THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

BEHIND THE SCENES OF ‘PROJECT REDBACK’ – THE FORD RANGER RAPTOR DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM – TO REVEAL HOW FORD’S MONSTER 4X4 DUAL-CAB WENT FROM DREAM TO DESERT-STORMING REALITY.

WORDS JUSTIN WALKER

I AM airborne in a Ford Ranger Raptor, the desert track a few feet below passing by in a blur of ochre. I brace myself, anticipating a hard impact when the prototype dual-cab’s tyres reconnect with terra firma, but it doesn’t happen – the impact is muted and barely discernible. So I relax, just as the Ford test driver working the wheel beside me punches the throttle. This elicits an immediate response from the Raptor’s 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder as the 10-speed auto shifts down a couple of gears and shoves us forward at a ridiculously fast pace, on to the next corner. The rate of pace of approach – and the cornering speed – is bloody impressive, and yeah, I know I should feel a wee bit scared, but all I feel is the huge shit-eating grin on my face.

So how’d 4X4 Australia come to be in the middle of the NT’s red centre, carving at speed through the desert in a prototype of one of the most talked-about 4x4s in recent history that, on this memorable day in July 2017, still doesn’t officially exist? Well, grab that coldie, take a seat, and let me tell you the story of Project Redback.

SOMETHING SECRET

THE WHOLE thing is hush-hush. I have just returned full-time to the 4X4 Australia team when the Ed rings me to see if I am keen on being embedded in a secret Ford test program – and only slightly alludes to the fact it may be related to the increasing rumours of a Raptor-ised Ranger. Before I knew it I was signing non-disclosure statements and boarding an Alice Springs-bound bomber in early July 2017.

After myself and a fellow Aussie journo (we were the only two local scribes, joined by two Thai-based writers) were driven for many miles and hours, we finally reached the Ford development HQ in the middle of the outback, where my suspicions are confirmed.

Here, we meet a number of Ford representatives: Damien Ross, Chief Program Engineer for Raptor; Simon Johnson, Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer; and Anthony Hall, Vehicle Engineering Manager; plus myriad engineers (25 to be exact), PR types, test drivers and – most impressively – we cop a first glimpse at one of the two Raptor prototypes covered in the ubiquitous prototype-chequered paint job.

This one rolls past us not long after we arrive and I swear it doesn’t sound anything like a diesel... Before I can even think about snapping a photo using my iPhone, the PR team hand out specific phone-camera covers. They must have read my mind.

THE CONCEPT

TO UNDERSTAND how the Ranger Raptor was born you have to look to the USA and the raging success of Ford’s F-150 Raptor. This started as a concept that evolved from the vision of Jamal Hameedi, Global Performance Vehicle Chief Engineer, Ford Motor Company, who is an avid fan of the huge desert racing scene in North America – think Baja, Trophy Truck racing, etc. – and the prerunner vehicles used in those events. ‘Prerunner’ is the generic term used to describe the modified off-roaders (nearly always utes with big tyres, plenty of lift and loads of grunt) that teams use to drive the race route before the event itself, allowing them to check for potential dangers and obstacles they’ll need to avoid during the racing itself.

Damien Ross explains what happened next: “So, Jamal, he developed the [F-150 Raptor] product from going down to Baja, Borrego, and watching the Trophy Trucks, and he saw that they had these prerunners, and he thought ‘you know what, maybe there’s a market for creating a prerunner for the general public to go in and buy themselves,” he says. “That led to the P415 program, which was the first Raptor; in 2012, I think they launched that one.

“And that just went [in terms of sales], so they had a prediction of how many people wanted to buy them, and that kind of doubled and trebled. And so, you know, that meant, you could have another one, and then that kind of just doubled and trebled again.”

The sales success of the F-150 Raptor ignited the belief within Ford Australia that an equivalent version of the US Raptor could work, as Damien explains.

“Now, of course, we were watching the old one, and then going into the new one [the second-gen F-150 Raptor] from here and thinking ‘well, you know what, we think Ranger could have one of those and we think Asia Pacific could do with a vehicle at the top end of the Ranger range, which has the same kind of performance’.

“So we’ve taken the Raptor DNA; they’ve [Ford USA] written down everything – every ingredient – that we need for a Raptor. We’ve taken that and we’ve applied that to the Ranger platform and created a Ranger Raptor. So that’s what we’ve been doing and the Ranger Raptor is all about being able to go up to that high-speed off-road capability that you’d want for a prerunner.”

This initial idea led to Ford Oz developing a business case to satisfy the bean-counters that this project was financially viable, and then building the first of what would be many test mule incarnations. Damien elaborates on how the process works.

“So in our kind of setup, before I come on board there’s another group who are in the planning stages and they developed the business equation for about eight months, because one of the things we have is a requirement that it makes good business sense to do.

So they would have started way back in 2014; starting to develop the concepts, how they would go, and then they bring us in to answer some more engineering and some more attribute targeting detail. So yeah, it started off with ‘Well, there’s an F-150 Raptor. We want to take that DNA and make a Ranger Raptor’. That’s as simple as the conversation was.”

Even before financial questions were answered, the engineering team was busy – in their own time – building early test mules, nutting out how the Raptor concept would work in Ranger format.

“It was pretty valuable getting physical prototypes very early on and getting people’s thoughts and visions on what it could be,” Simon Johnson says.

Also helping the early stages of the project gain Ford HQ approval was an unexpected test drive by Ford’s then Global Project Development Director, Raj Nair, who was coincidentally in Australia at the exact time the first prototype was finished being built.

“It [the first prototype] had been delivered to the proving ground at eight o’clock the night before,” Simon explains. “I said ‘well, there are few cars out for him [Nair] to drive so I will just park it down there somewhere’. It’s not had a safety check, no one can drive it, but yep, Raj wants to drive...

“So I did a safety check, took him around in it and it went better than I thought. So I let him have a drive of it and yeah, he loved it; he said: ‘you’ve nailed Raptor’. So yeah, that was good.”

That prototype was one of two built initially – one for testing road loads and the other for Simon to ‘play around with’ in regards to suspension and dynamics – something the development team knew had to be nailed down early on in the program to keep it aligned with how any vehicle with the ‘Raptor’ moniker is expected to perform, both on- and off-road.

RAPTOR DNA WITH A TWIST

THIS Raptor is based off the new MY18 Ranger model to be released in the second half of 2018 and, as mentioned in the first part of this story, the powerplant is a Raptor-only 2.0-litre twin-turbo (sequential) diesel four-cylinder engine. Power and torque figures reveal 157kW and 500Nm, more power and torque than the 3.2L five cylinder diesel makes in the regular Ranger. Surprisingly, this twin-turbo diesel was the only engine considered for Ranger Raptor (at least in the Asia-Pacific market; nobody will answer any queries RE a US-spec Ranger Raptor). And the Ford team doesn’t seem overly concerned with the Australian ute market’s fixation with larger-capacity engines.

“I am sure there will be drivers who have their obsessions,” says Damien. “But when they get in this vehicle and drive it – and they don’t have another one to drive anyway, so they’re kind of pre-dispositioned – it won’t matter because they can’t go and buy somebody else’s version of Raptor. And so they’ll get in and they will just be blown away by what it does.”

The second deviation from the F-150 Raptor DNA – and from the rest of the Ranger model line-up – is the use of a Watts link coil-spring rear end (the big US rig has a leaf-spring rear). And, dispelling any assumptions, the Ranger Raptor’s rear suspension is not the same as the one residing underneath the Everest wagon, as Damien explains.

“Probably the biggest challenge was right at the beginning when we were finalising whether we were going to take their leaf spring system that they had or go to the coil-over-shock system Watts link that we’ve got now,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons Simon built the X0 [first test mule] to prove that; so that was probably the biggest technical decision we made which was, as it turned out, absolutely the right decision.”

Simon explains the aversion to leaf springs on Raptor, and also the differences between the Ford stabelemates’ rear ends: “One of the big benefits of the Watts link in particular is the lateral compliance – it’s very stiff,” he says. “With leaf springs, you’ve got a bit of compliance; somewhere around here [the test facility] if you throw it hard into a turn you slide and you hit a berm or a rut, and if you’ve got leaf springs you go ‘boom’ and fling about. This thing [the Watts link-equipped Raptor] just carves it.”

“So where the springs on the Everest sit, they’re close to the diff, and that means a very strong axle, too, for the bending. For the Raptor, we’ve moved them outboard of the shocks, so we’ve inherited an incredibly stiff axle and gained strength in that, but we don’t have the spring-back [due to the outboard position of shocks] so don’t need an anti-roll bar. That’s saved us on weight and it packages well and it looks great on the road.”

THE SAME, BUT VERY DIFFERENT

THE REAR suspension setup is just one of the features that set this particular Ranger apart from its brethren. Another is fitment of FOX internal bypass long-travel dampers and coil springs, as well as larger tyres. The rubber – BFGoodrich

All Terrain T/A KO2 LT285/70R17 – is seriously beefy and was developed in partnership with BFGoodrich, who used its previous F-150 Raptor tyre as a starting point. The dampers are unique: the development team partnered with FOX Racing for the Raptor-specific shock (which works in a similar way to a remote reservoir shock, but with the reservoir inbuilt), working with coil springs supplied from outside FOX. Like the tyres, the shocks are big and beefy to cop the loads and additional stress of the vehicle, which has included plenty of corrugated kays during testing. Simon is particularly impressed with how little heat build-up has occurred, thanks to all that additional oil in the reservoir.

The end result is the Raptor rides 50mm higher than the standard Ranger and offers a compliant and controlled ride, both on- and off-road, which was, for Simon, the biggest challenge.

“It’s important to us that our customers get a vehicle that will exceed their expectations off-road, but is something that is useful every day,” he says. “I’d happily jump into the Ranger Raptor and drive for 12 hours – it’s so comfortable. So we’ve managed to keep that plush ride and yet make it absorb massive inputs off-road here in testing.” (See Put to the Test sidebar for more on the testing regime.) Neither Simon nor Damien would elaborate on the difference in wheel travel, beyond saying it was ‘significant’.

Equally significant is the exterior bodywork styling and the underbody changes; the front-end geometry had to be altered to allow for the bigger shock/tyre package, with the large, chunky alloy A-arms a pointer, along with the bigger brakes (ventilated discs front/rear). There are vents in the front quarter panels, and a front air dam to keep brakes cool. The fuel tank is a reshaped Everest one. The Raptor also runs on a wider track, necessitating a re-laying of the frame.

“We’ve basically heavily modified or more or less designed-new, the frame,” Damien says. “So we started off from a basic underpinnings and we’ve strengthened the frame to be able to take the off-road loads, because you often hit whoops and bumps and can take off a little bit and land and you can’t do that on standard frames, so that’s been strengthened [in key areas]. And we’ve had to redesign it for things like, even, the spare tyre, because the tyre’s a lot bigger.

10 RAPTOR IN IF YOU’RE ever stuck in a pub or campfire argument with your local ‘expert’ who reckons “The Raptor is just a lifted Ranger”, here are 10 key differences. 01 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel engine – unique to Raptor (at time of writing). 02 10-speed auto. 03 It’s loaded with the latest version of Ford’s Terrain Management System and now has ‘Baja’ mode – the perfect excuse to indulge your inner desert racer. 04 FOX internal bypass shocks – designed and developed specifically for Raptor. 05 50mm increase in ride height from standard. 06 Significantly stronger frame/chassis. 07 Wider track. 08 Disc brakes front and rear. 09 Raptor-only version of Watts-link rear suspension setup. 10 It’s called Raptor. ’Nuff said.

ENGINEERING THE POSSIBLE

THE BIGGEST re-sizing challenge was, Damien reckons, the engine bay, which is actually pretty bloody crowded.

“The engine bay has an all-new layout,” Damien explains. “We’ve had to move, shuffle... To be honest, this is probably one of the areas in the vehicle that we’ve had to package everything. With new technology and especially if you go to higher emission controls, just trying to get everything fitted in there, it’s a task in itself.”

Exterior panelwork changes include the obvious pumped-out front and rear guards (to accommodate the wider track), the re-positioned rear bumper, and higher rated recovery hooks. There’s also a reduction in load-carrying capacity (Damien mentions load weights won’t be up to WildTrak level, but offered no exact figure), and Raptor-specific styling clues, such as the front grille, which is, during our visit, still in mock-up stage. The prototypes’ interior is ‘regular’ Ranger (you can expect to be chock-full of the latest Ford infotainment at launch), albeit with that 10-speed auto shoehorned in there, along with myriad recording instruments for suspension, steering, engine performance and more. Yes, it looks like a computer hacker’s dream, with all those screens recording and relaying info and data back to the team here on-site and also back in Ford Product Development’s HQ in Melbourne. One similarity with the stock Ranger is Ford sticking to a part-time 4x4 system (with low-range) rather than adapting the Everest’s full-time system. A slightly puzzling decision, but one that Damien thinks won’t be an issue.

“In terms of our off-road capability there is no advantage going to the Everest system,” he says. “A lot of people just love and know how the part-time system operates off-road and, given this is very much the focus of an off-road vehicle, for us it suited our needs down to the ground. We thought the fact the customer who was going to buy it was going to appreciate that it still had that system.”

The Raptor gets the latest version Terrain Management System (TMS), borrowed from the current F-150 Raptor, which includes ‘Baja’ mode. Damien elaborates:

“It’s a mode that allows you to drive unhindered by other systems taking over; when you’re in a road situation and [the TMS] sees certain traction and steering actions, it’ll take an action because you’re on the road,” he says. “But, out here you’re in sand and dirt. Those kind of manoeuvres... it’s kind of the fun you’re having off-road, so this Baja mode will stop those coming in when really you don’t want them.”

As impressive as its desert driving performance is, this is no one-trick pony. Ford has gone to great lengths to ensure the Raptor’s formidable off-road performance is balanced by equally impressive on-road behaviour – the calm Ying to the truly crackers off-road Yang.

“A lot of customers are going to be buying this, and the off-road fun’s going to be happening at the weekend,” Damien laughs. “So this vehicle, to live with as an on-road vehicle, is, in our assessments, a really great on-road vehicle. You’ve actually got an on-road sport mode... and if you don’t want that, you’ve got a sedate driving mode as well.”

AT LAST, THE DRIVE

PATIENCE is a virtue, apparently, but it was hard to remember that during the first day at the testing facility. The entire day was chock-full of information, vehicle walkarounds, and more questions, all the while with the two Raptors roaring around in the distance – so, yeah, it was close to the ultimate tease.

It was, however, worth the wait. The morning of day two saw us finally jump in the Raptor prototypes for a fast blast around one of the test tracks (the 18km loop). Well, sort-of finally – Ford still played out that tease, albeit with good reason. Before our lap in the Raptors, we tackled the same loop in a stock Ranger, so as to use that experience as a baseline for the differences between the two vehicles.

There are five test drivers at the facility, with each driver allowed only to do three hours at pace each day, due to the stresses their bodies are subject to, according to Simon. I am in with driver Matt Gerlak, and I’m about to find out all about those stresses.

The 18km test loop is a bumpy, sandy mix of straight sections with numerous tight and not-sotight corners. The stock Ranger is, itself, a pretty handy off-road performer, but this track tests it severely, with plenty of bumping and banging as Matt manhandles it through and over the various sections. The lap is relatively quick, but I am already really feeling it.

Next is the Raptor. Owing to these vehicles being prototypes, we are seated in full race seats with race harnesses, helmets, suits, etc.

The interior is packed with the aforementioned gauges and screens, but, not long after we blast off, it is the speedo I take most interest in. Throughout the extremely fast loop, the Raptor averages close to twice the speed of the regular Ranger – and Matt hadn’t taken it easy with the stock unit – and we get airborne twice, both times landing with little drama.

In terms of a standout, it is hard to split the 10-speed auto gearbox (set in Baja mode, of course) and the suspension. But, if I had to, the Raptor’s suspension/tyre combo would just win out – it is simply brilliant. Those many thousands of kilometres Simon has spent swapping out and adding in to the shocks’ shim stacks and myriad other tweaks has paid off. Compression is very well controlled, and rebound keeps the Raptor feeling very ‘tight’ in regards to how it responds to being shoved around by the bumps and off-camber surfaces below it.

The wider track gives the Raptor a more planted feel, and those big tyres finish it off, offering a compliant ride while still tracking true when responding to directional changes by the driver. Even more impressive is the fact there’s minimal transfer of the impacts through to us inside the vehicle – a standout in itself when you consider the terrain, the speed and the fact I am sitting on a bare-bones race seat. Simon’s claims of the vehicle offering owners a more comfortable, relaxed driving experience over longer distances rings in my ear.

Funnily enough, it is the engine that is noticed the least – and that’s not to say it doesn’t impress. There’s no doubt the 2.0-litre TTD donk has some serious grunt, and progress is bloody rapid, no matter whether we’re punching along a straight or spearing out of a corner. And, it works brilliantly with that auto; its quick shifts are matched perfectly in situations where you’d assume the engine may come off-song (exiting tight corners, etc.), but it shifts subtly, and that 2.0TTD keeps singing, sling-shotting you forward. Needless to say, the time for that loop was close to twice as fast as our stock Ranger lap. After, I take a seat and jot down just one word in my notebook to describe that Raptor lap: “Otherworldly”.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

AT THIS stage, in July 2017, there is still more development work to be done on Raptor. By the time you read this, of course, the Ranger Raptor will have been revealed to the world, and all those questions the Ford crew stayed silent on in the NT will hopefully be answered.

This Raptor program would seem a huge investment of time and money, if the fact the vehicle will go into 180 markets wasn’t taken into consideration – and that is not taking into account the potential for it to be released in the US. The term ‘investment’ needs to also be taken into consideration for buyers; this thing will sit at the top of the Ranger stable and will no doubt be priced accordingly. The question is: will buyers part with a considerable sum of money for it?

“We haven’t settled on price,” Damien responds. “In terms of customers, we don’t expect it to be the same [sales] volume as an XLT, but more in terms of the Ford Performance type volume. Knowing what kind of price range it is in, I think it is fantastic value and I would be buying this thing straight-up for that. We’ll see what the customer says.”

That tone of confidence is what sticks in this writer’s mind as I get my head around what we were shown over the two days in the red centre. It is dubbed Raptor, so you’d think I’d be quoting numerous bird-of-prey cliches in summing up the vehicle, but that’d be too easy. And it would do the incredibly effective suspension – and that sweet engine/gearbox combo – a disservice.

To keep it simple: with the arrival of Raptor, the days of a ‘special edition’ 4x4 ute comprising nothing more than a shiny paint job, blacked-out wheels and bright stickers are, thankfully, gone. Shit just got real, folks.

PUT TO THE TEST THE Raptor prototypes are subjected to an incredible amount of testing at this facility. The two prototypes are split between dynamics testing (suspension, transmission and powertrain calibration) and desert endurance testing, which we experience on our second day. Simon elaborates: “This week we’ve been running a desert endurance test, where we subject the vehicle to 1600km at race pace in extreme off-road driving conditions. The desert endurance gives us confidence that we have built ‘Ford Tough’ for this truck so that a customer can go out and play - and with confidence he’s not going to go out and break the vehicle.” The test drivers are put through Ford’s stringent test driver training program. “To be able to do this, we’ve got four tiers of driving skill in the company. Tier 1 is basic - around a track at a reasonable speed,” Simon said. “Tier 2 you’ve got the defensive driving skills and a bit of offroading, and that’s all that management - like me - are allowed to go to. Tier 3 is where you’ve got more high speed and control of vehicle in skids, which a lot of us can, but you do it at a level that you can only maintain if you keep up the driving every week. “Tier 4 is another level above that again. Now these guys, then, to be able to do what they need to do, have to go on an off-road handling course that is another level above Tier 4. So yeah, the five guys that are driving around at the minute are the only ones in Australia that are allowed to do the high speeds.”