Bombing around a racetrack at triple-digit speeds is a fun way to spend your workday, but for the top test drivers at Ford Performance, it’s serious work. Ford’s most elite test drivers, known as “tier four” drivers, help develop performance models like the Shelby GT350R Mustang and GT supercar. But before they can do that, they have to develop their own driving skills.
“Not only are these elite Ford Performance drivers the best of the best, many of their peers believe they have the company’s coolest jobs in that they bring their enthusiasm, technical know-how, and racing expertise to work every day,” Ben Maher, head of Ford’s internal driver qualification program, said in a statement.
Of more than 11,000 specially rated test drivers within the company, only about 20 have tier-four status, according to Ford. Maher leads a “peer committee” that selects candidates from the pool of tier-three drivers to train for the next level.
That training involves track time in a special Mustang FP350S. The FP350S isn’t road legal; it’s a race car based on the Shelby GT350R that was offered for sale to customers in limited quantities in 2017. Ford added a second seat for an instructor and a 50-channel data acquisition system that can monitor everything from steering angle to brake pressure. This lets instructors pinpoint where students can improve, and ensures drivers are meeting the “objective requirements” of tier-four status, Ford said.
Like the best racing drivers, test drivers have to be able to drive at the limit while still having enough mental bandwidth to make observations about the car. They need to understand what a car is doing in a given situation and why, in order to give meaningful feedback to the engineers, without crashing.
“The performance limits of the FP350S are so high that to master it, vehicle control needs to become automatic,” Maher said. “High-limit driving becomes intuitive to the point that when one of these drivers gets in another vehicle, they are freed up to observe more of what’s happening at the vehicle level.”
Ford regularly rotates engineers between Ford Performance and its other product lines. The automaker claims this helps disseminate motor sports and performance knowhow across a wider range of vehicles. While it’s unclear how much this actually occurs, at least engineers rotating out of Ford Performance have the skills to make a Fusion or Edge more exciting.
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