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Salt Lake City, Utah –

Whether winning LeMans or wowing the automotive press at 130 mph on the Utah Motorsport Campus race track, the 2017 Ford GT has realized its lofty dreams.

Built to return Ford to glory 50 years after its fabled drubbing of Ferrari, the GT race car beat all production-based competitors last year at the world’s premier endurance race. This month, the production version debuted to members of the automotive media who came here from across the globe to sample the supercar’s twin-turbo thrust, active aerodynamics and sizzling track performance.

So it’s hard to imagine that the Ford GT might never have happened. Indeed, it was conceived as a Mustang.

When Ford’s Performance Team first plotted in early 2013 how to commemorate the GT40’s historic 1966 LeMans win, Ford’s pony car – no slouch in the performance department – seemed the perfect instrument. The LeMans 50th dovetailed with Mustang’s 50th birthday and Ford’s plans to take the iconic Yankee coupe global.

In the end, however, the GT would not be denied as Ford decided it was not only the best race car for the 24 Hours of LeMans, but also a chance to test Ford’s automotive know-how against the world.

“You can’t tell the story of the Ford GT without telling the story of Project Silver,” Ford Performance chief engineer Jamal Hameedi said trackside in Utah. “It (started as) a Mustang. It was called Project Silver after the Lone Ranger’s horse.

“Everyone felt the need to celebrate that win in a very special manner. So we began thinking. Could we align these two anniversaries and use the Mustang to go back to LeMans?”

But as captivating the idea of the Mustang conquering Europe’s greatest race sounded, it soon ran into logistical hurdles.

A race car based on a $30,000 muscle car was a vastly inferior species to Ferrari’s exotic 488-based entry (like 50 years before, Ford eyed the prancing horse as its chief rival) with a much less aerodynamic shape than the low, wide, mid-engine Italian. Production-based cars compete in LeMans GTE-class, which includes Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, and others.

“We would have been at a significant disadvantage with the Ferrari,” Hameedi said. “We would have needed a few favors from the FIA [Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the LeMans organizing body] to be an aerodynamically competitive car.”

In the basement of Ford’s Dearborn development facility, Mustang models were sketched and run through powerful computer-aided design programs. Modifying a front-engine coupe to compete in the brutally competitive GT class is not unheard of. BMW, for example, is campaigning its big M6 this year – but it is barely recognizable in race trim with enormous fenders and a steroid-fed drivetrain.

Similarly, Project Silver’s Mustang was becoming unrecognizable.

“Little by little it was morphing into a car that didn’t look so much like a Mustang,” Hameedi said. “It was like fitting a square peg in a round hole. We went all the way up to [Ford CEO] Mark Fields and the project was canceled.”

The 50th anniversary of LeMans loomed and Ford didn’t have a car. Project Silver had burned a lot of time.

“We were were back to square one,” recalled Hameedi. Inevitably, the conversation turned to a mid-engine, GT40 successor. At least his team had an engine to build the car around: the ferocious, 3.5-liter Ecoboost that Ford’s competition partner, Chip Ganassi Racing, had been testing in another race series.

“Every year you get a question and a rumor about the next GT. That was always in the back of our minds,” Hameedi said. “Certainly GT and LeMans are a natural.”

A GT heritage car had been made once before – as a $150,000, 2005 model to commemorate the company’s 100th anniversary. That car’s collector status – it is the only one of its peer group (Ferrari 360, Lamborghini Gallardo and McLaren SLR) that has appreciated in price – appealed to top Ford brass.

But a new GT would require a different level of effort. The 2005 car, powerful though it was, was not designed as a racer to beat thoroughbreds like Porsche and Ferrari. A new GT would have to meet that standard.

“There was some trepidation,” Hameedi said, as his team began GT feasibility studies. “This is such an icon in the company that there is also a fear of not going back. Anything less than a dominant victory would be seen as a failure.”

In December 2013 – just 30 months before the running of 2016’s 24 Hours of LeMans – Hameedi’s team got the green light.

“The timeline was the quickest for a production car that I have worked on,” veteran GT design manager Garen Nicoghosian said. “Even more remarkable when you factor in the co-development of the racer. I have been involved in quick programs, but they were pure race cars like the NASCAR Fusion.”

The result is breathtaking – the most technically advanced, most expensive car a Detroit company has ever made.

Unlike even the Ferrari 488, the $450,000 GT was conceived as a race car first and a production car second. That means it is inherently superior to every other production-based car in LeMans GT class.

It sports a unique “nose and keel” aerodynamic design that forces air through channels under the car. Working in tandem with a sculpted rear deck and wing, the GT’s aerodynamics literally suck it to the ground, generating an astonishing 400 pounds of downforce.

“The FIA had to really penalize the race car just to make the race fair,” Ford race jockey Ryan Briscoe says of the weight and power restrictions imposed on the GT.

Dancing around Utah Motorsport’s writhing, 2.5-mile track just 75 millimeters off the ground, the carbon-fiber 647-horsepower GT is brilliant, yet also surprisingly organic.

Where other supercar cyborgs are equipped with computer-assisted, rear-wheel-steer, all-wheel drive systems that are banned in pro racing, the GT’s rear-drive system was designed with FIA rules in mind.

After driving the race car for two years, Utah was Briscoe’s first taste of the production model.

“It has very similar tendencies (to the race car),” Briscoe says after a series of torrid laps. “(They) really reward smooth driving.”

Building a carbon car of this capability advances Ford engineering, just as the 2005 GT gave the company a headstart on aluminum construction that ultimately informed the aluminum-skin F-150 pickup a decade later.

“The GT creates an organic tech-bookshelf,” Hameedi said of the GT’s state-of-the-art engineering. “We didn’t keep anything out of this car for cost reason. One day someone at Ford will have a problem and say, ‘Didn’t they do something like that on the GT?’”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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