Peerless GT

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Ford’s Le Mans winner finally materialises without racing numbers on its flanks

Whatever its strengths and weaknesses – and it has plenty of both – the Ford GT is above all a curious kind of supercar and, as such, one that’s hard to put into any kind of handy category. You could look at its power and weight figures, two seats, mid-engine configuration and track-orientated set-up and conclude it’s a rival to the likes of the Ferrari 458 Speciale and McLaren 675LT. But it’s really not like either or, indeed, any other supercar.

 

The reason for this is simple: it’s not really a supercar at all. It’s a racing car, conceived through clever exploitation of rules intended to produce racing versions of extant road cars. The GT is precisely the reverse: a racer wearing street-legal apparel. As a result, and to quote Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance and the father of the GT, if you removed the restrictions forced upon it by Balance of Performance regulations, the race version “would leave our rivals in its dust”.

wasn’t Ford, by which time the car’s principal objective – winning its class at Le Mans – had long since been achieved.So like any racing car design hampered by normal road car requirements, it comes with a very narrow cockpit, a boot into which you’d struggle to fit a tin of biscuits, no stowage space on board, limited rearward visibility and next to none over the shoulder. And while it was the road version that was shown first in January 2015, it took two years for Ford to get around to delivering one to anyone whose surname

 

Like the McLaren the GT has a carbon tub, but it also has carbon bodywork because, well, it’s a racing car and customers were not squeamish about paying for such refinements. More than 6000 people wanted the 1000 examples Ford will build before the end of 2020, despite a list price quoted at “about £460,000” or more than double the going rate for the likes of the Ferrari 488GTB or McLaren’s new 720S. And remember Ford has said only that these are all it will build for now: production has not been capped at that level.

The greatest criticism it has attracted from those who’ve not driven it is the fact it comes with a 3.5-litre V6 motor, a version of which is available in SUVs in the US. I wonder if those same people complain also that Aston Martin’s glorious 6-litre V12 started life as two 3-litre V6 Ford Mondeo engines, or that the 16-cylinder engine in the Bugatti Veyron is, albeit distantly, related to an engine that was once in a VW Passat? I’m more interested in where it will take you than where it’s come from and while, yes, of course I’d rather there was some monstrous 90-degree V8 in the back, that would get in the way of the aerodynamic package that’s so important to this car’s on-track performance.

It’s not an easy car either to enter or exit if you’re a large middle-aged man, but once behind a weirdly squared-off wheel plastered in buttons, the driving position is essentially sound. The seat base is fixed so both the wheel and pedals slide in and out to meet your extremities. There’s a digital display that changes according to which one of five driving modes you’ve adopted, but for me the rev counter display along the top is almost completely obscured. Happily, there are change-up lights on the steering wheel.

The engine is loud at idle and becomes more so thereafter. It’s not remotely sonorous but I rather liked its gruff voice. It’s an honest, no-nonsense sound different from anything else out there and dripping in purpose. In this fastest of Fords, and perhaps because it’s a Ford rather than a European exotic, it works well.

The steering is unexpectedly heavy, which I liked, and the ride quality astonishingly good. This is a car with full-race pushrod suspension and springing via coils and torsion bars at every corner, with the former being locked out when the car drops 50mm in track mode effectively to double the spring rate. It’s a simpler route to much the same effect as that achieved by the McLaren P1 when it lowers itself. In providing the chassis with just the right level of compliance for a mountain road, or rock-solid body control on the racetrack, it is splendidly effective.

But just when you are starting to suspect you’re about to witness something new, sublime and important in the road car arena, the GT falters. Most shockingly, it doesn’t feel that quick. That will seem an insane thing to say about a car with a claimed 0-60mph time of 2.8sec, but I can report only as I find. I drove the GT 48 hours after stepping out of a McLaren 720S and its straight-line performance, though obviously vivid, did not seem on a level that can, at times, seem genuinely unhinged. The engine is lethargic off-boost, as you might expect for a 3.5-litre motor producing 647bhp, and though the car is on song by 3000rpm, that’s almost halfway to peak power at 6250rpm, just 350rpm after peak torque is reached. The surprising fact is that the GT, for all its carbon fibre, is actually quite a heavy car. Ford quotes a dry weight of 1385kg, but that’s the ‘competition pack’ version that deletes the air-conditioning, adds a Perspex rear screen and such refinements as carbon- fibre wheels and a titanium exhaust. The pack is not available to UK customers and the standard car weighs about 1445kg. A standard McLaren 720S has an extra 60bhp-plus and is more than 120kg lighter.

On the road there are other problems, too: the carbon-ceramic brakes are mightily powerful and completely tireless, but on the road the pedal of the car I drove had too much servo and not enough feel. The steering does not communicate as volubly as I’d hoped for a hydraulic system attached to such a stiff and exotically suspended chassis. Adhesion levels are other-worldly on standard Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres, but there are times you sense it’s finally about to understeer when in fact it’s still got plenty of grip remaining.

In short the car felt as if its environment was preventing it from doing its best work, forcing it to adapt to circumstances that were clearly not those it would have chosen.

Thank heaven, then, for the Utah Motorsport Campus, a circuit outside Salt Lake City where I was allowed to run the GT in track mode and at the limit. And here it was simply superb. There’s so much grip it takes you a while to trust that it will cling on to the circuit’s many third- and fourth-gear curves. But it does. What’s more, once you get proper loading into the suspension the feeling that was noticeable by its absence on the road turns up in force. It feels like a racing car so, just to experiment, I drove it like one, mashing the brakes and then staying on them deep into each turn. I expected it to protest, but it loved it. It’ll do all the throttle adjustability stuff we look for in such a car, but it responds to the brutal approach better than any road car I can recall.

I’d only been allowed five laps, which isn’t much to get really under the skin of such a fast, complex and different car on an unfamiliar circuit, but it was time enough, just, to understand how well it resists understeer and how quickly the back will move when it – or, more likely, its driver – runs out of talent. It slides quite rapidly but I didn’t mind that: it wasn’t that rather sickening slew you can get from mid-engined cars that are less well set up with insufficient rear roll stiffness, it’s a linear flick requiring no more than an equal and opposite response to control. It’s a deeply rewarding experience and I have no problem at all with the fact the Ford makes you work a little to get it.

In that time there was precious little I found in its track behaviour that I would change. I think the only observation I would make is that the suspension works so well in track mode, it could clearly handle even more power than it has. Something closer to 750bhp would really give it and its driver something to think about.

There are, then, two distinct ways of looking at the Ford GT. First is with the gimlet eye of the objective assessor. And wearing that mantle I must tell you that not only is it less fun to drive on the road than the latest and greatest mid-engined Ferraris and McLarens, the fact it lacks their cabin space, boot room and visibility seriously restricts the car’s sphere of operation. Yes, it’s vastly impressive on the track and that must count as a huge point in its favour, but while Ford insists it’s quicker everywhere it has gone than the McLaren 675LT it’s bought, I’d not say it’s markedly more fun than that or, indeed, the 720S I drove at Vallelunga two days beforehand. All three are superb. But then at about £460,000 you could have a 720S and a 488GTB plus change in the bank. On that basis, it is hard to make its case.

The other way is far easier. This car is a stand-alone product with a competition pedigree the others can’t touch, however exotic their badges might be. Their racers are converted road cars, the Ford GT is the reverse. People often talk about cars being ‘racing cars for the road’ and it’s an old, lazy cliché except that, in this case, it happens to be true. And that makes it unique. It also taps directly into a racing heritage half a century old, back to a time when Fords that looked not dissimilar came to dominate Le Mans, humbling Ferrari in the process.

The good news is that there is no wrong answer. The money being asked sounds crazy for the car being offered, but those who pay it are also buying into an image and attitude you’ll not find however many European exotics you drive. Does that make it worth it? To me, no, but I’m as far removed from the target customer as a pit pony is from a racehorse: it’s not me Ford has to convince. And I don’t blame those who fall in love with the idea of owning a Ford GT and have sufficient wherewithal to make the dream come true. In fact I envy them. A diamond is still a diamond, however flawed and expensive it might be.

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