The CAR inquisition: an interview with Ford product development boss Raj Nair, CAR+ June 2016

Published: 01 May 2016

► CAR interviews Ford’s Raj Nair
► How the new RS almost losts its way
► ‘I always enjoyed speed.’

It’s happened to me and I’m sure it’s happened to you. You’re in polite company, maybe at a BBQ, and someone asks why you love cars and driving. One of your defining passions is suddenly on trial. Why would you love something others see as a chore? Isn’t driving quickly immature and dangerous? Besides, won’t cars drive themselves soon?

Fear not. Now, with a little time spent learning your lines beforehand, you can hit them back with some top-drawer Raj Nair: ‘There is joy in the act of controlling a machine. We take it for granted but we’re talking about minute movements of your hands and feet, movements that are translated through the steering, the brakes and hundreds of horsepower into incredible forces.

‘It’s an amazing engineering achievement that a human being can sense the difference between degrees of understeer and oversteer so minute that if you were able to somehow be on a skateboard next to the vehicle, you could literally push the car into a slide with your hand – the limit is that fine. We take it all for granted but that’s an emotional and very visceral thing for the pilot. Even in the age of autonomous vehicles I don’t think that’s going to go away.’

Got that? Now pass the ketchup. That a man so well versed in the economic and technical complexities of global automotive engineering can so eloquently articulate the joy of driving explains a great deal. It helps explain how this Ford lifer has found himself spinning some big plates (the trailblazing aluminium-bodied F150 truck, 50th anniversary Europe-compatible Mustang, and the GT), why most Fords still drive with a little of the original Focus’s paradigm-shift dynamic flair, and perhaps why the £30k Focus RS eclipsed Porsche’s new £53k 718 Boxster S and M Division’s £46k M2 in our Giant Test last month…

‘I wanted to be a pilot originally,’ confesses Nair. ‘I was always mechanical and I always enjoyed speed. But when I graduated I found out my eyes weren’t good enough to be a military pilot, so then getting involved in something automotive became my priority. I started working on the line building trucks for GM when I was 17 years old. Ford hired me before I graduated. I always knew it’d be automotive or aerospace.’

Nair is too modest to claim credit for any single Ford – ‘product development in the automotive industry is the biggest team sport there is’ – but it’s unlikely his hands-on approach and the brilliance of cars like the Focus RS are unrelated.

‘I drive every Friday,’ says Nair. ‘No engineering by PowerPoint. Often it’s about the broader picture, about being in-line with our original intent, but I find the engineering fascinating. In some ways the job of development driver is easier now. We have so many ways to objectively measure what used to be feel: degrees of initial steering rotation, yaw gain, the phase-lag in that yaw gain… But now there are also so many knobs we can turn to get where we want to be. On the Focus RS there was a period in which a few things got crossed up and the car was really kind of squirrelly, but the team sorted it out to deliver the vehicle we have now.’

The kind of intuitive, communicative behaviour the RS takes to new heights has been a Ford thing since the C170 Focus. Nair’s adamant they matter still: ‘It’s not just about the performance enthusiast but the regular driver too. They may not be able to express what they’re feeling but subconsciously they’ll notice that the car’s easy to drive.’

Next month a fairytale will or won’t play out on a fairly important race circuit in France. Half a century ago Ford GTs finished first, second and third in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Victory for the new GT would complete a narrative circle in career-defining style for Nair, and after a baptism of fire at Daytona in January the GT racer’s been growing steadily more competitive, finally breaking its duck with a win at Laguna Seca in May.

‘It would have been great to have come in [to endurance racing] against maybe one guy who’s competitive but this year everyone’s brought their A-game,’ laughs Nair. Whichever way it goes he has a plan, to celebrate or cheer himself up as required. ‘An afternoon in the GT at Grattan raceway, Michigan would do the job,’ he says. ‘They say Grattan was designed by someone who had an intrinsic knowledge of race car dynamics and an intrinsic hatred of race car drivers. My first time there I spun on the warm-up lap, but I love that track.’

CAR’S CURVEBALLS – 6 questions only we would ask…

Tell us about your first car…

‘I managed to total a few hand-me-downs from my dad. But the first car I owned was a 1988 Ford Mustang. Someone stole it! I’m still looking for it: white ’88 Mustang GT with a scratch on the spoiler – let me know.’

Which achievement makes you proud?

‘The GT supercar – every engineer in the company wanted to work on that – the Focus RS and GT350R Mustang. Whenever my retirement party is, I hope those three will stand out.’

What’s the best thing you’ve ever done in a car?

‘I qualified on pole for a Formula 2000 race at Grattan raceway a long time ago. I built up a lead and decided to take it easy, so of course I spun immediately.

I couldn’t get back out until every other car had gone by. I re-joined in last place but managed to pass every car and win. It was a club race – there wasn’t much competition – but it was still fun to do.’

Tell us about a time you screwed up?

‘So many… When I was young I worked on this vehicle I was convinced no one was going to buy. It made no sense to me. We were taking our two-door SUV and creating a four-door SUV. That vehicle, which I thought was never going to be successful, was called the Ford Explorer [successor to the two-door Bronco and a sales smash for Ford]. That taught me a lesson.’

Supercar or classic?

‘Classic supercar! I’d go for a GT40. I guess I’m more into the performance than the romance but that car has both.’

Company curveball… Which GT40 qualified on pole at Le Mans 50 years ago?

‘I have no idea. Oh, hang on. Was it Gurney? It was Dan Gurney. It was his birthday last week [Gurney turned 85  years old in April].’

Read more from the June 2016 issue of CAR magazine

2016 Ford GT

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three