Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsFeatures
How Ford Performance Engineers Take Data From The Virtual World And The Race Track To Make Faster Street Machines
Transfer of Prowess
Slithering through an industrial park, our Mustang GT PPL2 rumbles past NASCAR headquarters before turning into an unassuming parking lot. Inside the 33,000-square-foot building engineers watch and log every moment as a 2020 Shelby GT500 laps Virginia International Raceway at triple-digit speeds. The driver gets a little overzealous and goes off-track into the grass.
In most instances, this would be cause for concern. However there are no black flags along the track or furrowed brows in the crowd. A few of those watching smiled as the car made it back onto the track and quickly returned to speed. There was no damage to the car to worry about either. After the session, the engineers could quickly make adjustments and get the car out there to validate the results.
How could they get this done from 137 miles away? While Concord, North Carolina, isn't adjacent to that historic track, those engineers aren't watching a livestream. They are watching the next Shelby run as it is programmed into one of two full-motion platform simulators inside the Ford Performance Technical Support Center. In fact, this is the second simulator added to the facility since it opened back in 2014.
The center began with a primary focus on racing, but as time has gone along, the commitment that Ford Performance predicted when it put the likes of SVT and Team RS under one umbrella has come to fruition. Street and race vehicles both benefit from the virtual tools at the center and at nearby wind tunnels that played a role in choosing its location.
Last year Tommy Joseph joined the Ford Performance team as its Motorsports Engineering Aerodynamics Supervisor after 12 years working Formula 1 teams, including Williams, Sauber, and most recently, Red Bull. Upon joining the team he was immediately struck by how closely Ford's testing and development regimens on the production side mirrored the efforts he witnessed in the F1 world.
"I really didn't know what they were doing and I did not expect that they were doing similar things. Testing things virtually for performance, testing them experimentally, and most of all taking them to the track and getting driver feedback, in tuning these high-performance cars for aero balance and driver feel is what we did in F1," Tommy said of the parallels. "And that's exactly what they do with the GT350, the GT500, and any of these Ford Performance road cars that are at that level. They get race car-level engineering."
While racing obviously gets their blood pumping inside the tech center, the Ford Performance teams cross-pollinate engineers with the production-car side of the equation. This affords those building street cars to learn the pace of the racing world, and the racing teams to pick up on the processes that make production cars tick.
"Every minute or hour we save in the process is crucial and we also have to beat the other guys too. Even if we have the same cars with exactly the same performance as our competitors, if we can get our design or better designs at the track one race earlier we are going to stay ahead," Tommy elaborated. "So that kind of time to track is crucial and anything we can do to shorten that is going to be beneficial for the road cars. It's an indirect benefit because with the race teams being able to develop faster, we can then transfer more technology to the road-car group because we are developing at a higher rate."
To expedite that development, the tech center has a wide variety of tools on hand, including the aforementioned vehicle platform simulators. Among the other tools are a Kinematics machine, a chassis torsional twist rig, a vehicle center of gravity machine, and a coordinate-measurement machine. These tools allow measuring suspension movement, torsional stiffness, vehicle gravity height, and component dimensions, respectively.
There are also high-powered computer workstations on hand to run computer fluid dynamics simulations. These simulations allow for iterating a number of different variations on a component design to narrow down the possibilities before moving from CAD parts to a real-world testing on a vehicle. To expedite that process, engineers can lean on the company's Advanced Manufacturing Center in Detroit for 3D printed parts that further speed up the development process.
"There's a lot of high-level engineering that happens here that simultaneously affects our racing in a positive way in road cars, and it changes every month. We're always looking at new methods and new techniques " Tommy said. "Everyone's doing their best to get that engineering in our race cars and our road cars simultaneously. We're a technology and engineering company, and that goes into everything we do. This tech center is a big part of that with the simulator, aerodynamics facilities, and vehicle dynamics facilities."
That commitment to technology and engineering led to the tech center getting a vehicle platform simulator when it opened and adding the aforementioned second one recently. The two can even be linked should you want to compare to different vehicle configurations on the same virtual race track.
"I never imagined when I started that we'd have a simulator that you could drive it and it was eye opening," Ford Performance Vehicle Dynamics Simulator Engineer Dave Cimba, who has been at the center since it opened, said. "And we got it, because, you know, for years up to that point, I'd done simulation where we provide simulation tools to our teams and they use that to set up the car for a race track X and Y. Now you can take that model and put it in the simulator and have drivers drive it."
Of course having a virtual tool that real drivers can pilot offers a number of advantages. While it doesn't replace the need for real-world track testing, it does reduce the amount of on-track testing needed as many of the variables can be narrowed down before cars head to the track or the street.
"The strengths are greatly cutting down testing time, less cost because you're not burning fuel, tires, engines, and paying to rent a track, feed, transport, and house all the people supporting the event, changes to the car are made quicker, and overall its far more efficient," Ford Performance driver Billy Johnson said. "The weakness of a simulator is any variable that affects its accuracy. So it's a crucial, never-ending process of cross-referencing the results from real-life running of a given car, with the digital model, and constantly changing and improving that correlation for future testing to be even more accurate and moving the entire process forward."
When it comes to street-going Mustangs, like the already available Shelby GT350 and Mustang GT Performance Pack Level 2 to the forthcoming Shelby GT500, the commonality is everything the engineers and race teams already learned with the turnkey Mustang GT4 road racer.
"It's a good reference point for us to test things on. It's almost like our vetting process. If we want to test something, it is one geometry that we both can understand it in a real way to do it on that and that's going to lead to tools and methods that improve everything else we do in the future," Tommy said of the Mustang GT4. "So any future road car, if we want to do a new supercar and NASCAR car or World Rally Car or if the road car guys want to do review F-150 or transit, they can use methods that were developed on that car because it's just close enough to both domains."
You can see how that development played out with the 2019 Shelby GT350 and the 2020 Shelby GT500. These cars can be ordered with a rear wing design that is sourced directly from the Mustang GT4.
"So if we walk from the GT4, we use that same wing on the GT500 and then we develop that. Then it's gotta have the front and the back working together," Derek Bier, Vehicle Engineering Manager at Ford Performance, said. " To get the downforce, you lift the front, you're not going to like that. You've got to find that right balance. On the GT350, I think we took some of that, and we balanced that out. When we put that Swing on with the Gurney flap we create a lot more downforce. So how do we offset that in the front, we made that front close out little bit smaller and we actually reduced front-end lift by about 20 pounds."
Of course development work that led to a more aerodynamic pair of Shelbys took place at the tech center. As the engineers developed the parts, they were tested in CFD simulations and raced on virtual cars in the simulators.
"We use it for a lot of different things. We do use it for development, and we use it for driver training," Keith West, Vehicle Engineering for Ford Performance said of the simulator. "It's enormously valuable having worked on with a lot of different scales of simulators and there are certain things that don't exist as much, but the yaw is very accurate and I'm the handling guy, most of my career has been vehicle dynamics, developing the vehicle's ability to dissipate yaw. It's very good for that and it's quick. You don't need tools."
"The biggest example would be the development of the Ford GT itself. The Driver In the Loop, simulator computer modeling, and using a human driver 'in the loop' to give feedback and bring a human element into the development process, was a key factor in the development of the Ford GT from its inception. I'm not aware of any other road car that was developed like this," Billy added. "That tool is also used by many professional race teams where extremely accurate models of the cars are made and changes can be made to the car setup, aero, and geometry changes to greatly cut down testing time in the real world. Setup changes in the simulator are extremely accurate and consistent with real life, which makes this is an invaluable tool in cutting down development time, as well as making the race cars unload at the track with a setup far closer to ideal. In North Carolina, the Ford DIL has models for the Ford GT, NASCAR, and road cars."
The simulator uses ten projectors to deliver a 3D image across huge curved screens in front of a pod that moves like a car. It does so based on choices made by the engineers and the final vehicle settings respond to virtual tracks that are made as accurate as possible based on laser scans of the real track surfaces that are accurate right down to the bumps and elevation changes.
"We want them when they pull this lid down and get in and look out there at VIR or any of the places that we need them to be. And we've worked really hard on our tire models, our aero models, and our powertrain models," Ford Performance Supervisor, Performance Vehicle Dynamics Eric Zinkosky, who has been in the game since the early SVT days, said. "What we've done through the GT350 and GT500 programs, the guys would go to the VIR, they'd come here two days later, and we'd ask 'Does that feel right? What are we missing? What do you need?' So right now we can look forward at cars that don't exist and give them a pretty good field work."
One of the pilots in question has driven the Ford GT and Mustang GT4 race cars in competition. He is also a true enthusiast with a knack for translating what he feels when the car is on the edge into language the engineers can quickly process and react to.
"Billy Johnson has shown that on a given day in a given car, he'll get you all of it in the first couple of laps. And that's it. That's a talent. And then we may go to the VIR for two days and we'll bring a Focus, a GT500, a GT350, and sometimes an Explorer ST. Billy can walk the line and when he comes back and says so, you know, that's the lap."
Of course the lap he is referring to is the fastest possible lap with that configuration. Arriving at that point is really hastened by the variety of virtual tools at the tech center.
"The big thing that it did for the GT350 and then more so for the GT500 program was it allowed the team to look at the 'what-ifs' without changing hardware," Eric said. "We're even building hardware for the GT500 before we had one body part. One of the things that was in question and that is how much front downforce can we get with a Mustang?"
Where you might spend days at the track waiting on weather, changing out parts, and burning through fuel and tires, the simulator allows for getting the car dialed in more closely before arriving at the track. It is particularly useful for tweaking spring rates and damper calibrations before heading to the track.
"Changing the rear spring on the GT500 takes two and a half hours to do it right," Eric explained. "You need to take the rear spring out. You have to disconnect the knuckle, the lower control arm, and you have to put it in. It takes two mechanics on their knees with a pry bar, and then they have to realign the back of the car. It's two and a half hours."
"MagneRide, came in and spent two days with us and did the first-pass shock tuning for us," Eric added. "In the past, that might have taken us two weeks to get the first go-round together."
This gets the car setup much close before the test drivers buckle up in the behind the wheel. Of course, Billy and other development drivers don't just drive in the simulator or in the real world. They drive vehicles in both environments to ensure that the performance is improving, and to give feedback as to how the simulator compares with the reality. It turns out they are quite similar, as he can feel the benefits of as little as a millimeter in ride height difference on a Ford GT in the simulator and on the race track.
That sort of accuracy allows Ford to bring out the best in its race cars and its performance street machines. The fruits of those labors will be on full display soon as Ford Performance unleashes the highly anticipated 2020 Shelby GT500, but engineers are already hard at work testing those future models they can't talk about just yet.
"It's more of a two-way street, providing feedback and working with the engineers (who really deserve far more credit and notoriety than I get) to find the best balance of handling, balance, performance, and capability that is approachable and easy to drive, yet engaging and playful for the pro to not be held back, all while delivering a streetable and good ride quality. It's easy to make a car fast, but difficult to also make it easy to drive, and have a good ride quality on the street," Billy said.
So as you drive your fast Ford in the real world, know that its performance was honed in the virtual worlds inside the Ford Technical Support Center before its tires ever squealed on pavement in real life.
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Photography by Steve Turner and courtesy of Ford Motor Company