GTLM class provides ultimate opportunity for factories to race what they sell

The Ford GT’s racing debut is set to take place at the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona.

The day before the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans took the green flag, Ford announced that next year, the company would field not only a four-car team to race in the GTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2016, but that the company would back a two-car team for the full 2016 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship. The Ford GT’s racing debut is set to take place at the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Both the production car and race car will arrive in 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of Ford GT race cars placing first, second and third at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ford went on to repeat its victory at Le Mans in 1967, 1968 and 1969.

Our goal in every series we race in is to optimize how much tech transfer we can drive into the vehicle or the powertrain of the production vehicle,

Jim Campbell

Which caused some fans to raise the question: If Ford is celebrating its 1966 overall victory, why isn’t it entering Le Mans’ Prototype class, joining Porsche, Audi, Toyota and others seeking the overall victory in 2016?

The simple answer: The class structure in top-tier sports car racing in general, and Le Mans in particular, has changed over the last 50 years. The top class in 1966 wasn’t Prototype, it was GT. And if that victory is what Ford is celebrating, then going back with a racing version of the new production 2016 Ford GT is absolutely the right thing to do.

In 1966, Ford adapted the production version of the GT to build a competition car, and that is what Ford is doing for 2016. There’s no argument that at Le Mans, as well as in the TUDOR Championship, the purpose-built Prototypes get headlines and the overall wins. But for apples-to-apples competition, the action appears to be in GT classes, namely GTLM in the TUDOR Championship and GTE Pro at Le Mans.

One reason: Every manufacturer that races does so to sell street cars.

“When the GT40 competed at Le Mans in the 1960s, Henry Ford II sought to prove Ford could beat endurance racing’s most legendary manufacturers,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman, Ford Motor Company. “We are still extremely proud of having won this iconic race four times in a row, and that same spirit that drove the innovation behind the first Ford GT still drives us today.”

Another reason: Every manufacturer that races does so to improve their street cars.

“Technology transfer” used to go one way – manufacturers developed technology on the track, proved it, then adapted it to production vehicles. Now, it actually works the other way as well – the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R race car, which won its class at Le Mans for the eighth time a little over a week ago and returns to TUDOR Championship action this Sunday in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, uses some technology that originated with the Corvette Z06 street car.

Among the items specifically shared between the 2015 Corvette Z06 and the C7.R: An extremely stiff, production-based aluminum frame; a new direct-injection engine and – perhaps most important – shared strategies for increased cooling and downforce through a multitude of functional design enhancements, including front splitters, rockers and brake cooling ducts. During the development process, engineers used identical modeling software to ensure complete synergy in wind tunnel testing data for both vehicles.

It’s the same with the Ford GT, which will feature a number of innovations Ford believes will not only make it competitive in GT racing but will make it, “ultimately positioned to provide benefits to each vehicle in the Ford lineup,” said the company. “These include state-of-the-art aerodynamics to deliver high levels of downforce for improved stability with minimal drag, advanced lightweight composites featuring carbon fiber for an exceptionally rigid but light chassis, and the power and efficiency of EcoBoost technology.”

Ironically, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engine that will be used to power both the road car and the racing versions of the Ford GT was developed in TUDOR Championship Riley Daytona Prototypes. That technology is transferring both to the street and to a different type of race car.

“As we developed the Ford GT, from the outset, we wanted to ensure we had a car that has what it takes to return Ford to the world of GT racing,” said Raj Nair, Ford Motor Company group vice president, Global Product Development and chief technical officer. “We believe the Ford GT’s advances in aerodynamics, light-weighting and EcoBoost power will make for a compelling race car that can once again compete on a global stage.”

The philosophy is similar at Chevrolet, Ford’s longtime rival in Detroit.

“Our goal in every series we race in is to optimize how much tech transfer we can drive into the vehicle or the powertrain of the production vehicle,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s vice president for Performance Vehicles and Motorsports.

Even so, the most important aspect of GT racing to manufacturers is brand identification. The manufacturer car corrals at sports car races globally are full of fans who drive their personal vehicles to the track, often expecting to see racing versions of their own street cars compete.

“We have completely broken the walls between the production car’s team and the race team,” Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter said.

Similarly, GT racing breaks down the wall between the race fan and the race team. At the 2016 Rolex 24, the Ford GT will line up against competition in a class that has traditionally included iconic sports cars and brands like Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Aston Martin.

And it will give fans of each competing brand the chance to root for a race team competing in a car very much like one that is either in their garage at home, in their dreams, or in the case of the Ford GT, one that soon will show up in Ford showrooms around the world.

“Racing what we sell gives us a connection with our fans that we can’t duplicate anywhere else,” said Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell.

And that’s why GT classes are thriving.

Steven Cole Smith - IMSA Wire Service

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Tags corvette, ford gt