They say the first car race happened the moment the second car hit the road. Motor racing isn’t just for fun, but rather it’s been that one constant that directly contributes to carmakers building better products.
The early days of the automobile were rife with opportunities to prove one’s mechanical and engineering prowess and Henry Ford knew this. Even before he started Ford Motor Company, Henry himself competed in a two-car motor race in 1901, beating his competition to the finish. By all accounts, it was Ford’s innovative engineering that won the race.
Following a disagreement with Enzo Ferrari in the 1960s, an enraged Henry Ford II decided to take on Ferrari where it mattered – the race track – and set out to win the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. After an almost insurmountable effort, results were dismal in 1964 and 1965, but in 1966 Ford GT40s took the top three spots in that most grueling of competitions, handily besting the competing Ferraris, which were pushed hard by the Fords and didn’t even make it to the finish.
That spirit of innovation and competition has lived on at Ford and the company repeated its historic victory fifty years later, winning the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans with the racing version of the company’s latest supercar, the GT. Who finished second in that race? Ferrari, of course.
To harness the talent behind Ford’s success in motor racing, never mind the company’s go-fast machines like Mustang and Raptor, Ford has established its Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina, and under leadership by Mark Rushbrook, Global Director for Ford Performance, this facility is now the home for all things motorsport and performance for the company. Ford invited us to have a look around and we didn’t dare miss the chance to look behind the curtain.
Supporting programs as diverse as NASCAR, sports cars, the company’s efforts in the World Rally Championship, NHRA funny cars, as well as the road cars that fall under the Ford Performance umbrella, the Center has attracted engineering talent from a diverse set of motorsport disciplines.
Not only do Ford’s global motorsports programs receive the benefits of the depth and breadth of the Center’s in-hours engineering talent, but your favourite road cars from Ford Performance get those race-on-Sunday-make-it-better-on-Monday improvements, as well.
It’s easy to suggest that technology transfer between racing and road cars is a company’s primary motivator behind motorsports, but Ford doesn’t look at it that way. Sure, racing’s been leveraged to better the current GT350 and upcoming GT500 Mustangs, but according to Rushbrook, racing helps the company at higher levels, contributing to mainstream product development, process innovation, internal human relations, and external business relationships.
The company’s Motorsport Technology Exchange program is a great example of the softer benefits of competition. It embeds engineers into motorsport functions for two to three years, after which they’ll take their extensive learnings back to road car engineering, which inevitably improves the breed.
Sometimes, that transfer of knowledge isn’t directly related to vehicles, but rather the processes and tools used in motorsport can be implemented in road car development. For example, the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD, or what us regular car folk call aerodynamics) expertise that the Ford Performance team developed for racing has transferred to the road car production side of the business for implementation across the entire Ford fleet, improving vehicle performance and fuel consumption.
Competing with a production-based car stresses it in ways that could never be replicated by even the most extensive road driving, let along comprehensive engineering analysis. Although Ford’s keeping a tight lid on details surrounding the upcoming Mustang GT500, according to Todd Soderquist, Motorsports Engineering Supervisor at Ford Performance, this new super Mustang benefits directly from its racing brother. Key learnings from campaigning the successful Mustang GT4 racer – things like a structural oil sump, more durable half shafts, and a stronger crankshaft – see a direct application in the production GT500.
Given that the GT500 will be a low volume car for Ford, racing’s helped identify suppliers that can deliver production-spec components, but in small numbers. Where Ford’s high volume suppliers can’t manage the economics of low production runs, motorsports suppliers can deliver high quality parts in the relatively low quantities the GT500 demands.
Rally racing is wildly popular across the globe, with high profile events from Monaco to Australia, but barely registers a blip on motorsport radar in this part of the world. Perhaps somewhat ironically, Ford’s North Carolina-based CFD specialists took their tools and skills and optimized the aerodynamic package of the current Ford Fiesta WRC challenger.
Arguably the most important project the Technical Center has undertaken is the development of the new 2019 Mustang NASCAR Cup car. In that ultracompetitive and rules-constricted racing environment, the shape of the new Mustang’s bodywork is key to Ford’s success on the racetrack.
Aerodynamics Supervisor (and Formula 1 refugee), Tommy Joseph, and his team at Ford Performance developed the NASCAR Mustang using extensive CFD, progressing to 3D-printed, 45% scale aerodynamic models that run on a wind tunnel owned by the famed Team Penske, and finally progressing to the real racing car. Still, Ford continues to quietly finesse the lines of that Mustang’s bodywork for optimal performance.
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Ford has also been involved in drag racing and it’s unlike any other form of motorsport, sort of like the difference between ping-pong and tennis. With the company’s NHRA Mustang Funny Car needing a redesign, the Ford Performance team has developed the new 2019-specification Funny Car body from scratch. What’s interesting is that the project has gone from computer design to a 45% scale wind tunnel model in house and will entirely skip the prototype phase, going straight to drag strip competition next year.
Perhaps the most innovative function at the Technical Center is their 3D-based racing simulator. While simulators are common, particularly in motorsports, to assist in ongoing racecar development, Ford’s sim is next level. With a proven physics model and the relatively low cost of simulator time, the benefits are measurable and the simulator is constantly buzzing with Ford’s professional racing drivers drivers working on the company’s ongoing NASCAR and Ford GT programs.
From the driver’s perspective, the sim cockpit mimics their real car’s cockpit, plus the size of the screen is so immersive, and the movement so accurate that the brain believes it’s driving the real thing. 3D adds a new dimension, literally, to simulation and according to Ford’s racing-sim engineers, drivers have better depth perception compared to their old 2D simulator environment.
Supporting road car development of those interesting Ford Performance vehicles like the upcoming GT500 and next generation Raptor, the Technical Center has a secondary simulator that’s primarily focused on ensuring these vehicles will possess that elusive and necessary fun-to-drive factor, which ultimately saves costly development time.
As much as enthusiasts would love to see pre-production Mustang GT500 mules running around, don’t worry, it’s still getting plenty of development time – in the simulator. In fact, during our visit, Eric Zinkosky, Technical Specialist, Vehicle Dynamics and Simulation Tools at Ford Performance asked, “Have you seen a camouflaged GT500 running around the Nürburgring? That’s right. You haven’t. But it’s being tested on the Nürburgring right here (in the simulator).”
While the business of producing cars changes almost daily, one constant at Ford is that racing will continue to improve the breed – and the company – in ways that they are just beginning to harness.
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Header image courtesy of Jamey Price @jameypricephoto
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