Like the British referendum on Europe, we had all known about it for a long time, but it needed a seminal moment before the reality hit home. On the Brexit debate, it was the impromptu press gathering in which Boris Johnson came out in opposition to the Prime Minister, while for the Ford GT, it was a humble marketing exercise in central London.
Ahead of the World Endurance Championship’s opening round at Silverstone, the GT was loaded into a transparent lorry and paraded in a slow lap around the city.
Of course, it had been testing for months on end and finally made its competition debut amid much fanfare at the Daytona 24 Hours, where Joey Hand briefly led the race before teething troubles struck. The car had even been given pride of place at the Autosport International Show in Birmingham’s NEC, where it looked right at home alongside the Porsche 919 Hybrid which won Le Mans outright last year.
But for all its extensive media coverage in special-interest motoring media, because Ford’s flagship supercar has yet to enter production – and thus required a waiver from the FIA and ACO to allow it to compete – the GT had not been visible to all walks of life in until its trip into London.
— 24 Hours of Le Mans (@24hoursoflemans) June 7, 2016
Unsurprisingly, it generated a huge amount of interest wherever it went, proving so successful that Ford repeated the trick this past week in Paris. With its futuristic aero, cutting-edge Ecoboost engine and patriotic livery, the GT is the kind of visually evocative machine that captures the essence of what makes motorsport exciting, demanding fans to dig into their pockets for a picture on their iPhones.
And then there’s the story – if somehow the car itself doesn’t resonate, then the narrative surely will. 2016 marks the 50 years since Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon led home a 1-2-3 finish for the GT40 at Le Mans back in 1966, the first of four wins for the Blue Oval on the trot between 1966 and 1969. Aptly, the four cars entered in this year’s race are numbered 66, 67, 68 and 69, but if Ford don’t win, they can always mark the 50th anniversary of 1967…
The project’s architect is executive vice president, Global Product Development and chief technical officer Raj Nair. As Racing.GT sit down with him in Ford’s gigantic hospitality unit, Nair presents an image of effortless calm. He’s told his side of the story many times already and can probably explain the significance of Le Mans to the Ford brand in his sleep, but when asked about Ford’s impact, he momentarily pauses.
“We’re so close to it, we’re taking it very seriously,” he says. “What the GT40 did in ’66, ’67, ’68 and ’69 is a very big deal within the company and a proud moment in our heritage, so we’re honoured to do another Ford GT and hopefully we’ll make the company proud of us. It’s hard for me to state the impact beyond that, it’s a very personal thing for us.”
Success is what makes Ford tick and Nair can already point to two early success as validation for the phenomenal effort Ford have put into getting their programme off the ground. Just five races into its first season of international competition at Laguna Seca, a phenomenal 52-lap stint on one tank of fuel from Richard Westbrook gave the GT a well-received first win in IMSA, which was swiftly followed by a first WEC podium at Spa for the all British crew of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tinknell and Marino Franchitti.
“Certainly some of us felt that this would really resonate with race fans and with the general public, but I think even those of us who were really excited about doing the programme were surprised at the reception,” Nair continues. “The response from the fans wherever the car goes has been over the top, certainly way beyond our expectations and it’s been great to have such early support.
“When we initially talked about whether we should do the programme, we spoke with the ACO and IMSA about it and they were obviously very receptive, but even our competitors, the other manufacturers have welcomed us into the series, so we’ve been very appreciative of that. We recognise there’s a lot of interest and that’s been great to see, but obviously we’ve got a job to do as well.”
The big question is whether Ford can mark their 50th anniversary with a win on their first year back at Le Mans. With a useful 25kg weight break, a crew led by US open-wheel luminary Chip Ganassi and a star-studded driver line-up featuring IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Sebastian Bourdais, could the stars align for a fairytale result?
— Ford Performance (@FordPerformance) June 5, 2016
“None of us come to a race just to fill the field, we’ll race to win like we always do. Any racer that tells you he’s happy with anything less than a win is probably not telling the entire truth,” Nair says.
“We’ll be proud of the effort no matter what, but clearly we race to win. I appreciate that’s a lot to ask for a car that’s in its first year, based on a production model that won’t be available until the end of this year and ran by a brand new team that we’re putting together both in the US and in Europe – it’s not a prediction, but that’s what we’d like to do!
“We’re pretty pleased with the way the car has come out of the box, its shown good pace, good balance and a response to changes. Its natural behaviour is something the drivers really like, we’re not fighting to find chassis and aero balance in the car.
“The engine is reasonably proven because we’ve raced it for two years in Daytona Prototypes and it won in Daytona, Sebring and COTA, but putting all of that together and particularly in racing conditions is something altogether different. The one thing I can guarantee will happen during the race week is that one of the race engineers will come up to me and say ‘that never happened in testing!’”