Ford is sharpening its production engineering skills on the racetrack
By Steve Turner
Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Company
If all the new, high-performance vehicles unveiled at the North American International Auto Show last month didnâ€™t impress you, they should have. It would be easy to get spoiled by all the great new Ford Performance hardware, but we might just be living in the second coming of the Total Performance era.
The reason things are so good is that Ford sees a solid business case in building performance vehicles, and now the company is fully integrating its racing programs with production engineering to maximize the development of both.
Now we were certainly impressed by the vehicle line-up that debuted in Detroit. Add in the just-revealed Focus RS, and the Ford Performance portfolio is downright stunning. However, we received a pretty significant hint about where things were headed when we attended Fordâ€™s Performance Days media event last summer. This is where we first learned about Ford embedding mainstream engineers in Ford Racing assignments for brief periods so they could bring back the problem-solving lessons they learned at the racetrack to production vehicle engineering.
â€œWeâ€™ve started a program in June of last year called Motorsports Technology Exchange,â€ Mark Rushbrook, racing engineering manager for Ford Performance, said. â€œWeâ€™ve had five people start on that program, so we go out in the mainstream and handpick some of our best and brightest engineers. They are assigned to work in motorsports for three years, so they bring to us some of their product development experience. They all have a passion for racing. They bring that into this very unique environment where theyâ€™re pressure-tested because that green flag is gonna fly at noon on Sunday whether youâ€™re ready or not.â€
â€œIt tests their technical craft,â€ he added. â€œIt tests their leadership and makes them better engineers. Their skill helps us win on the track and they can then take that back to product development and that will help our mainstream vehicles as we go forward in the future.â€
Last summer’s event is also where we first heard Raj Nair, Ford Group Vice President, Global Product Development and Chief Technical Officer, describe the performance business as profitable. This was great news for all Ford performance fans because Raj is a true enthusiast, and when he can present a business case for building performance cars, they will actually get built!
We recently had the chance to see him discuss performance vehicles at NAIAS. You can watch the speech right here:
During a media tour in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week, Ford representatives discussed the company’s plans for the future in more detail at the Ford Performance Technical Center. However, before looking forward, they looked back at the history of a company founded on racing.
â€œOne hundred and fourteen years ago this October, Henry Fordâ€”who had already failed as an automobile manufacturerâ€”built a race car called Sweepstakes with three of his friends and changed the history of the automotive business when he upset the greatest racer in Americaâ€”Alexander Wintonâ€”in a race that helped him find the backers to start what we know as Ford Motor Company today,â€ Raj said. â€œThe key thing to take away from it all is that Ford Motor Company is here today because our founderâ€”Henry Ford himselfâ€”used racing as a way to prove out his ideas and his technology, and then promote the success of his racing efforts to help sell cars and trucks.â€
Of course, the future is all about EcoBoost. When we were grinning from ear-to-ear in the passenger-seat of Scott Pruettâ€™s Daytona prototype, we didnâ€™t realize that that kind of GTDI power was headed to the street in a new supercarâ€”and the new Raptor!
â€œThe new Ford GT will be powered by our 3.5-liter, twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine based on the engine we started to develop in IMSA Daytona Prototypes last season, and continue to develop this season, including a very important victory for us two days ago at the 24 Hours of Daytona,â€ Raj said. â€œThese vehicles we showed in Detroit, along with the Shelby GT350 we showed last fall, and the Focus and Fiesta ST models we have on the road right now, are all part of our exciting lineup of performance vehicles that will only continue to grow.â€
When Ford announced the creation of the Ford Performance group last December, the company promised 12 new performance vehicles by 2020.
So why all the investment into performance?â€ Dave Pericak, director of Ford Performance asked. â€œIn addition to meeting enthusiasts desires, these vehicles will support delivering the companyâ€™s One Ford plan for profitable growth, product excellence and innovation in every part of its business.
â€œPerformance vehicle sales around the world continue to growâ€”with sales up 70 percent in the United States and 14 percent in Europe since 2009,â€ he said. â€œPerformance vehicles play a vital role in the Ford portfolio by, one, attracting new customers to the brand; two, retaining existing customers within the brand; and three, establishing long-term relationships with younger, wealthier customers and generating greater showroom traffic.â€
For those of us that live and breathe Ford performance, those numbers should sound as good to you as the exhaust note of the GT350R. It means the future is bright for the vehicles we love. And, that future will be paved with new technologies proven on the racetrack.
â€œFord Performance is a halo under which we are leveraging technologies and innovations to deliver performance cars, utilities and trucks that enthusiasts expect. The organization will help us strengthen and grow our performance vehicle lineup worldwide, and allow us to more quickly introduce products, parts, accessories and experiences that meet the needs of customers around the world on-road and on the track,â€ Dave said. â€œIt is our ultimate product development test bed.â€
â€œFord Performance provides a platform to showcase Fordâ€™s innovative capabilities and to pilot advanced technologies and processes in aerodynamics, light-weighting, electronics, powertrain performance and fuel efficiency that can be applied more broadly to Fordâ€™s mainstream product portfolio,â€ he added. â€œIn addition to using race tracks around the world, the team will develop new vehicles and technologies at Fordâ€™s engineering centers globally such as here in Charlotte at our new technical center, which will help our race teams and engineering teams deliver racing innovations and advancing tools for use in performance and all of our production vehicles.â€
During the media event, Dave pointed out a number of the performance technologies that have translated to production Fords:
â€¢ â€œOur EcoBoost engine technology is synonymous with innovation and a strong example of how we are migrating technology and engineering across our lineup, ensuring our vehicles are fun to drive, not just our Ford Performance lineup.â€
â€¢ â€œGT350 and GT350R also utilize carbon-fiber composites, which helps reduce weight, better for efficiency.Â GT350R also features standard lightweight carbon fiber wheels, making Ford the first major automaker to introduce this innovative wheel technology.â€
â€¢ â€œThanks to the truly innovative use of aluminum and high-strength steel as on the all-new F-150, the new Raptor will be over 500 pounds lighter than the previous version, which equals more efficiency and a huge difference in off-road handling and maneuverability.â€
â€¢ â€œFordâ€™s all-new 10-speed automatic transmission will debut on the Raptor and will not only have a significant effect on fuel efficiency; it also dramatically improves performance with a much wider ratio spread.â€
â€¢ â€œThe all-new Ford GT, the ultimate Ford, and a halo for the new Ford Performance group, the GT is the embodiment of innovation, particularly in terms of lightweight materials, aerodynamics, and EcoBoost performance.â€
â€œThese innovations will directly impact all future Ford products, and thatâ€™s where our investment will have the greatest impact,â€ Dave concluded. â€œUltimately, the real pleasure will be watching the technologies we develop for our performance products proliferate into all Ford products, improving the value and efficiency of the entire lineup. Thatâ€™s true performance through innovation.â€
With benefits of this program already shining through on the new F-150 Raptor, Focus RS, Shelby GT350/GT350R, and Ford GT, it should be interesting to see the vehicles that arrive between now and 2020.