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Ford GTs - The Fastest (and Only) Fords In The Field
Dave and Andrea Robertson are trying to make the Ford GT competitive in ALMS GT sports car racing
Dave Robertson is a huge man, standing 6-feet, 5-inches tall, 270 pounds, yet his wife, Andrea, is as petite as he is large.
Robertson is a retired chief pilot and chief safety and training officer for Spirit Airlines, a 30-year airman who flies his own Cessna Citation bizjet to the races. Together, they race a pair of highly modified Ford GTs in the fiercely competitive American Le Mans Series GT category. And they do so against factory entries from BMW, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche, with little to no help from Ford, simply because Ford never intended the GT to be raced and there's no budget for it.
The Robertsons drive the red and silver Piloti-sponsored Ford GT, and pro drivers David Murry and Anthony Lazzaro drive the yellow-trimmed unsponsored car, with help on the long-distance races from pros like Boris Said and Colin Braun. They operate from a 15,000-square-foot shop at the legendary Dick Barbour's racing facility, right next door to Road Atlanta.
Andrew Smith, aka "H," runs the Robertson Racing operation. Having come from Derbyshire, England, where he was, of all things, a motorcycle drag racer who drifted into auto racing. He built drag bikes, served time at Tom Walkinshaw Racing on the Nissan 390-R program for Le Mans, then came to America and Dick Barbour Racing in 2000 to run the factory Porsche program, and ultimately stayed. H is a master strategist and fabricator, whether it's wood, steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber.
In 2006, Dave and Andrea bought a Panoz GT-1, and later an Esperante GT/LM to race, and Panoz recommended they employ Dick Barbour Racing to help run and maintain the car. Dick Barbour appointed H to run the Panoz program for them. That lasted until the Ford GT was introduced and the couple ordered a Ford GT racecar from Kevin Doran's shop in Lebanon, Ohio. The Doran Ford GT program finished the car in time for the grueling season opener, the 12 Hours of Sebring. A shunt at nine and a half hours into the race put them out.
The original car was crashed beyond quick repair, so the team acquired another Ford GT, turned it into a race car, and rebuilt the crashed car over time. But since 2008, no team driver has reached an ALMS podium finish, even thought the team put together a string of 20 consecutive races without a DNF, until they were crashed out by another car at Mosport in Canada. So far they've put the red car on the pole for the 10-hour Petit Le Mans in 2009 at Road Atlanta, and they lead the FIA GT race in Okayama, Japan, for 30 minutes against European factory competition.
Of ALMS GT racing, H says, "Nowadays, GT is just brutal. There are a lot of ex-F1 drivers in there. Back in 2000, there might be two or three seconds covering the top 10 in qualifying, but now it's tenths of seconds. Unless you have two top pro drivers in your car, you're not going to do well unless everybody else crashes out."
Stephane "Steph" Chistel, who started racing in France at 15, is the crew chief for both cars and says the chassis, windshield, wipers, and door hinges are all that's left of the original Ford GTs, with 90 percent of the cars redesigned and built by the tiny crew of 10 guys at Robertson Racing. "Other than the roof, every panel on the car and all the major bulkheads are carbon fiber."
These two race cars are by far the most complex, most highly modified, and most thoroughly engineered Ford GTs on Earth. ALMS rules state the cars must weigh a minimum of 1,245 kilograms or 2,739 pounds wet, but these only weigh about 1,100 kilograms and have to be ballasted the rest of the way. The lead ballast has to be carried in the cockpit so it doesn't offer a traction advantage.
ALMS also dictates a maximum of 5.0 liters of engine displacement. The Robertsons have their 5.0 Cammer engines built by Elan Motorsports, the engine-building arm of the Panoz motorsports empire. Without the supercharger and breathing through two mandatory 28.6mm intake restrictors, the engine makes about 500 hp on mandated E85 fuel, and is redlined at 6,800 rpm. For Le Mans, they will have new engines built for the French-mandated E10 fuel.
For U.S. racing, there's a 110-liter fuel tank running right down the center of the car. But at Le Mans, it will be stuffed with blocks so that it only takes 90 liters of E10. These cars are so slippery that speeds at the end of the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans could touch 190 mph.
The engine is cooled by the front radiator, the engine oil by the left-side radiator inside the scoop, and the transmission lube by the right-side radiator plus a heat exchanger. The engine/transaxle bay contains a nightmare of fuel lines, oil lines, shifter mechanisms, sensors, and sender cables. The alternators alone cost $5,000 each, and even at that price may not be able to keep up with the electrical requirements during the night at Le Mans.
Behind the engine is a Tilton three-disc clutch and an Emco five-speed transaxle. New for 2011 is a complete Shiftec paddle-shifter setup with its own air compressor-a setup that lead driver David Murry says changes the game since the clutch is only used coming out of the pits and rev-matching is fully automated. The paddle-shifter software can control the fuel shutoff, spark retard during shifts, and the rev-matching for downshifts. In harsh, bumpy conditions, like those at Sebring, it pays big dividends by letting the drivers keep both hands on the wheel.
The rest of the powertrain consists of 15-inch Brembo racing brakes, actuated by a new AP pedal box that offers greater pedal feel and modulation; Ohlins double-adjustable coilover shocks; a Doran steering box; custom CNC-built double-wishbones and uprights with a new, quicker camber-change setup; BBS wheels, 11.5-inch front and 13-inch rear; and Michelin racing slicks, 30x65-18 front and 31x71-18 rear.
The sanctioning body, IMSA, keeps the series competitive among the brands by continuously adjusting the size of the intake restrictors, the weight of the car, and the rear wing specifications (essentially, no taller than the roof of the car, and no wider or further back than the rear bodywork). Real-time telemetry is allowed, but the GT cars cannot use adjustable front or rear suspensions. The driver can change only front/rear brake bias while underway.
The shortest races in ALMS are 3 hours, with 6-, 10-, and 12-hour races during the season. The drivers have to be made as safe and as comfortable as possible, so they have special equipment on board. There is no inside rear-view mirror, so the cars have rear-facing cameras with picture-flopping software to give them an accurate picture of what's behind them and where, with the display screen in the normal mirror position. There is also a tiny Italian-sourced forward-facing AIM Smartycam camera that can record an entire race to memory, and it can also be used to compare one driver's times, lines, and performance to another's for coaching purposes.
Both cars carry the normal radio communications, data-logging, and telemetry transmitters, with MoTec driver information displays and shift lights atop each steering column to transmit data on speeds, times, and temperatures during the races. A separate power distribution module (PDM) black box monitors all of the electronics to spot and correct errors before they become problematic. Knowledge is power, and this team has a lot of knowledge. H estimates that there is $50,000 worth of electronics on each of the two cars.
For night racing, the cars have immensely powerful Hella racing headlamps, and ALMS-mandated lighted car numbers and driver identification systems built into the carbon-fiber doors. Because they are the only two Ford GTs being raced and there are no factory race parts, Steph Chistel has had to build a huge book piece by piece, containing a line item for every part, nut, and bolt on the car, the name of the supplier, and when it was last updated or changed.
When we arrived at the DBR/Robertson shop, both cars had been completely field-stripped after the second of two testing sessions at Sebring, and one had just returned from a session on the four-post chassis rig at Roush-Yates Racing in Concord, North Carolina, to get the shocks sorted.
We followed the Robertson team from there to the first race of the ALMS '11 season, the team's fourth 12 Hours of Sebring, and, although both cars had a few problems that required time in the pits and back in their garage area, both cars finished. The 12-hour marathon ended with much better results than ever before-8th (Robertson, Robertson and Said) and 12th (Murry, Lazzaro and Braun) in the GT class.
We then followed them to their first 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the red car was entered with the Robertsons and Murry driving. In the GT Endurance Amateur class, the team qualified 55th out of 56 entries, but the car soldiered on with only one problem, the paddle shifters during the night.
The Le Mans rookies finished 26th overall, Third in class, and stood on the podium their first time out-an outstanding performance, and the first time in many years a pure Ford product was on the podium at the world's greatest endurance race.