"IT’S A RACE CAR FOR THE ROAD.” You’ve heard that line many times, but it’s almost never true. There are plenty of viscerally fast performance vehicles, and several have symbiotic relationships with motorsport programs. The Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 911, for instance, serve as the basis for efforts in multiple racing series and have variants (Z06, GT3 RS) that incorporate lessons learned at the track.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they, along with nearly every new vehicle on the market today, were conceived and engineered primarily for you to buy in a showroom. Those racier versions range from heavily modified to completely reworked and exist largely to bolster the image of the entire model line. There’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t think less of the Corvette and 911 because they are fraternal, rather than identical, twins of the C7.R and 911 RSR. But the distinction goes a long way toward explaining what makes the 2017 Ford GT special. It really is a race car. The GT was never intended to anchor a sports-car lineup with multiple trims and price points. Nor to even be a halo supercar designed to lure consumers to dealerships. It owes its very existence to one simple goal: winning the LM GTE class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first overall win there in 1966.
Mission accomplished. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTs placed first, third, fourth, and ninth in class at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. Of course, homologation rules also required that Ford produce a number of street-legal cars, so while Ganassi and Multimatic (the engineering firm that manufactures the GT) developed the race car, Ford engineers worked in parallel on a version that could comfortably be driven on public roads. Which is how we ended up behind the wheel of what is essentially an LM GTE–class race car on two-lanes outside Salt Lake City.
The most obvious evidence of the GT’s origins is its compactness. It’s strikingly, almost strangely small. Minimal frontal area and low drag are crucial at Le Mans; thus, the car stands a mere 43.7 inches tall. It’d disappear parked behind a Lamborghini Aventador. A Porsche 911 GT3’s roofline is more than five inches higher. And that’s before you put the GT in Track mode, which drops the car two inches.
Racing tech is everywhere you look: carbon-fiber tub; pushrod-activated dampers with aerodynamically beneficial, F1/ Le Mans Prototype–inspired keel suspension; sections of an FIA-spec roll cage integrated into the roof structure; and a teardrop-shaped fuselage that narrows to nearly nothing at the back, nestled between rear-wheel pontoons and the GT’s signature flying buttresses. Forward of the A-pillar, it’s sexy exotic with obvious nods to the original GT40. Aft, it’s pure Le Mans Prototype with every design element engineered for maximum aerodynamic and functional effect.
The racing principles underlying the design were probably lost on most of the people we passed, but the car’s utter otherworldliness was certainly not. Cyclists stopped mid-pedal-stroke to stare. Cellphone cameras came out everywhere. When a member of our photo team was dropped off at the airport, dozens of travelers seemed to forget they had flights to catch. The GT may wear a common Blue Oval, but it has all the star power one expects of a $450,000 exotic.
Inside, the vibe is purposeful—more Lotus than Lambo. The cabin is only as big as absolutely necessary, so two adults will likely rub shoulders. It’s not claustrophobic, but it is definitely cozy. The carbon-fiber seats have just enough padding to be comfortable, with limited recline. Both buckets are bolted to the carbon tub, requiring the pedal box and steering wheel to adjust, similar to the LaFerrari. This arrangement weighs more than a traditional seat-on-rails setup, but having the seats in one position allowed GT engineers to streamline the cabin profile. That counts when you’re pushing 200 mph down the Mulsanne straight. There’s a quality to the interior appointments that conveys efficiency of execution, as opposed to appearing cheap or contrived. Touches of Alcantara soften exposed carbon fiber.
Primary vehicle controls, save navigation and climate settings, are squeezed onto the wheel. A boy-racer gimmick on some cars, but in the GT, it fits and it works. After a little familiarization, operation of the turn-signal buttons and windshield-wiper thumbwheel became second nature. Driving modes are accessible via a left-side thumbwheel, which toggles through the GT’s five settings: Wet, Normal, Sport, Track, and V-Max.
Fired up, the twin-turbo V-6 sounds potent but not especially exotic. The exhaust note varies little as it runs up the tach, lacking the sensory impact of higher-cylinder-count supercars—no V-8, V-10, or V-12 scream. Oddly, that makes it easier to separate the engine’s efforts from the noise it makes. No theatrical (or piped-in) shriek to fool you into thinking the car is racier than it is. And, with minimal sound deadening throughout the carbon cockpit, there’s also no hiding what’s happening behind your head—a slight turbo whine at low revs, a steady drone at cruising speed, and a hearty roar under hard acceleration.
Besides, this engine is here not for how it sounds but for what it does. Like so many other Le Mans–driven decisions on the GT, the V-6 was chosen for its relatively small size, which helped keep the rear cowling as compact as possible. The fact that the same basic powerplant won at Le Mans and twice at the 24 Hours of Daytona (first in Ganassi’s Daytona Prototype, then in the GT) probably makes the lack of sexy sounds easier for prospective buyers to accept.
The street GT makes 647 hp, some 150 hp more than the race car. Power delivery is strong and linear, the V-6 pulling forcefully from 3000 rpm to its 7000-rpm redline. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission rips off lightning-fast upshifts and rev-matched downshifts. The gearing is appropriate for everything from in-town driving to blasts at the track.
We clocked 0–60 mph in 3.2 seconds and the quarter-mile in 11.1 seconds at 130.0 mph. The 0–60 time isn’t all that impressive, mostly because launch-control doesn’t rocket it off the line as well as some other supercars. Note that these numbers were obtained at 4320 feet of elevation which may have also cost time. Zero to 60 aside, the V-6 digs hard once into triple digits—150 mph arrives in just 15.7 seconds. Bottom line: The car is phenomenally quick, likely quicker than our numbers indicate, but it was engineered for a different kind of racing than winning at stoplights on summer evenings.
Seventh gear feels a bit like an overdrive in normal conditions but clearly serves a higher purpose when helping propel the GT to its 216-mph top speed. Even if you don’t go that fast, it’s worth toggling to Track mode just to see the whole car hunker down.
Hit the brakes, and ceramic rotors and downforce-generating aero provide powerful bite, and an active airbrake contributes to unflappable balance and stability. It’s initially fun to watch the airbrake pop up when you jump on the pedal, but then it’s just reassuring to know it’s back there, keeping the rear planted under hard efforts.
Like most supercars, the GT’s limits are so high that only severely poor driving can unsettle it on the street. It’s still engaging, though, thanks largely to the hydraulic power steering, which constantly reminds the driver what the road is doing and how the car is responding. Weighting and on-center feel are spot-on. The wheel moves around slightly in your hands on uneven surfaces. It’s not nervous, just communicative. And although the cockpit is small from inside, the view out the windshield opens up nicely, helping avoid the common supercar sensation of being a small person trapped in a big car.
The GT also has shockingly good road-car manners. A carbon tub, performance-oriented suspension, and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, with inherently stiff sidewalls, will never afford a luxury-car ride, but the GT is noticeably less jarring than many track-focused sports cars. Multimatic’s F1-engineered spool-valve shocks, proven everywhere from the Mulsanne to Monaco, are electronically adjustable here. In Normal or Sport modes, the suspension soaks up average bumps, delivering a surprisingly supple ride over a variety of surfaces.
As well as it may work on the street, this is a car that absolutely needs a racetrack to reveal its true character. A flick of the driving-mode wheel to Track lowers the ride height, raises the rear wing, and changes the spring rates. The GT, in its natural environment, is reminiscent of some GT-class race cars I campaigned a decade or so ago. It responds best to a specific kind of driving. Inputs should be smooth—slow hands and seamless transitions from throttle to brake and back to throttle—but you can’t be timid. Hesitation or trepidation strands the GT in no-man’s-land, where it’s unable to corner or accelerate as effectively as possible. The chassis generates the most grip and cornering force when it’s appropriately loaded, such as by trail braking into a corner or aggressively accelerating out. It’s forgiving, to a point, but it also expects you to know what you’re doing.
In a supercar landscape increasingly occupied by wonder cars with all-wheel drive and electronically controlled handling, it’s refreshing to drive something this fast and capable with a chassis that doesn’t rely on computer-aided wizardry like four-wheel steering and torque vectoring, but instead on battle-tested motorsport engineering. A race car, in other words.
The GT may have been built first and foremost to win at Le Mans, but the added benefit, for those lucky enough to score one of the 1000 planned production models, is a pure, genuine driving experience. It not only shows what a large company like Ford is still capable of accomplishing, but also how racing continues to both improve and redefine the breed.