Why Ford returned to Le Mans with GT and not Mustang

DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. originally proposed making its racing return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Mustang, not a GT.

Prior to the company’s decision to secretly build the Ford GT supercar to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Blue Oval’s victory in the famed French race over Ferrari, Raj Nair, head of global product development at Ford, said company officials first conducted studies to develop a Mustang to compete in the race.

Nair, who also is Ford’s chief technology officer, said the Mustang racer — code-named “Project Silver,” after the Lone Ranger’s horse — was rejected by company executives because of the price tag — $250,000 or more in modifications for each racer, as well as aerodynamics and concerns Le Mans did not align with Mustang’s values and heritage, among other things.

“It was all good learning, but it turns out not to be the right fit. Ultimately, Mustang does not need Le Mans to be a global car,” Nair told hundreds of engineers and others in attendance at the SAE International’s WCX conference on Wednesday in Detroit. “To be candid, I still wanted to do it. I was actually a little bit mad … in fact, I was really mad.”

Nair said he felt the company was “underestimating the importance of the 50th anniversary” of when Henry Ford II and Carroll Shelby created a team that beat vaunted rival Ferrari and finished 1-2-3.

After the Mustang proposal was rejected, Nair eventually began leading a group of fewer than 12 people in late 2013 to research and design an all-new Ford GT without the blessing of top executives in the Glass House, including current CEO Mark Fields, Executive Chairman Bill Ford and then-CEO Alan Mulally.

“I was just determined that we were going to have to do it but we were going to have to do it differently,” Nair said, adding he believed the team could potentially do a “low-investment, full vehicle program” with lessons learned from the failed Mustang project, including new advancements in tooling that “could really keep investment costs low and the quality … exceptional.”

The small group, as previously reported, assigned the code name “Project Phoenix” to the GT program because the vehicle was “rising from the ashes.”

However, prior to adopting the “Project Phoenix” name, Nair on Wednesday disclosed that one employee suggested the code name “Groundhog” — after the 1993 film Groundhog Day because he and others had tried several times to resurrect the GT without any success.

Nair said the GT, which was developed simultaneously as a racer and street-legal vehicle, was most importantly “singularly focused on becoming an endurance racer.”

“Our plan was clear: This was going to be a test bed for our technologies for engine development that had to push the boundaries of material usage such as the lightweight carbon fiber that eventually ended up in the car, and had to stretch our understanding of what was possible with aerodynamics,” he said.

Nair eventually took each of the executives who had rejected the Mustang project down to the secret room, in the corner of Ford’s Dearborn product development center, where the car was being developed and convinced them that the company could not only build a new GT but create a racer that would win Le Mans.

Ford unveiled the GT during the 2015 Detroit auto show, followed by its return to racing for the Rolex 24 at the Daytona International Speedway a year later.

The GT, following some early trials and tribulations during its return to racing, finished first, third and fourth at its first return to Le Mans in June 2016 — beating Ferrari.