5:47PM, SATURDAY October 12. It’s the day before the Bathurst 1000, and the entire Mount Panorama circuit is subdued with a tense silence.
The peace is shattered by a feral, mechanical howl. It’s Scott McLaughlin at the wheel of his DJR Team Penske Ford Mustang, its 485kW 5.0-litre naturally aspirated race engine screaming like a bombing siren as it’s put to work for the most important solitary lap of the year, tearing down the pit straight with furious intent.
There’s a crackle as the 26-year-old Kiwi bangs down a couple of gears, before propelling himself up the mountain.
The silence returns.
It’s only broken when McLaughlin reappears, precisely 2:03.3783 minutes later. He’s just completed the quickest lap by a Supercar in Mount Panorama history, and the team erupts into suitably joyous celebrations.
Sitting still and silent just behind the pit garage is a bright green Ford Mustang road car, at the head of the line of numerous other Mustangs. A quick glance would have you fooled that there isn’t anything particularly important about this car, but let your eyes linger and telltale signs begin to coalesce into the realisation that this is something much more significant.
It might be the Ford Performance wheels that first catch your eye, or the matte black decals that give a knowing wink to the old Boss models from the halcyon days of muscle cars. Perhaps you’ll first be drawn to the GT350-esque rear wing, or the slightly more hunkered-down stance.
What you are gazing at is the 2020 Ford Mustang R-Spec, and it’s incredibly exciting for a number of reasons, the main ones being its race-car-shaming 522kW/827Nm outputs, and the fact that it’s assembled at Ford’s Broadmeadows facilities, near where the mighty Falcon was being built just three years ago. Yes, you read that right: the Blue Oval is back to making cars in Australia.
Here at Wheels, we don’t like to let a good opportunity go begging, so we decided to crash this momentous occasion with none other than General Motors’ very own 477kW American invader, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, re-engineered and sold in Australia by Holden Special Vehicles.
Our unceremonious arrival at Mount Panorama in a GM product at the exact moment Ford Australia is beating its chest with pride might be frowned upon by more sensitive PR minders, but Ford Australia welcomes us with open arms, fully aware of what both cars represent – the return of Aussie jobs to the performance-car sector.
Together, the R-Spec and ZL1 represent close to a megawatt of Australian-fettled supercharged V8 muscle, and what better place to gauge public perception of the pair than Mount Panorama during the biggest motorsport weekend of the year.
Unfortunately for you, dear reader, internal politics at Ford have kept us out of the driver’s seat of the R-Spec for now. The model you see on these pages is a pre-production version, and built from a MY19 Mustang, whereas all R-Specs will eventually be based on the MY20 update. The upshot of this is that the car is chaperoned at all times by a Blue Oval employee. We’ll bring you a full first drive as soon as we can pry the keys from Ford Australia.
ROB HERROD is a physically imposing man from a distance. Standing six foot tall, with a shaved head and broad shoulders, he cuts a daunting figure.
INSIDE LOOK: How the Ford Mustang R-Spec is built
But today, he has a beaming smile, his chest filled with pride, and he happily stops to take selfies with the Blue Oval faithful.
“We’ve been working on this project for pretty much two years now,” Rob tells us. Long associated with fettling Ford products,
he has become the linchpin in the R-Spec project thanks to his close relationship with Ford Performance in the US and Ford Australia locally.
As the largest official distributor of Ford Performance products in the southern hemisphere, Herrod Performance was given the nod to assemble the R-Spec, and ensure that it complied with all ADR regulations. What Rob has created is an absolute performance bargain. Priced at $99,980, the R-Spec offers 183kW and 271Nm of extra grunt over the regular Mustang GT for an additional $37,990 – not bad value for money.
So what do you get for your cash?
A Ford Performance supercharger is key to the extra power. Roush supplies the Eaton R2650 TVS unit that sits atop the third-generation 5.0-litre Coyote V8. The 2.65-litre unit produces 12psi of boost when spun up to 18,000rpm. For comparison, the ZL1’s 477kW/881Nm LT4 6.2-litre V8 is topped by a 1.7-litre Eaton R1740 TVS supercharger which generates 9psi of boost when spinning at 20,000rpm.
INSIDE LOOK: Why the Ford Mustang R-Spec took so long
Also in the Ford Performance kit is a new lower intake manifold with integrated air-to-liquid intercooler, 87mm electronic throttle bodies, a redesigned air inlet system, and larger fuel rails. The exhaust is also all new from the catalytic converter back, and built by Borla to Herrod’s specifications, with Ford Performance tips. Because a Ford Performance kit is used, all validation and testing needed to ensure the R-Spec met strict OEM standards was completed in the US.
You won’t be able to buy an automatic R-Spec, as all 500 units are fitted with the six-speed manual. Ford claims the gearbox itself didn’t require any modifications to handle all the extra grunt thanks to the MY18 Mustang’s transmission upgrades, which include stronger halfshafts, a twin-plate clutch, and a dual mass flywheel from the Shelby GT350. At each corner are Ford Performance wheels half an inch wider front and rear (9.5 and 10 inches respectively). Rubber retains previous widths of 255mm front and 275mm rear.
The suspension has been tweaked, with the ride dropping by 20mm; spring rates stiffened by 20 percent; and MagneRide dampers recalibrated for the new settings. Larger diameter anti-roll bars (up 5mm at the front; 3mm at the rear) round out the chassis upgrades.
Visually the R-Spec can be identified by the inserts on the front bumper intakes, unique decals, and GT350-style rear wing. The gurney flap you see in the photos was added to give Dick Johnson, or ‘Uncle Dick’ as Rob’s son Chris Herrod calls him, some extra stability during demonstration laps where he nudged 290km/h down Conrod Straight. Stickier Michelin Cup 2 rubber is fitted for the same reason, although the production version will wear the same Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres as a standard Mustang GT.
Herrod Performance is toying with offering an optional ‘Track Pack’ that would include both of the aforementioned modifications, along with extra cooling for the powertrain. This would placate buyers worried by the overheating issues that have plagued automatic Mustang GTs that endure track action.
While this is a new addition to Ford showrooms, the R-Spec badge itself isn’t. FPV sold a GT R-Spec in 2012, and it remains the quickest-accelerating Ford tested by Wheels, with a 4.52-second sprint to 100km/h. With no official acceleration claims coming from Ford, this will be the benchmark figure for the Mustang R-Spec to beat, along with toppling the quickest Aussie-built car, the HSV GTS-R W1, which managed 4.5 seconds.
All up, the R-Spec denotes an exciting new future for both Ford the company in Australia, and the blue-blooded army that have stayed faithful since local production ended. The ZL1 does the same thing for those in The General’s army.
PESSIMISTIC DETRACTORS of both of these cars will point out that they aren’t actually manufactured in Australia – and sure, they aren’t built and engineered from a clean slate on Aussie shores like the Falcon and Commodore – but that’s a negative slant on what should excite any local car enthusiast. These are distinctly Australianised models. The Camaro is only sold as a right-hand-drive model in a single market – ours – and that is all thanks to the engineering prowess of HSV. Similarly, Ford now sells a 5.0-litre supercharged ’Stang from the factory in only one country: Australia.
It’s something not lost on the rabid fans who reside at the top of Mount Panorama for the Bathurst 1000 every October.
“It’s bloody fantastic that Aussie jobs go into these things,” enthuses one punter.
The public reaction is unmistakeable for both vehicles, with racing fans all over The Mountain thrilled at their mere presence. We push our luck and sneak the cars through a gate into the crowd at McPhillamy Park, causing an instant disruption to foot traffic. The two cars are swamped by a crowd of onlookers who pepper us with questions. People pose for photos, and eagerly pore over the exterior details. Requests to pop the bonnet are quickly followed with calls to “give it a rev”. Ford Special Vehicles senior engineer Nathan Medbury happily obliges, taking the R-Spec to redline much to the glee of onlookers, while the 4000rpm soft cut of the automatic ZL1 that we have brought along earns itself a bit of uncharitable ridicule.
Being Bathurst, there are numerous questions about when the Camaro will join the Supercars championship. The short answer is Walkinshaw doesn’t want to ruin the silhouette of its performance hero like Ford did with the Mustang, and has called for the front roll-hoop regulation to be changed to accommodate a lower roofline, meaning a Camaro Supercar won’t happen until 2021 at the earliest.
Surprisingly, almost no-one mentions the price difference between the pair (it’s $60,000, if you were wondering). It’s mooted at one camp that most Ford and Holden fans couldn’t afford either of the cars anyway, and even if they could, the price wouldn’t matter. It’s a heart-over-head decision.
While neither car is torched to a crisp, and we survive a late-night excursion without having beer cans thrown, it’s clear that Red vs Blue tribal lines still exist at Mount Panorama. Verbal heckles are spat with venom as we cross the path of less agnostic camps, while one fan wearing a Ford shirt is quickly labelled a traitor by his mates for admiring the looks of the Camaro. There are some less partisan onlookers, but they’re few and far between. The general consensus when prodded is that the R-Spec is the more impressive performance car, with its superior power and racing heritage, but it’s the Camaro that cuts a more intimidating and visually alluring figure.
A DAY after Scott McLaughlin sent the record books into a tailspin with his quickest-ever lap, he crosses the line to finish lap 161 of the Bathurst 1000 at the head of the pack. This is his, and the Mustang’s, first victory at the toughest race in Australian motorsport.
Walking down the pit lane amid the stampeding crowd is Rob Herrod. He holds a poster that reads MUSTANG WINS BATHURST. His eyes fill with tears as emotions swell to crescendo at the end of a tense race.
If Ford was looking for a fairytale launch for its R-Spec at the unforgiving Mount Panorama, this was it. As the race weekend concluded, it was estimated roughly half of the car’s 500-unit allocation was accounted for with pre-orders.
Who said ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ was dead?