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Old 11-17-2003, 13:02   #1 (permalink)
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Pretty as Petunia: A GT40 by any other name smells just as sweet

By NATALIE NEFF/AutoWeek

TURN SIX IS ELUSIVE.

It doesn’t even look like a turn, more like the exit to a large hairpin. We keep forcing the Ford GT’s nose to turn in way too early, plowing the front tires and setting the car up to sail far too wide on exit. But its almost perfect balance absorbs the gaffes, forgives the sudden lifts at the apex, the braking on exit to keep the car’s nose on the tarmac. It takes us nearly 20 circuits at Western Michigan’s Gingerman Raceway to nail that turn, but nail it we did. Well, almost, anyway.

They say that to run the turn correctly requires a squeeze of the throttle coming out of Turn Five, then—wait for it, steady, now!—a hard stab of the brakes as the GT shoots deep toward the outside of the track. Crank the steering wheel hard left just before you launch headlong into the infield, and jump back on the gas as the track swings into view out the driver-side window.

That’s the key to running it correctly, they say. “Correctly” means quickly, smoothly, as in how a skilled driver, perhaps an experienced racer, would do it as opposed to a lowly auto writer. And “they” is actually “he,” as in Neil Hannemann, skilled driver and experienced racer.

Oh yeah, he happens to be the chief program engineer for the Ford GT.

It’s no fluke Hannemann landed the job. Few have as credible a résumé to lead such a specialized effort. It wasn’t his stint at the Air Force Academy or his degree in mechanical engineering from General Motors Institute alone that got him there. Nor was it simply his car-building creds, which include crafting one-offs for Carroll Shelby in the 1980s, working on the Dodge Viper program from inception through its wins at Le Mans, engineering the Intrepid Winston Cup car or turning Steve Saleen’s S7 into a road car. All those experiences certainly helped give him the background to tackle such a tough assignment as taking the Ford GT from concept to production in 22 months. But when you’re talking about Hannemann, that’s just the dry goods listed under “Education” and “Work Experience.” Check out what lurks under “Hobbies.”

Driving for the Archer Brothers in an Eagle Talon, Hannemann won the Speed World Challenge championship three times, in 1992, ’93 and ’95, logging 43 starts and 30 podium visits along the way. He still holds the series’ record for the highest podium percentage at a whopping 69.7 percent. Ten of those podiums, or nearly a quarter of his starts, were for wins, and in 1995 Hannemann led the championship chase from start to finish. That doesn’t even count his championship driving for Team Shelby in 1985 when the series was known as the Playboy United States Endurance Cup, or his stints behind the wheel at Daytona and Sebring.

With that kind of DNA driving the program, it’s no surprise how well the Ford GT tackles the racetrack.

The car throws down blindingly quick standing starts and pounds out torque all over the place, keeping us pinned in our seats as we mash the gas down Gingerman’s traightaways. All that power comes on strong but smoothly, the throttle responding in a blink, yet easily modulated, without that all-on or all-off character that challenges the driver’s ability to feather the pedal in so many race-bred cars. The GT’s six-speed manual transmission and notchy shifter help keep the car running in the fat of its powerband, but again, with so much torque on hand, the car powers out of turns in just about any gear.

The GT’s all-aluminum 5.4-liter dohc V8 comes straight out of the Ford SVT Lightning pickup, where it turns out a more-than-respectable 380 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Swap out the Lightning’s roots-type supercharger for a Lysholm screw-type unit, plug in two injectors per cylinder, tack on twin 70-mm throttle bodies instead of the Lightning’s 57-mm ones, and those numbers jump to 500 hp at 6000 rpm and 500 lb-ft at 4500 rpm in the Ford GT. Even with a fairly tall 3.36:1 final drive ratio, the GT has little problem breaking loose its massive meats, its limited-slip diff helping it lay down two fat rubber streaks in the road, even chirping the tires in second. According to Ford, all that oomph should translate into a sub-four-second 0-to-60-mph run, with the quarter-mile coming in at less than 12 seconds and a top speed approaching 200 mph.

But as any decent road racer like Hannemann will tell you, prowess at the racetrack ain’t all about straight-line stuff.

The Ford GT exhibits an easy-to-drive style that at first masks its balls-out abilities, with a steering effort that never loads up too heavily, even at speed, and a clutch that doesn’t feel half as stiff as other racy Ford products like the SVT Mustang Cobra. But lest you mistake high effort with good road feel, know that we found the Ford GT to bristle with feedback from the road, with an almost tactile connection through every driver interface to the track’s surface.

The GT’s aptitude at digging in and attacking the curves simply wows. Its massive 235/45ZR-18 front and 315/40ZR-19 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires have grip to spare, but it is the car’s finely tuned suspension—unequal-length aluminum upper and lower control arms, antiroll bars and monotube shocks at all four corners—that keeps everything so well planted and with almost no body roll of which to speak. Even with every bonehead move we throw at that blasted Turn Six, the car refuses to get upset.

So after our first couple of frustrating attempts, Hannemann takes the wheel at our behest to show us the correct line. The car shines in his expert hands, and by the way he deftly handles the wheel, you’d think he was born to race. You’d be right, too, but Hannemann himself didn’t even know that until he was in college.

Hannemann grew up on military bases around the world, calling home wherever his father’s job as an Air Force chaplain took the family. When he was 11, stationed at the Vandenberg missile base in California, his father allowed him to get a dirt bike, on which he would race around the base, collecting chunks of solid rocket fuel scattered about to later blow up with his friends. Even as military brats, it seems boys will be boys.

Hannemann wouldn’t take to the wheel until years later when his brother-in-law invited him to try his hand at an autocross course set up in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl. Hannemann, with little more than those rocket fuel-collecting dirt bike excursions as experience, would post the best time that day. Soon after he would learn from an uncle that his father, the Lutheran minister, once raced motorcycles.

As often is the case, once the taste for speed gets in the blood, it tends to stay there, trickling down through the generations from father to son, or in the case of Ford, from GT to GT.

The Ford GT started out life as an idea bandied about the corporate offices under the codename Petunia (named, presumably, after Dearborn, Michigan’s official flower). The idea of doing a modern take on the GT40 often reared its head at Ford, but attempts that surfaced with the likes of the GT90 and the Indigo concepts fizzled. Petunia, however, with its truer-to-the-original concept, seemed to take hold, and quickly evolved into the Ford GT40 concept car seen at the 2002 Detroit show. Consumer interest, and the company’s desire to make a splash for its 100th anniversary year, saw the car headed for production by the time the next Detroit show rolled around, though under a slightly different name. When Ford failed to secure rights to the name GT40, it fell back on its own original, “real” name, simply Ford GT.

Name or no, the automaker did an outstanding job capturing the spirit of that wundercar of the 1960s. Despite the close likeness, the Ford GT is bigger and heavier than the original, its wheelbase almost seven inches longer and overall length almost 20 inches greater than the 1966 Le Mans-winning Mark II. It sits almost four inches taller as well, allowing for significantly more headroom.

It also eclipses the race car’s curb weight by about 900 pounds, but this Petunia is no pig. The car responds beautifully to throttle-steer inputs, and the feel it transmits through the seat and the steering wheel as you transfer the car’s weight fore and aft with just a flex of the right foot is intoxicating. For every time Turn Six frustrated us, we couldn’t wait to blast through the slight bend to the left counted as Turn Four, lifting slightly just before the apex to get the GT’s nose to tuck in perfectly.

Even with its roughly 3400-pound curb weight, the Ford GT stops with eye-popping force. Behind the massive wheels sit mondo brakes, 14-inch cross-drilled and vented Brembo discs with four-piston monoblock calipers up front and similarly spec’d 13.2-inchers in back. Stomp on them too quickly and they bite down so hard it feels like hitting a brick wall, though the GT’s four-channel antilock braking system keeps the car heading straight as you get thrown against the seatbelt.

Apparently the Ford GT knows how to handle the top end as well as the stops, though even on the long backstraight at Gingerman, we never even approached the right end of the speedo. Thanks to modern wind-tunnel technology not available to the GT40’s engineers 40 years ago, Ford says the GT maintains significantly more downforce at top speed than the original. Ford found the original GT40 would exhibit a scary amount of lift at the front end as it approached 200 mph.

While the street car’s size eliminates the need for a “Gurney bump” for headroom, it doesn’t do anything to aid the shape’s skimpy outward visibility. Taller drivers may not have such a difficult time, but we could barely see over the dash. The tilt steering wheel helped, but nothing will do the same for rearward visibility, which is almost nonexistent. That the windows roll all the way down is a nice touch, but watch the top of your head when you shut the door or stand up as you get out. The car’s doors cut deep into the roof (like the GT40’s); less-than-attentive drivers may stand to lose a chunk of scalp on slamming the doors shut, or bump their heads when climbing out too eagerly.

Inside, the controls are beautiful in their utter simplicity, with a line of toggle switches across the center stack designed in fine race-car form. The seats, on the other hand, could be better. Again, larger drivers may find the seats more to their liking than smaller ones. We found ourselves sliding around quite a bit over the seat bottom while out on the track, though a perfectly placed dead pedal does offer a good place to wedge oneself against.

And wedged behind that wheel is where we easily could have stayed. More than a lesson in driver control, this day at Gingerman—with every turn negotiated perfectly and every one, well, not so perfectly—gives us a chance to experience how powerful, awe-inspiring and, ultimately, forgiving a supercar this Ford GT is. Though at the end of the day, after turning in that 20th lap with Turn Six almost bested and a nod of acknowledgement from Hannemann, Skilled Driver and Experienced Racer, sometimes even we forget that the Ford GT is still just a road car. A fast, nimble one, but a road car nonetheless.

No matter. This Petunia is happy on the track. As happy as a pig in, well, you know.

2005 FORD GT
# ON SALE: Spring
# BASE PRICE: $150,000 (est.)
# POWERTRAIN: 5.4-liter, 500-hp, 500-lb-ft supercharged V8; rwd, six-speed manual
# CURB WEIGHT: 3400 pounds (est.)
# 0-60 MPH: 3.8 seconds (mfr.)

(Photo)Despite the GT's larger-than-original dimensions, its cargo area will swallow two lunch boxes at best. But with 500 horses and a rock-solid aluminum space frame to play with, who has time for Golf?
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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....

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Old 11-17-2003, 16:54   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Pretty as Petunia: A GT40 by any other name smells just as sweet

What a great read!
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Old 11-17-2003, 17:02   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Pretty as Petunia: A GT40 by any other name smells just as sweet

Great read. Cant wait for these Ford GT's to hit the road
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Old 01-13-2004, 16:46   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Pretty as Petunia: A GT40 by any other name smells just as sweet

Great article!
Too bad Ford dont put this car into 'real' production, and offer it at mass produced price...even if we all had one, they would still be the best looking cars on the planet. (I dont think they could build a factory big enough to produce enough of them- literally everybody wants one.)
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Old 02-19-2004, 19:02   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Pretty as Petunia: A GT40 by any other name smells just as sweet

I'd love to own one. I saw one in person at the LA Auto Show. Nice.
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