Devil in the detail

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The Ford GT40 was built to beat Ferrari. It succeeded. Its modern equivalent did the same 50 years later. What, if anything, do father and son have in common?

The Ford GT and GT40 scored their respective first Le Mans victories 50 years apart. In the decades between, man has been to the moon and invented the internet – but the essentials of GT race car design have remained remarkably similar. If you want to be fast, place a powerful, high-torque engine in the middle of a low-slung chassis, pay close attention to reliability and engineer the car to be as friendly to drive as possible. The difference, as they say, is in the detail. Over the next few pages, we compare various technical features and reveal hitherto little-known facts about Ford’s sensational sports cars.

Genesis

Its offer to purchase Ferrari rejected, Ford quickly mobilised to take on the Italians. $1.7million was earmarked for year one (about $14m today), and a team was sent to the UK to meet Eric Broadley of Lola. On the same trip, Colin Chapman was also investigated, but his autocratic nature didn’t gel with the Ford team and Chapman likewise had reservations about working with the Blue Oval. His asking price, possibly intentionally, was considered too high for even the mighty Ford. 

When Ford decided to come back to sports car racing in 2015, it created ‘Project Silver’ – but the proposed car was very different to that you see below. Indeed that other performance Ford classic, the Mustang, was the first and unusual choice to take on the Ferraris, Aston Martins and Corvettes at Le Mans. 

In order to compete, however, initial calculations yielded a car that wouldn’t really look like a Mustang and would cost more than £250,000 on the road. One of the Mustang’s USPs is that it democratised performance; at this price it became something else. Rather than forcing a car into the regs, it was decided to engineer around the regs. In other words, to build a car from scratch – a worthy successor indeed to the GT40.

Cockpit

Curiously, Ford put a fair amount into driver comfort with the GT40. Vents drew air from ahead of the cockpit, then exited through numerous circular grommets in the seats. Plus the seats had an adjustable lumber pad, operated by a hand pump. The carbon seats (left) in the GT40 raced by contributor Dickie Meaden and Gerhard Berger look like torture devices by comparison…

Modern race teams care little for driver comfort, but the rulemakers do. The latest Ford GT is required to have air-conditioning. A rear camera is also linked to a cabin-mounted screen to alert the driver to surrounding cars.   

Chassis

The original GT40 was heavy. It used sheet steel instead of a more conventional aluminium monocoque chassis, with subframes bolted at either end. However, steel was easier and more cost-effective to produce and later it allowed the big-block engine to be fitted without major reinforcements. Similarities with the GT? Erm, it also has subframes front and rear… and that’s it. The GT is anchored in the middle by a carbon fibre cell, is 623mm longer than the GT40 and 226mm wider. At 1029mm (40.5inches) however, the older car is 81mm lower.

Aerodynamics

GT40 models were wind tunnel-tested at Dearborn, determining the positioning of air ducts and radiators and establishing the location of high- and low-pressure areas. Like the modern car (which received 400 hours in the windtunnel), considerable effort was put into airflow through the car – in particular beneath the nose, where air was fed to a radiator then exited via tow outlets on the bonnet area. This became a defining visual feature on not only the GT40, but the GTs of the early 2000s and the latest car. 

Aerodynamically, the first Ford GT40 was alarmingly light on the nose, generating 1100lb of lift at 150mph. After two cars were wrecked at the first Le Mans test, the team placed a full-width spoiler across the rear – contrary to wind-tunnel data. It worked. The car was more stable, had less drag, and produced a higher top speed. In contrast the first time the new Ford GT was tested, the drivers reported the opposite – it had extreme front end grip and was very loose on the rear, sending the engineers back to their computer screens and the wind tunnel.

Computing

During development, computers were employed to calculate wheel positioning in relation to suspension deflection – calculations that would have taken weeks for the human brain to sift. Think we’re describing the latest car? We are. But we’re also describing the original… Back in the ’60s, Ford placed huge faith in computers, but soon learned that the results were only as accurate as the information that was fed in. The latest car ‘existed’ for more than 2000 hours in Computational Fluid Dynamic software before it reached the track, and in certain areas uses a manufacturing process that would have been dismissed as science fiction in the 1960s – 3D printing.

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