Dave Pericak is the global director of Ford Performance and is responsible for all Ford’s performance road car and racing activities. Prior to this role, he was chief nameplate engineer for the Mustang and oversaw the development of the current generation of Ford’s iconic ponycar. Pericak talks about taking the new Ford GT back to Le Mans 50 years after the GT40’s historic victory over Ferrari.
“From our first test day we knew the GT had the bones to be an awesome race car and that everything from that point was just going to be getting it ready to race. The testing actually kinda went a little too easy, to be honest. We went to the Daytona 24 Hours in 2016 with the confidence that we had shaken out the bugs. But Daytona did not go as planned, with transmission, brake, and engine problems slowing all cars.
“That didn’t crush our spirits. It actually fueled our fire because we knew that we had a fantastic race car and that we’d made a promise to ourselves, our company, and the world that we were going to race this car and win. We took our first victory in May at Laguna Seca, and then in the same month we took second place at Spa in the WEC series.
“We really laid down the gauntlet at Le Mans; we gave it all we had, putting one car on pole position [for the class] and also qualifying the others second, fourth, and fifth. Then, between qualifying and the start of the race, the Le Mans organizers hit us with two penalties, upping our race weight by 22 pounds and reducing our boost.
“We had to make all these changes right before the race—it was literally just 12 hours before the start—and we didn’t know what the penalties would do to the cars’ performance. And then during the warm-up lap, our number 67 car got stuck in gear. We had to bring the car in. We did eventually get it back out onto the track, and it served as almost like an in-race test bed because it was so far down, it was never going to win the race, but we could try different setups with it and relay that information to the other three cars.
“We found ourselves eventually with the 68 car in second place behind the Ferrari. Dirk Müller got in the car and started putting laps down that were just absolutely flawless. He kept closing the gap. We did a driver change, and I was able look at Joey Hand right before he got in the car and say, ‘Go get the bastard.’ And Joey got in the car and drove like I’ve never seen him drive before.
“Joey made the pass on the Ferrari with less than three hours to go, and we just kept going. Then, with one lap to go, the Toyota prototype that was leading for the overall win broke down. Even though we had a nice cushion on the Ferrari by then, you could hear a pin drop in the pits. Everybody was wondering, ‘Is that gonna happen to us?’
“When we took that checkered flag, 50 years after the 1-2-3 victory, the feeling was something I will never forget, something I can’t really explain in words. Edsel Ford II was there 50 years ago with his father (Henry Ford II) when the GT40s won; this time [Edsel II’s] son, Henry III, was there with him.
“You think having won the race we could all go and party for a while, but we had to deliver the road car in the same calendar year. Otherwise, they would take the trophy away. In December we delivered the first two cars to two of our biggest supporters—Bill Ford and Mark Fields. The FIA actually called me up and said, ‘Thank you for living up to your commitment,’ because they’ve had other race teams that have said they are going to build the road car and it didn’t happen.
“The Ford GT is not about building 250 cars a year. That doesn’t change the bottom line of Ford Motor Company. But what the car stands for—the technology, the technology transfer to the rest of our lineup—that is truly what it is all about.”
“The start of the race was nothing but rain. Our car is very light on its feet, which means it’s hard to get heat into the tires, and when it’s raining, it’s even harder. That’s great for wearability—we could double- and triple-stint our tires—but it meant we didn’t have the best start. Le Mans is a very long track, and if you get caught at the wrong time in a yellow, you can find yourself a lap down, and you’ve done nothing but hit a yellow. Which happened to us.
“Then the illuminated number panels on the side of two of our cars stopped working, and we were told to bring them in for repair. One of the cars was in second. We brought it in, repaired it, sent the car out, and it failed again. By the time the car actually got settled down and running again, it was in ninth place.
“The number 68 car developed an electrical problem just before the evening set in, one we couldn’t sort. Sébastien Bourdais drove through the night with electrical issues until we could finally change the steering wheel during a stop. We couldn’t shut the engine off for fuel stops the way we wanted to shut it off, and we made a mistake and came in and refueled the car with the engine running. As we left the pits, we got notification we had a penalty and had to come back into the pits.