SHORT INTERVIEW OF THE FORD GT CHEIF ENGINEER
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE FORD GT'S CHIEF ENGINEER
There are few engineers with the portfolio of Neil Hannemann, who has been involved with several American supercars including the Viper, the Saleen S7 and the '05-'06 Ford GT. He most recently finished a stint in the UK working for McLaren. Wallace A.Wyss, the co-author of Ford GT40 and the New Ford GT caught up with Hannemann and son at Pebble Beach in August and asked him for an update on the Ford GT and Viper.
Wyss: Which is more of a handful to drive? the Viper or the Ford GT?
Hannemann: I haven’t driven the latest Viper, the new one with 600 hp, but I can compare to some past Vipers. My favorite Viper starts with the 1996 GTS. That was the culmination of my input to the Viper lineage. A ’96 GTS definitely requires more driver skill to keep it at the absolute limit. It also has a bad habit related to downshifting and locking the wheels that can catch out an inexperienced driver. On the other hand, if you are driving somewhat below the limit the Viper has a wider range of what I call “performance feel”. When the Ford GT is right at the limit, it has much more linear characteristic and does not have another Viper bad habit of a really abrupt slide recovery. The Mercedes-McLaren SLR also has the same abrupt slide recovery as the Viper, but if you leave on the fabulous ESP then it isn’t a problem. The current style SRT 10 Vipers are actually surprising close in their overall behavior to the GTS,
So I guess the short answer to your question is the Viper is more of a handful to drive.
Now, for “track only” experiences the Viper Comp Coupe is whole different ballgame, fun, predictable and fast. I wonder what a Ford GT racecar would be like?
Wyss: Why was Chrysler able to keep the Viper in production when Ford stopped the Ford GT?
Hannemann: Chrysler still has a much better idea of the intangible “halo” effect of having the Viper as a flagship. Ford ultimately is dominated by a bean counting mentality that every single element of a particular car has to make a buck. Chrysler realized the benefit of having a magazine cover, but Ford never applied a dollar value to that and didn’t understand it any other way.
Wyss: In collectible cars there always seems to be a "magic number" of cars
built, usualy around 1500 like the gullwing Mercedes (1485) the Porsche
Speedster, etc. Do you think Ford built just enough GTs to make them
collectible but if they had built 9000 there would be depreciation?
Hannemann: I hope there is a little depreciation on the Ford GT because I am going to be in the market for one in a year or two! To make something really collectable I wouldn’t build more than 500 cars. There are some special cars that had more than 500 built and the Ford GT may just be one of those. That’s OK if you are Mercedes, Porsche or Ferrari, who build a whole range of cool cars, but for Ford if there are more than 500 then there should be 10,000, or at least a continuous build of 200 to 500 cars a year past what Ford did build. That would be enough to pay for the ongoing development and build a long term heritage and make the cars more “common” (seen on the street a lot) and thus give more notice to the Ford brand.
Wyss: When i went to the Ford proving grounds they only let me drive the
Ford GT at 45 mph and said that only ll people within Ford were allowed to
drive it at its full potential. Did you find that attitude odd when, say, at
Ferrari, everybody involved with the car gets to drive it at the test track
at full speed?
Hannemann: Ford does have a very odd internal test driver rating system. They have different levels and you have to take training and pass tests and peer reviews to attain each successive rating. I think the top rating may have only had 11 people in it. I was given an “honorary” rating (the third group, not the top rating!) so I could drive on the Ford facilities. I had maybe half of all these top rated drivers on the Ford GT program, or they were in the SVO group. They really were the best Ford had to offer, but when it came time to run a reference lap in the Ferrari 360 they were all pretty scared of the car and I had to run all the fast laps! It’s a tough job, but somebodies got to do it! I also found that the Ford guys defaulted to what they do well, which is objective testing. What I found happening was that you can meet all your objective ratings and the car still isn’t worth a hoot. Most of the really defining characteristics of a car are not in the numbers, but in the feel. So there were a couple of test sessions where I had to “recalibrate” the “soul” of the car.
wyss: Did Ford make any money on the Ford GT? I heard it was $100 million
dollar program. If you divide that by only 4039 cars...
Hannemann: Let’s see if my math is any good. $100 million divided by 4039 is $24,758.60. Of course the program costs don’t buy any actual production parts to build the cars so add a big chunk for that. Then there are a lot of other costs for warranty, sales, etc. You can quickly approach $150,000 per car on the cost side, but yeah, I think Ford made money on the program. In fact the cost increase part way through the program tells me that however the costs were counted they needed a little more to turn a profit, and did the increase to hit that number.
Wyss: There are rumors that there was going to be an '07 GT. Was one ever in the works?
Hannemann: Just before I left Ford, I spent some time brainstorming with Chris Theodore, Tom Reichenbach and Jamal Hameedi. Of course, Kip Ewing was already way out there ahead of us! I don’t think it got much past that stage, although there was a good piece of work done by on what it would take to make the ’06 car legal for ’07.
Wyss: Have you driven the GTX version and if so is it to your liking or are
you one of those to whom an open car is always a compromise?
Hannemann: I have not driven a GRX and I am not a fan of open cars.
Wyss: When you were at McLaren, what cars did you work on?
Hannemann: I went to McLaren to work on P8, which was to be a mid-engined Mercedes/McLaren sports car. There is some pretty sketchy history on that program in the media. I could write a book on this subject, maybe I should start taking bids for my insight into the subject!
I also didn’t expect to do any work on the SLR, but I did do quite a bit of launch related and continuous improvement work. Then there were the 722 and the SLR roadster that I can mention, and a couple of versions that I can’t! I must say that while Gordon Murray had told Mercedes that it would be “impossible” to do a roadster version, when I got done with the structural work I was happy that it is absolutely the best world class convertible structure that there is.
Wyss: Do you feel mid-engned cars are always a problem as far as luggage
space and that's why you can never count on volume sales? I.e. is that why
Mercedes McLaren SLR was front engined?
Hannemann: Yes and no. No
Wyss: Do you regret the decision not to offer a luggage compartment in the
Ford Gt when Ferrari had one on the 360 Modena?
Hannemann: I don’t regret the decision, but we should have done a better job. I picked the direction to simplify workload in delivering the timing and performance. Maybe I will have regrets after I own one!
Wyss: There is some concern about half shafts now in the Ford GT. Is that concern merited? Did you worry about that when the car was first approved
for production? Is it easily fixed?
Hannemann: I am not privy to the details of the halfshafts. We didn’t have any problems or concerns in testing. I think that there is merit because there is an improvement being worked on and it should be a pretty easy fix.
Wyss: Since gas in Europe cost twice as much is there a different "head space" shown by owners there regarding what they expect of a high performance car. I would imagine it would be something like: "I don't care
how much the fuel costs, but when I hit the autobahnen I want it to go 200
Hannemann: I think in Europe for the supercar market there is little concern over fuel economy as long as the range on a tank of fuel is not too low. Who could go 200 mph for an hour anyway? You can’t find 200 miles of autobahn without cars in your way!
Wyss: I saw a picture of you conferring with Carroll Shelby when the Ford GT was still in the mule state. Did you impart to you any stories of trying to
sell the original GT40s as street cars?
Hannemann: No, but Carroll was a proponent of the build fewer and charge more concept that we talked about earlier. Carroll knows I am pretty lame at sales (I probably couldn’t even sell my Mom a popsicle in the sahara), so we were mostly talking technical.
Wyss: In Europe they seemed to have this system of the old master driver testing a prototype and rendering his opinion. Did Ford utilize Shelby in that way with the Ford GT? Do you remember any of his recommendations?
Carroll had input and concerns about the car even before driving the mules and we discussed all these before prototypes ever existed. The recommendations were about things like structure, weight, not to focus on top speed, but make a good overall car. So by the time he first had a go at the mule he was happy that I had listened, learned and gotten it all right. He was most happy with the clutch pedal effort and feel (dual disc AP clutch). By the time the new Ford GT came around I had worked for Carroll for over 10 years, and he had a lot of trust in what I could do. The best complement I ever had was when Carroll once introduced me to some old-time Cobra guys as his young Ken Miles.
Wyss: Ford went to all the trouble to cultivate a group of fans for ultra high performance ford powered cars with the Ford GT then left them hanging
without a follow up. Do you feel that Ford could compete regularly in this arena or is ultra high performance too far from their bread and butter cars?
And would the Cobra roadster or GR1 versions satisfy that audience?
Hannemann: Technically, Ford could blow everybody away if they focused the correct resources on high performance. Ford is full of really smart engineers who have great original thoughts, and are not just good at “5% improvement over the previous model”. They would need to keep some guys like me or John Colleti involved to make sure the objective numbers don’t take over and detract from the feel of the car.
Not having a follow up to the Ford GT is a huge lost opportunity.
Wyss: I heard you announced a driving school for Ford GT owners. Why is that necessary? Is it a tricky car to get the most out of?
Hannemann: The need is really that nobody is doing it!
There is already a fantastic venue, Viper Days, for learning how to drive your Viper at mach 10, and I am an instructor there. The Viper Days starts from complete rookies and takes everyone with the skill to a very advanced level. Skip Thomas, who runs Viper Days , calls my program the final step! I am sure Skip would welcome Ford GT owners as his program is not completely Viper exclusive and there are some very swift Corvettes running around with Viper Days.
For the Ford GT owners I wanted an exclusive environment for drivers of all levels and I wanted to maximize track time and be able to spend one on one time with every student. I am also going to use the power of data acquisition to accelerate the learning experience. I have always said that the Ford GT was the culmination of everything I have learned in my engineering career. I want a Ford GT driving school to let students take advantage of everything I have also learned in racing. From rookies up to accomplished racers, I am sure I can teach and improve everyone. I still try to learn something everyday myself!
While the Ford GT is not a tricky car, it has such high limits that to take full advantage of them is best done with some expert mentoring.
wyss: Where can we reach you to sign up?
The first one is on October 9th at Willow Springs, CA.
Wyss: What's your future plans--to work for another automaker?
Hannemann: Right now I am happy as a consultant, so I don’t want a full time job. I am enjoying a wide variety of work right now. Also, I had planned that the McLaren project would have been my last full-tilt vehicle development program due to the huge time commitment and increased stress levels! It would be great to consult with automakers helping with specific challenges they might have, mostly because I am quite good at the practical implementation and interpretation of the advanced simulation resources that are only found at the automakers.
wyss: Thank you for the update.
Note: The 224-page hardbond book Ford GT40 and the New Ford GT by Al Axelrod, Brian Winer and Wallace Wyss is available, but is privately distributed (i.e. no Borders, MBI, Barnes & Noble, etc.). To find out where, contact the publisher at Photojournalistpro@hotmail.com