Ford GT is back to race at Rolex 24 at Daytona

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s fabled GT supercar will return to the racetrack for the first time since 1969 this weekend, when it competes in the Rolex 24 at the Daytona International Speedway.

There’s a lot on the line for the new GT, which had its secret resurrection in a locked basement corner of Ford’s product development center and was unveiled to applause at the 2015 Detroit auto show.

The street version, which goes on sale in very limited quantities later this year, serves as a test bed for technologies, lightweighting techniques and features that could become commonplace on future vehicles throughout its lineup. The race version, which will compete in the 24-hour sports car endurance race at Daytona and then the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, marks the supercar’s return to racing for a company with legendary roots in the sport.

“There’s a rich history of Ford, when they put their mind to it, doing extremely well,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book. “I think that’s why there’s such excitement about this Daytona weekend. It feels Ford’s doing that again; they’re deciding they’re putting massive focus and effort to be a major force in the racing world.”

Ford will race two GTs (the No. 66 and No. 67) alongside two prototype vehicles in the Daytona event. Six veteran drivers from the Chip Ganassi Racing Team will swap GT driving duties on the speedway’s 3.56-mile circuit which winds through a high-speed banked oval and a twisting infield road course.

Inside look before Ford GT takes on the Rolex 24

The automaker has an impressive resume there: Ford won the inaugural 1966 24 Hours of Daytona and has six overall victories there in 1965, 1966, 1997, 1999, 2012 and 2015 (in that last race, using a prototype vehicle powered by the GT’s engine).

The 1966 win served as a tune-up before its stunning 1-2-3 podium sweep later that year at Le Mans over heavy favorites Porsche and Ferrari, a David-vs.-Goliath story that saw a domestic car company best the established European racing powers. Most observers don’t expect a win in the Ford GT’s first outing, but the company is hoping 2016 could turn into a repeat of the Daytona and Le Mans races of 50 years ago.

“You always race to win,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. told The Detroit News earlier this month.

GT’s physical and tech specs

The GT made a splash at the 2015 North American International Auto Show. Visitors crowded around the blue supercar for the entirety of the show, and a white version drew notable crowds at this year’s show. It’s prompted a number of tweets from Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who has been appreciative of the GT’s features and has asked how to buy one.

Ford Performance marketing manager Henry Ford III said in an interview, “It’s a great symbol of the innovation at Ford. We’re a company that always pushed the boundaries. We are really excited about this racecar because while it certainly is a testament to our heritage and legacy, it really is very forward-looking and innovative.”

The street-version supercar is powered by a 600-horsepower 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine, which has similar architecture to engines on other Ford vehicles like the F-150. The horsepower from the Daytona racing GTs will be in the low 500s, as limited by the race’s sanctioning body.

The car has more than 50 sensors that generate 100 gigabytes of data per hour and feed 28 microprocessors which control everything from tire pressure to door latches. The GT includes more than 10 million lines of code, about 8 million more than an F-22 fighter jet, Ford said.

Its Gorilla Glass windshield is 12 pounds lighter than a traditional windshield — a 30 percent weight savings — and is scratch-resistant.

“A lot of the technology we’re continuing to push the limits on, we can then cascade down through the rest of the product lineup,” Ford III said.

The car’s interior has fixed seats bolted into a carbon fiber tub, although the steering wheel and pedals can move about eight inches to accommodate larger or smaller drivers.

The interior space was so small that designers had to put the air vents on the doors instead of the dash. The center console has just enough room to fit the smaller iPhone 6. “We had to be as lean and as efficient as possible,” Amko Leenarts, Ford’s global interior design director, said earlier this year.

To a typical bystander, the racing GT seen this weekend at Daytona won’t be much different than what you can buy. The race version has one seat instead of two, and the interior is virtually bare, except for safety equipment.

“Sometimes, the car on the track has nothing to do with what you see in the showroom,” Brauer said. “This car is going to have the same basic engine layout and bodywork that you can buy later this year. A lot of the tech and drivetrain components are exactly the same.”

Ford will limit production of the supercar to 250 a year. It has said it will be priced competitively with the Lamborghini Aventador, which starts at around $400,000.

Racing heritage and legacy

Ford’s beginnings can be traced back to motorsports. Founder Henry Ford built a two-cylinder “Sweepstakes” racer in 1901 and won a race in Grosse Pointe. He used his winnings and reputation to start the Henry Ford Company before forming Ford Motor Co. a few years later.

“If that doesn’t justify Ford investing in race cars, I don’t know what does,” Brauer said. “Racing’s in their DNA.”

The Daytona race will be grueling. Each GT will be piloted by a rotation of three drivers during the 54th running of the marathon event.

Joey Hand, Sebastien Bourdais and Dirk Muller will trade duties in the No. 66 GT. Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Stefan Mucke are in No. 67. Hand and Bourdais have previously won the Rolex 24.

They’ll be up against both foreign and domestic competitors like Ferrari and Chevrolet when the green flag drops at 2:10 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s a long race, and there’s no questions it’s about endurance,” Ford III said. “This race will give us a great opportunity to prove out the durability of the car and the engine.”

Ford is proving out the vehicle for Le Mans later this year. After its stunning 1966 victory, the GT won again in 1967, 1968 and 1969 — the last year it competed.

Ford III said the company knew it wanted to return to the race for the 50th anniversary of the Le Mans win after realizing they could build both a successful race and street version of the vehicle.

“The GT is technologically advanced and forward-looking, but at the same time we certainly want to recognize our heritage in racing,” he said. “It’s a huge story for us.”

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