Ford and sports car racing were synonymous throughout the 2010s. It’s V8 engines powered Daytona Prototypes to Grand-Am victories. EcoBoost V6 turbos followed and continued the winning DP tradition in IMSA, and with the advent of its Ford GT Le Mans program in 2016, the howling supercars took the Blue Oval back to Le Mans, where it won on the 50th anniversary of its first triumph at Circuit de la Sarthe.
Factor in plenty of achievements with its evolving Ford Mustang platform in the Michelin Pilot Challenge series and its predecessors, and the auto manufacturer gave its fans multiple ways to cheer for the brand. Its departure from prototype racing to make way for the Ford GTs, however, and the exit by its GTs leading into 2020, has left the company with a greatly reduced presence in IMSA. And it’s not by accident.
Having reached a crossroads with Ford’s changing road car technology and where its various models might fit in road racing for the rest of the decade, Ford Performance boss Mark Rushbrook (pictured above) says the brand is actively searching for ways to return.
“As a company, we’re committed to motorsports,” he told RACER. “We love what we get out of racing in terms of the ability to develop our people, to develop our innovation and technology and transfer it to our road cars and to tell our fans and our customers a story about our company. At a high level, that certainly is not changing at all. We’re just retooling our programs to align, as we go forward, and a lot of that is waiting to see what really happens in the sport, in the different series, and then making our decisions to be in the right place.”
Like most of the auto industry, Ford continues to increase its embrace of hybrid and full-electric vehicles. Behind the scenes, Ford has been a regular presence at IMSA’s steering committee meetings for the new hybrid LMDh prototypes coming in 2023, which could signal something positive for the future.
“I think it’s indicative for sure of the racing world changing, the sports car racing world changing, even more broadly,” he said. “Our world is changing, so as we’re seeing a shift in the cars and trucks that we sell, as a manufacturer, that that other manufacturers are selling, there’s a big shift from cars towards SUVs and trucks, but also powertrains shifting from internal combustion engines toward hybrid and full electric. For us, motorsports needs to stay fairly close to our road car cycle plan, so as our road car cycle plan is shifting, we’re looking at our motorsports cycle plan to figure out. ‘OK, what is the right place for us to be racing in total in the world?’
“And then specifically in the sports car racing world, there’s a lot of changes going on at the prototype level, from DPi shifting to LMDh, which we absolutely think is the right thing for the sport, to move to that more relevant hybrid powertrain.”
As an early advocate for the move to hybrids in IMSA’s top class, Rushbrook is clearly fond of where the series is headed. And while he isn’t ready to confirm future LMDh plans for Ford, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Blue Oval return to take on the likes of Acura, Audi, Porsche, and any other manufacturers who commit to the class.
“We’ve been on a focus, for the last several years, on aligning the powertrains in the series that we race in, with what we’re going to sell and hybrid is important and so was full electric,” he continued. “We do think we’ve got good opportunity to race hybrid in the future, as some of our existing series switched to hybrid, including NASCAR potentially in 2023 to be hybrid, and in the WRC with their rules switching to hybrid for for 2022. There’s some pretty good opportunities there, where we continue to race today, for those to migrate to hybrid.
“What I will say about LMDh is going hybrid is something that we were asking for two years ago… What we wanted the prototype class to become is really what LMDh has become, and what it brings to the sport. I think it’s a great opportunity for sports car racing to have that top level prototype class, globally able to race at Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, with the same cars, the same technology, the same teams even. We think that’s fantastic for the sport.”
Ford’s representation in IMSA for 2021 comes with a pair of Mustang GT4s entered in the series’ second-tier training category. As IMSA appears ready to choose GT3-based cars as the only formula that will be used in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starting in 2022, Rushbrook says interest in entering the marketplace with a new Mustang GT3 model continues to build.
“Inside of IMSA, we’re seeing a shift with great growth in GTD and some reductions in GTLM,” he added. “How does that make sense and what’s the right GT program to have moving forward as well? We are very interested in racing our Mustang platform around the world. As you’ve seen, we switched from the Fusion to the Mustang in NASCAR Cup two years ago. We switched from the Falcon to the Mustang in Australian Supercars.
“And then we introduced the Mustang GT4 and with what we have seen with the growth of customer racing in total — not just at the GT4 level, but at the GT3 level — that is definitely of interest as we want to race Mustangs everywhere, since it’s now a global sports car. We’re interested in racing that and the opportunity to race that in more series. What I would say is, GT3 is a very logical place for the Mustang to race and a very logical place for us to look and certainly in with what IMSA offers, even today with GTD, that’s a great place to race.”