Shivering in a windswept car park next to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in near sub-zero temperatures, we watch as a pair of the USAir Force’s finest fighting machinery, F-22 Raptors, slingshot into the crystal blue winter sky out of Nellis Air Force base. Engines on full reheat, every metallic sinew stretched to near breaking point in their quest to gain altitude and speed as quickly as possible.
As they vaporise into the heavens in a blur of heat haze and crackling jet noise, it’s hard not to draw a comparison between the super-secret jets and the blue and white Ford GTs lurking just a couple of feet away from us. Both bleeding-edge, bunker-developed US-built products packed with still-secret technologies. Both, quite possibly, the fastest, most advanced of their breed. And both, most importantly, with a whacking great set of afterburners.
The only key difference right now is that, while it will be decades before we can truly understand the total capabilities of the F-22 – it’s so secret it cannot be exported to any other country – in the next few minutes we are not only going to find out a raft of new things about the next Ford GT. We – just three people – are also going to get to experience the car for the first time on a track.
Not drive it, mind – that idea got nixed a week earlier to much gnashing of teeth – but be driven in a near-finished car, first by Ford head product honcho Raj Nair. Then, with everything up to temperature, do a few laps with 2016 Ford GT Le Mans-winner Joey Hand. The track is a little-used testing facility, so it’s very green and slippery. Plus, it’s covered in a fine layer of wind-blown desert dust and grit. So it’s not far short of a skating rink.
But that’s Raj and Joey’s problem. First order of business is to walk around the car and see what new things we can uncover on this all-but production-quality GT. The only things obviously missing on this car, which is going to spend its life at the Ford Performance school at the Utah Motorsports Campus, are final-spec software for the main screen and, yes, the cupholder.
We start at the front of the car with Raj and Dave Pericak – Ford Performance boss – on their knees with us pointing under the front bumper. “This is super cool,” says Raj. “It’s got an F1-style keel underneath (the benefits of this are the lower suspension arms can be attached to the car parallel with the road surface for optimum suspension geometry, mechanical grip and aero efficiency). So we are generating a ton of downforce on the front.”
Almost too much as it turns out. “We knew we were going to get pretty good rear downforce with the buttress concept,” says Raj. “But we were generating more front downforce than we thought we would. So we had a centre of pressure problem – it was too far forward.” The centre of pressure is important as it affects the car’s handling. Too much pressure on the front causes oversteer. Too much on the rear leads to understeer.
The solution? Active front flaps which regulate the downforce. “When the wing is down, the front doors are open. But when the wing is up, we can bring more downforce to the front end, so the doors close and keep the centre of pressure where we need it.” And the car planted firmly on the ground. How firmly? Raj isn’t saying just yet. “I’m not going to quote a number right now,” he says. “But I’m telling you, it’s significant.”