is unmuffled by sound deadening as it reverberates through the cabin. I’m sure it’s exactly the kind of noise that some will complain about, but it’s music in a thoroughbred. Insulation against such sounds would add heft to the 3,054-pound car and defeat the purpose of the glorious lightweight carbon fiber tub. Still, on a 49-degree day, it’s toasty inside the cabin, thanks not to the quartet of air registers neatly molded into the doors themselves, but to the mid-mounted engine’s heat as it seeps through. It’s a subtle reminder that, for everything this GT is great at, it doesn’t do “grand touring” particularly well.
Descending that same pass, I put the transmission in automatic mode, just to see what it’s like. The novelty fades after just two corners, and I revert to controlling the shifting myself. Later, one of Ford’s engineers isn’t surprised, and he explains that they didn’t spend too much effort calibrating the computer for automatic shifting, since so few are expected to ever really use it like that.
A dozen buttons, along with two toggles, two knobs, the two shift paddles, and a set of LED rev lights adorn the steering wheel. I’m most interested in the knob on the left that controls the drive modes. In “normal” mode, the sharpened edges are dulled quite a bit for city driving, but out here on a public road, “sport” is the sweet spot.
Cross the 75-miles-per-hour threshold, and the rear wing raises up, transforming into a metaphorical scarlet letter that announces you’ve just exceeded the speed limit (a brief switch to normal is enough to retract it). The EcoBoost’s advanced anti-lag system keeps the turbos spooled and ready, resulting in not only fantastic throttle response, but a glorious and addictive whoosh sound every time you lift your foot. For the next few miles, my right foot is an obsessed child, mindlessly playing with its new noisemaker. Exhaust roar. Whoosh. Exhaust roar. Whoosh.
Utah’s finest are well aware that media types are out driving Ford’s 216-mile-per-hour monster, and right on cue, I see an officer lying in wait as I round a bend. I dare not go even a mile an hour over the speed limit on the mostly minor highways in a car that stands out as much as this. Driving on public roads teaches me absolutely nothing about the car’s stratospheric performance envelope, but everything I need to know about what the car means to the average person. Literally every driver and passenger of every car I see has their eyes glued, head on a swivel, tracking the sexy new Ford as I drive past. My highway time evaporates all too quickly.
As I return to the track, I ponder what the GT truly is. The shape is a marriage of form and function that screams of the past and future of performance. In its native track environment, the car is driving nirvana, its analog feel a direct result of complex engineering feats. On the street, the unapologetic lack of compromise lends it a raw visceral nature that never lets you forget the purpose of the beast. And to that purpose, it’s already an established race winner in international competition. In the end, the Ford GT is exactly everything it needs to be, and not an ounce more.