INSIDE GROOVE: Ford Flounders at the Rolex 24
At the 2015 North American International Auto Show, Ford didn’t just steal headlines with the surprise unveiling of the Ford GT, they stole them, hightailed it out of Detroit and were halfway around the world by the time people figured out what was going on. In this day and age of spy photos, Internet leaks, staged spy photos and planned Internet leaks, the GT was a real neck-snapper.
Of course, at least part of the success of this unveiling had to do with history. The forthcoming Ford GT will be just the third iteration of this homegrown supercar in over 50 years. The original was designed and engineered to win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and it did just that, securing the overall victory four years in a row from 1966-69. Simple math reveals that this year is the 50th anniversary of that historic first win.
What’s perhaps less well known is that the Ford GT40 also dominated at Daytona 50 years ago, capturing first, second and third in the first-ever 24hour race at the legendary track. (The first-ever win for the GT40 came in 1965 when the Ford entered by Carroll Shelby won the 2,000 km long Daytona 2000.) There were production versions of the GT40 available to regular customers in limited numbers, but the car was principally developed to secure racing glory.
The second-generation Ford GT, which arrived in 2004, was inspired by the original and was a credible super- car in its own right. This GT boasted serious performance capabilities and was available in limited numbers before it ceased production. The only thing preventing this version from achieving ultimate success was a lack of big wins in the big races. A handful of Ford GTS campaigned by private teams around the world did secure some victories and titles, but nothing on the scale of Daytona or Le Mans.
The 2017 Ford GT is kind of a combination of both approaches, according to Dave Pericak, the Global Director for Ford Performance. “We’ve had a very unique opportunity to develop both the road car and the race car at exactly the same time,” he says from the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing garage at this year’s Rolex 24 endurance race. “It’s sort of a blessing and a curse at the same time. You get to bake into the road car what you need for the race car… but you’re doing two developments at one time.”
Nearly 100% of the time, fairytale endings are reserved exclusively for fairytales.
Despite the collective will of a multitude of racing fans, and the people at Ford Performance, Chip Ganassi Racing and Multimatic Engineering (the Markham-based company responsible for engineering and building the Ford GT), the Rolex 24 at Daytona was not a Cinderella story for the car.
Pericak maintained that the team was not viewing Daytona as an extended test session for their return to Le Mans this coming June. But this was the very first competitive outing for the Ford GT and the competition in GT circles is now relentless.
There may have been a time, probably not so long ago, when endurance racing was a more measured affair – work on your own reliability first, wait for your competitors to crash or suffer a mechanical failure, generate speed only when necessary. Nowadays, round-the-clock endurance races such as Daytona and Le Mans are effectively 24-hour sprints now. The leading teams bring to the table bulletproof reliability, record-breaking speed and inscrutable consistency – from their cars and drivers alike.
Lost in the shuffle of the Ford presence at Daytona was the fact that other manufacturers hadn’t been sitting on their hands in the off-season.
Two perennial contenders for GT endurance racing glory – Chevrolet and Porsche – showed up with significantly revised versions of the Corvette C7-R and 911 RSR, respectively. Two other formidable entities – BMW and Ferrari – brought brand-new GTLE cars to Daytona – the new M6 and 488 GTE, respectively. (Running in the separate GTD class was the brand-new Lamborghini Huracán and a revised version of the Audi R8 LMS GT3.)
But just as they had done with the introduction of the Ford GT in Detroit, Ford stole the show with the race version in Daytona. A big percentage of the headlines referred to the legacy of the car. Many of the photo galleries included shots of the mean-looking machine in its red, white and blue livery. The PR people for the other factory-supported teams had been turned into backmarkers.
Nevertheless, collective hopes for the Ford GTS were dashed early on. A handful of laps into the race, the No. 66 car, piloted by former Daytona winner Joey Hand, moved into the class lead. But the other car went in the other direction. Less than 20 minutes into the race, the No. 67 driven by Ryan Briscoe became stuck in sixth gear and was forced into the pits for repairs.
As the race progressed, the mechanical gremlins jumped over to the No. 66 as well. During a routine tire change, a brake line was damaged. Then, electronics issues affected the turbocharged 3.5L V6 Ecoboost engine and, lastly, familiar transmission troubles took hold.
The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing crew worked tirelessly to ensure both cars made it to the finish and they were successful in this regard. The No. 66 car finished seventh in class and 31st overall; the sister car finished ninth in class and 40th overall. A race that was not supposed to be an extended test session had, by necessity, become an extended test session.
But everyone involved with the Ford GT race program is thinking bigpicture. “Returning to Le Mans after 50 years is really important to us as a company,” Pericak stresses. “It would be really great to bring that victory home not only for Ford, the company, but Ford, the family, as well. So there’s a lot at stake right now.”