Payne: Ford GT tested at warp speed. Wow.
Stickering at half-a-million dollars, the 2017 Ford GT race car in street clothing is unobtainable, made-from-unobtanium, and unbelievably capable. As I folded myself into its cockpit for a test drive this month at Utah Motorsports race track, I couldn’t help but think of its old man, the legendary GT40.
My favorite racing encounter against the 1966 GT40 came in the mid-1990s at New York’s Watkins Glen race track. Vintage racing in those days brought together the finest sports racers of the 1960s: the GT40, Ferrari 330, Lola T70, Lotus 23, Chevron B16 ... and Porsches like my 1966 906.
On this day I was cooking along in second place, locked in a race-long duel for first with a sister 906. But I knew a Ford GT was lurking. Beset by bugs in practice but skillfully manned, it started from the back of the pack — where it wouldn’t stay long.
My 220-horse, 1,350-pound Porsche had dominated the 2.0-liter class at the ’66 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the Ford was a different species — a 7-liter, 2,682-pound, 485-horsepower brute that had finished 1-2-3 overall that same year. Ford would repeat its win four years running.
As I scaled the Glen’s uphill esses with two laps to go, the GT40’s unmistakable, shark-like visage loomed in my mirrors. As we emerged onto the long back-straight, the Ford went by like a freight train, its huge center-mounted twin exhaust nearly blowing me off the road at 150 mph, the deafening V-8 rattling my eardrums.
Inside my helmet, I think I let out a “wow.”
That’s how racers feel about the GT, America’s most revered race badge. So you can imagine the anticipation for this year’s Ford supercar, the first GT in 50 years that’s purpose-built to go racing.
It’s different than the 2005 V8-powered GT made to celebrate Ford Motor Company’s centennial. Capable as it was, that model was meant for production only. The 2017 car was built from the ground up to reclaim the Le Mans title that old-man GT40 won in 1966 — while satisfying rules requiring that the race thoroughbreds be born from a production sire.
A year ago, the GT race car won Le Mans. Mission accomplished. Now comes the production version which I sampled in Utah.
Payne drives the "most anticipated chariot of 2017," the Ford GT production model.
With its state-of-the-art aerodynamics and electronic wizardry, it is 50 light years from its ancestor. Drivers concede that, for all its glory, the 1966 car was a handful. An engine strapped to four wheels. Heavy and cramped, it was a physical experience. The new GT is a 21st-century thrill ride.
Getting into the Ford, I felt like a Jedi pilot strapping into an X-Wing.
Just fore of the car’s signature sci-fi “flying buttress” air scoops, I lowered my 6-foot-5 frame under the scissor door and into a spartan carbon-fiber space capsule.
The cabin’s focus is the digital instrument panel and a steering wheel that contains every function — from driving modes to turn signals to huge batwing paddles that operate the car’s quick twin-clutch seven-speed tranny. Press the starter button and the old GT’s V-8 drama is gone, replaced by the purposeful grunt of a twin-turbo “Ecoboost” V-6. On Utah mountain roads the precision of the carbon-fiber chassis was reminiscent of the $60,000 carbon Alfa Romeo 4C’s scalpel-like precision. A 4C with 647-horsepower, 550 pound-feet of torque and 400 pounds of downforce, that is. Those numbers come into clearer focus at the track.
Thumb the Mode selector to “Track” and the car thunks to 75 millimeters off the ground like it was dropped from IndyCar air jacks. That’s race-car low, just shy of the Le Mans car’s 50 mm. From launch control, the car rockets forward, my right hand flicking off shifts as the car builds speed smoothly. There is no high-rev wail like a Corvette or Porsche flat-6. Just. Relentless. Thrust.
A rear-wheel drive racer with none of the all-wheel, rear-turn steer tricks used by some of its supercar peers (tricks that are illegal in racing), the GT’s handling is familiar to any sports car driver with understeer in low-speed turns and manageable oversteer under throttle as the 647 horses overwhelm the grooved Michelins (note to owners: buy slicks for the track).
Unfamiliar, however, is the tail’s tendency to step out as I brake from high speed into tight bends.
Aussie Ford ace Ryan Briscoe climbs into the cockpit for a few laps and explains. It’s caused by downforce washing off the back of the car as I scrub speed, shifting weight to the front.
All that downforce is the GT’s secret sauce: advanced, active aerodynamic design that makes this supercar at once both physically alluring and wicked quick.
Two years on from its dramatic introduction at the 2015 Detroit auto show, the Ford is still the most head-turning car on the floor. At this spring’s New York Auto Show, I ended a group floor-tour at a twin-striped red GT at the Ford stand. Jaws dropped. Strapped into a similar red car just inches off the track, the car’s beauty takes on a different meaning. It’s an aerodynamic tour de force headlining 50 years of fluid dynamics since a 1966 car that barely knew the term.
The shark nose is still familiar. But where the ’66 car used air largely to feed the hungry mid-engine V-8, the ’17 also uses air to press the body to the ground. My carbon-fiber cockpit is integrated into a narrow Formula One-style “nose and keel” chassis construction with shocks, springs, seats and engine concentrated in the middle of the car. Enormous, forged aluminum A-arms attach wheels to keel and open up huge tunnels between the chassis and rolling bits, which sucks the shark to pavement.
Air rushes out from under the car through a diffuser, working with a top-side wing rising hydraulically above the rear deck as the car gains speed. When I stomp on the huge carbon-ceramic brakes (more unobtanium), the wing snaps up at a 90-degree angle — WHAP! — helping to slow the ground missile.
My tester is only one of 1,000 GTs that will be built — the first rolled off Ford production-partner Multimatic’s Toronto line in December. Multimatic will produce one a day, 250 a year, for four years. Each car starts at $450,000 before options. Every one is spoken for. Unobtainable, yes.
But like its forefather, it represents America’s best.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Ford GT
Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger,
3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6
Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic with
3,000 pounds (est. for
Competition Series trim)
$450,000 base price
647 horsepower, 550 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (Car and Driver est.)
EPA est: 11 mpg city/15 highway/14 combined
Galactic Starfighter design;
Wavy windscreen glass; only 1,000 made
Overall:★★★★(Do I hear five stars?)
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★