Agustin Jimenez
Technical Editor
July 13, 2015
Photos By: Courtesy of Ford

We previously reported to you about Ford’s use of carbon fiber wheels as standard equipment on the all-new Ford Shelby GT350R and now they’ve released a few more details on the world’s first mass produced carbon fiber wheels.

The Ford Shelby GT350R is the most track-capable Mustang ever and the first vehicle from a major automaker to offer carbon fiber wheels as standard equipment but now we know how much technology has really gone into these wheels to withstand the heat of the Shelby GT350R’s massive brakes. The carbon fiber wheels feature ceramic plasma arc spray on the front wheels – the same process used on the original Space Shuttle main engine turbine blades, which provides thermal protection from brake heat. That’s right, Space Shuttle technology is taking the all-new Shelby GT350R to levels of performance that are out of this world.

While the automotive aftermarket and a low-volume supercar manufacturers have offered carbon fiber wheels, Ford and Australian supplier Carbon Revolution took on the challenge of crafting the first mass-produced, track-capable carbon fiber wheels as standard equipment for Shelby GT350R. They designed, developed and tested with the highest of quality standards in mind and these first-of-a-kind wheels deliver unprecedented chassis performance, massive weight savings and improved driving dynamics.

In early testing with benchmark vehicles, prototype wheels showed significant potential – improving suspension response times, chassis dynamics, steering feel and ride quality. When the decision was made to pursue this technology for use in a production vehicle, the engineering team was challenged to develop a wheel that met Ford’s strict standards for durability, quality, craftsmanship and premium finish.

Lowering overall curb weight in general is beneficial to a car’s dynamics, but a reduction in unsprung weight (those components not supported by the suspension) can have a significant impact on handling and performance. Less unsprung weight helps vehicles start, stop and turn faster by reducing wheel rotational inertia, dramatically improving response time to driver input. Lower unsprung weight also translates to suspension components not having to work so hard to keep the tires in contact with the road over undulating or broken surfaces.

Ford sets extremely high testing requirements for its wheels and as such, the wheels had to endure tests that included curb strikes, UV and chemical exposure, and extreme heat durability testing. The GT350R wheels had to fulfill all of those demands in order to proceed to production.

One of the most severe tests for wheels in Ford development process involves striking a curb at speed – a test that, without proper design, can cause serious wheel and tire damage. Because of the light weight, advanced construction methods and resins in the wheels, along with the highly-developed MagneRide dampers, the suspension was able to react so fast that the driver wasn’t sure the test had been carried out correctly and ran it twice to be sure. The suspension response was fast enough to greatly diminish the severity of the impact – that’s the power of minimizing unsprung weight.

During track testing the extreme performance capabilities of the braking system developed heat, which required the maximum technology available from Carbon Revolution. When brake temperature measurements were taken, it was revealed Shelby GT350R’s ultra-powerful brakes were creating rotor temperatures in excess of 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius). As a result, the wheel design was elevated from a road car specification to a thermal standard more suitable for motorsports.

For decades aerospace companies have treated turbine blade materials subject to extreme heat with ceramic coatings to help improve durability. The technology is also used in top-tier open-wheel racing environments. A thermal barrier coating system developed by Carbon Revolution uses this same technology.

Created specifically for motorsport and aerospace applications where extreme temperature conditions are encountered, Carbon Revolution’s thermal barrier coating system uses a multistage, multi-material coating formulation that provides an excellent thermal barrier. Using a plasma arc gun to liquefy a ceramic material, the wheels are coated at critical points around the inner wheel “barrel” and on the back of the spokes. The result is an incredibly thin, nearly diamond-hard coating that reliably shields the resin from heat, reducing maximum wheel temperatures and allowing continuous track use by even the most aggressive drivers.

But that’s not the end of the story with regard to testing. Upon extreme exposure to harsh UV environments, corrosive salts and road chemicals, it became apparent that to achieve the durability required by Ford, a special coating would need to be developed to protect the resin from the environment.

By cutting the weight of each wheel nearly in half compared to an equivalent aluminum wheel (18 pounds versus 33 pounds), handling and acceleration performance has been significantly increased. The wheels also provide a reduction in rotational inertia of more than 40 percent, which positively impacts acceleration and braking performance. The wheels are so light, the springs and MagneRide dampers had to be recalibrated because the suspension can respond considerably faster to road inputs.

“The GT350R wheels and tires were developed to be the most track-capable parts we’ve ever produced,” said Adam Wirth, chassis supervisor, Ford Performance. “The carbon fiber wheels reduce vehicle weight by 60 pounds compared to aluminum, yet are stiffer for better steering response. We believe this is a game changer for the industry,” he added, “a great example of improved performance through innovation.”

With all this new technology, it’s no surprise that the new Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang will be rocketship-fast when it finally launches.