Would Lincoln Ever Challenge for Overall Le Mans Victory?

Lincoln_LE_MANS_6A day before the 2015 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford announced that the company bearing his family name would be partnering with Ganassi Racing to field four of its new GT supercars in the French enduro next year. Wall Street Journal auto critic Dan Neil wrote about this on the newspaper’s website on Sunday after the race. More interesting perhaps was what he wrote when he linked to his Journal piece on Facebook.

There he said that he felt the GT should be badged as a Lincoln rather than a Ford to help support the premium brand. I’d like to suggest a different strategy for what Ford might be thinking here. Full disclosure, when I left the Ford communications team in mid-2014, I was privy to some future product information which had not yet been revealed at the time including the Lincoln Continental, Ford GT, Focus RS and Shelby GT350. All of that information has now been publicly announced and what comes next is pure speculation on my part with no basis in fact.

In his Facebook post, Dan states:

“After hearing out the Ford guys, I still don’t see why not label the GT a Lincoln. It’s been done before. Lincoln is the brand that needs the image reboot; and as for racing not being consistent with the Lincoln image message, so says Mark Fields, when has fast and sexy and track-tested been a problem for a brand? With respect, I just come away with a different conclusion.”

Aside from the fact that the two previous generations of the GT in 1964 and 2003 were always Fords, I believe there could be something deeper at play here in the company’s thinking. Like every other automaker, Ford is subject to increasingly restrictive fuel economy and CO2 emissions regulations over the next decade. Meeting those regulations can add a significant amount of cost to vehicles, especially if customers are unwilling to sacrifice performance and other capabilities at the same time.

Looking at the product strategies of European automakers can provide a hint here. What we’ve seen in the past year is a move to apply electrification, particularly plug-in hybrid powertrains to more upmarket models. Unlike cars. such as the Toyota Prius which are optimized for total fuel economy, these premium models include more powerful internal combustion engines that enable a significant improvement in fuel efficiency with equal or better performance than conventional counterparts.

The theory is that consumers at these higher price points are more willing to absorb the cost premium of plug-in hybridization so that manufacturers can apply the technology without having to sacrifice as much profit margin as they do in more mainstream models.

This brings us back to Ford and Lincoln. Until now the only Lincoln with a hybrid powertrain option has been the MKZ where the battery-augmented version accounts for more than 30% of sales. In the similar Fusion, the hybrid and plug-in hybrid options only account for about 10% of sales. If the new Continental and other upcoming models from Lincoln were to combine Ford’s hybrid technology with more powerful EcoBoost engines, there is an opportunity to significantly increase overall sales of electrified vehicles while maintaining margins. This would boost Ford CAFE numbers which are compiled on the total of Ford and Lincoln sales and also help Ford toward meeting the California ZEV mandates.

How does all of this factor into the racing strategy? Ford decided early on in the GT development process that motorsports was going to be part of the program. Since the GTE class does not currently allow hybrid powertrains, it didn’t make much sense to put such a powertrain in the road car.

On the other hand, the ACO’s LMP1 class does mandate energy recovery systems for factory programs. What if Ford is planning a two-pronged attack on Le Mans in the coming years with the GT being just the first step? What if Ford is looking at a Lincoln-badged hybrid prototype to compete with Porsche and Audi that also helps market the hybridized road-going models.

This would be a hugely expensive effort, potentially costing upwards of $1 billion dollars. Following his ascension to the CEO post last year Mark Fields appointed Kumar Golhatra as the first president of Lincoln and announced a multi-billion dollar product development effort for the brand. While a Lincoln LMP1 program certainly seems far-fetched at this stage, I believe it could actually make far more sense as a marketing effort than offering a Lincoln GT.

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