Billy Johnson Sped Up The 2018 Mustang PPL2

The 2018 Mustang GT is a great car, but when outfitted with the Performance Pack Level 2 option it becomes the fastest non-specialty Mustang around a road course that has ever  been built. Ford engineers went above and beyond the call of duty to continue honing this package for a higher level of performance. To help take the platform to the next level they called on professional race car drivers, like Billy Johnson, for feedback during the development of the PPL2.

Sure the 2018 Mustangs are already prowling the street and showing how responsive they are to modification. However, not quite every version of the latest pony car has run out of the stable. When we drove the car last year, we had the chance to chat with the engineers that created the car. During that time we honed in on the forthcoming, late-availability option known as the Performance Pack Level 2, which bridges the gap between the Level 1 option and the halo Shelby GT350.

Performance Pack Level 2 Features

• Brembo six-piston front brake calipers

• Larger front brake rotors

• K-brace

• Larger radiator

• Silver-painted strut tower brace

• TORSEN rear differential

• 3.73 axle ratio

• Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires

• 10-spoke Dark Tarnish wheels, 19×10.5-inch front and • 19×11-inch rear

• Stiffer springs

• Stiffer Sway bars

• Unique front Splitter

• Unique rear wing

It turns out that one of the secrets to developing this package was courtesy of one of Ford’s own race drivers, Billy Johnson — a wunderkind who has raced both the Shelby GT350RC and the Ford GT racer. Not only can he drive the wheels off a race car, but he also has a gift for translating those on-track feels into meaningful engineering changes.

“Billy was helping us because what you want for sustained high-speed operation is different from what you want on the racetrack,” Mike Del Zio, Vehicle Dynamics Development Engineer at Ford, told us previously. “We would go run our big, 5-mile oval and say ‘This car feels really stable and planted.’ Then we would go to the racetrack and Billy would tell us where to make adjustments.”

Apparently the racer was integral in the development process of a package, which was not limited to protect the Shelby’s on-track supremacy.

Track Transfer

…We were working with Billy Johnson, one of our Le Mans drivers, and he gave us some critical feedback. — Jamie Cullen, Ford

“One of the gems was when we were tuning the car with the adaptive suspension, and we thought we had it honed and really good. Then we were working with Billy Johnson, one of our Le Mans drivers, and he gave us some critical feedback, and it was like, ‘Oh, OK,’” Jamie Cullen, Ford supervisor for vehicle dynamics development, added. “It allowed us to turn a few more knobs to make the car just that little bit better. We found something in the software to do what he wanted.”

Hearing this, we were intrigued to learn more about Billy and what it brought to the table with this new package. As such, we picked up the phone and chatted with him about his history racing Fords, how he became involved in production-car development, and how that participation helped hone the 2018 Mustang GT’s Performance Pack Level 2 option.

“Scott Maxwell and I won the Continental Tire series in a Shelby GT350RC, so to be involved with the 350, to race it, and to win the championship with it was a nice closing to that chapter and it was great to be a part of that development,” Billy said. “But, the magnitude of being involved with the Ford GT since almost day one and being able to race the car at Le Mans was a whole ’nother huge honor and feather in the cap. Those are two of my most proud moments since I have been with Ford.” (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Billy Johnson)

Billy quickly moved his way up through the racing ranks jumping from go-carts to formula cars and ending up in sports cars, where he has racked up a record number of IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car series wins in Mustangs. That eventually led to a ride in the Ford GT, which he raced at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I started driving with Roush — co-driving with Jack Roush Jr. — in 2009. I have pretty much been in Fords since then. I was with Roush for five years and switched over to Multimatic, which was building the Ford GT and also heavily involved in motorsports building parts for brands all over the world,” Billy explained. “When the GT350 came around, Multimatic was involved with a little bit of the later development of that car. That’s when I first started working with Ford directly on production cars.”

Production Partnership

If you don’t know how the car is working, you can’t drive it to the best of its capability. — Billy Johnson

And that work is something he is quite good at. There are plenty of gifted drivers, but Ford’s engineers raved about Billy’s ability to translate what he is feeling behind the wheel into meaningful changes to the car.

“I have always been interested in engineering, but a long time ago a good friend of mine’s father, who was an Indy car engineer, said ‘If you want to be a race car driver go into marketing and the business side of it. If you want to learn engineering, you are going to end up being an engineer,’” Billy said. “I ended up getting a business degree and thankfully my racing career has progressed the way that it has, but I have always been interested in engineering. I really like learning about what makes a car work, and that also helps me to be a better driver, because if you don’t know how the car is working, you can’t drive it to the best of its capability.”

He definitely knows how to get the most of out of the car, but knowing enough about the engineering process makes him an ideal collaborator for the Ford engineering team.

“To translate that into working with the Ford engineers, has been a great opportunity. And, I have had the honor to work with some really, really top-notch guys, from aerodynamicists and vehicle dynamics engineers to chassis engineers and electronics engineers doing throttle-map tuning,” he said. “I don’t know near as much as these specialists, but I know enough to be able to communicate with them and tell them what I am feeling, what the car is doing, and what it needs in their language so that they can make appropriate changes.”

That sort of collaboration is really what the birth of the Ford Performance division was all about — transferring the technology from the racetrack to the street. In this case it is the intuition of its racing drivers that is helping deliver a higher level of performance in production cars.

“I have been fortunate to work with these really smart engineers at Ford, and continually learn each time we work together.  Collaborating with the other development drivers, we make changes with the goal to make the car as nice to drive and as fast as possible while be friendly to drive to flatter the amateur and engage the experienced drivers.”  Billy said. “As I work with the team, i’m just one (small) input to a very big picture of the development process.  As the engineers look at data, drive the cars themselves, and conduct a whole series of ride quality and non performance-related tests, they gather all this information to decide what changes to make to the car. I view myself as just another data point to help them make changes for a better end result.  The credit really goes to them. I am just happy to be a part of it and I have a lot of fun doing it.”

Billy has a long history working with Ford and Multimatic, and he helped develop calibrations for the MagneRide suspension employed on the Shelby GT350/350R and the 2018 Mustang Performance Pack Level 2. He also helped develop the current Mustang GT4 race car and the upcoming Ford Performance FP350S turn-key track car.

A racer having fun while making our street cars faster is just the kind of situation we can get behind. However, Billy is fully cognizant that the mission of a high-performance street car is far more diverse than that of a race car.

“It is harder to set up a street car than a race car, because a race car is very one-dimensional using whatever it takes to go fast. In a street car, especially one like the GT350, you really have to walk the line of making a car good for everybody,” he explained.“Because if it is super fast, but difficult to drive or if it rides really rough, nobody is going to buy it. There are some brilliant track-focused cars out there that ride really rough on the street, but let’s face it, most people who buy these cars don’t solely drive them on the track.”

Multidimensional Development

We were able to take that knowledge and further expand on it to help develop the tuning on the Performance Pack 2. — Billy Johnson

Not only does Billy own a 2016 Mustang GT of his own, which offers him the same daily driver customer perspective that you and I have, but he helped develop the MagneRide system on the production GT350. He likes it so much that he wishes his first-gen S550 had the system.

“While working with the Shelby and Ford GT development groups, there was a track test where the base Mustang guys also attended and I had the chance to hop in their car, drive it, and give them some feedback,” Billy said. “That’s another awesome thing that even during the development of the regular Mustangs, they track them right from the beginning. It’s not just do all the street stuff and then, ‘Oh maybe we’ll play around on the track.’ The track is definitely an important part of the development of every Mustang.”

“The suspension. The tires. The downforce. Those are just three key things in terms of laps times on the track and those are three big steps away from Performance Pack 1,” Billy said. “I would say it’s a lot closer to the 350, not the R, than it is to the Performance Pack 1.”

Never was that track-focused development more important than it was when pushing the Mustang GT into a whole new performance stratosphere with the Performance Pack Level 2.

“I had the chance to drive the Performance Pack 1 a long time ago and give them some feedback. Then the Performance Pack 2 test mule came out and I gave them some feedback on that. As things progressed and Performance Pack 2 really turned into a very high-performing base Mustang, they had me come back again and I worked with them on later track events to further dial in the MagneRide and the aerodynamics,” Billy said. “As they were playing around with the aero and getting more downforce, we talked about the aerodynamic balance when you are going through corner at 130-140 mph at VIR. Having that aero balance make it stable and easy to drive in the corner. Since I worked on the MagneRide tuning with the Shelby guys, we were able to take that knowledge and further expand on it to help develop the tuning on the Performance Pack 2.”

The result of that collaboration of engineering and driving acumen is a package for which Billy offers high praise.

Special Delivery

Flattery Gets You Everywhere

While he is a decorated race driver, Billy has a significant history helping engineers develop street cars like the 2015-2018 Shelby GT350/GT350R. He also happens to daily drive a 2016 Mustang GT, so he knows both ends of the driving spectrum intimately, which helps him collaborate with the engineers.

“Living with the car day in and day out definitely helps inject the feeling of what customers are going to do. The engineers and the Ford employees are the specialists in that area,” Billy said. “…When you have that range of experience in engineering and also my part as a professional race car driver, you have a big pool of different types of people that you have to satisfy. So, that helps to find a compromise where everybody is happy, which hopefully will translate to the consumers with greatly varying levels of talent.”

The Mustangs in recent memory that he has collaborated on certainly follow through on Ford’s continuing mission to flatter the novice and reward the expert with its performance cars. We expect that to continue with the 2018 Mustang GT upfit with the Performance Pack Level 2.

“It will be a car that you can daily drive, especially with the comfort of the MagneRide. The track-focused Cup 2 tires are obviously aggressive and have a pretty wide footprint all the way around, which definitely helps close the gap to the GT350. It also has more downforce than the standard Mustang, but not quite as much as the Shelby.  Compared with the previous Mustang, the 2018 has a higher redline — 7,500 rpm is awesome — so you are closing the gap in terms of horsepower and rev range to the Shelby. While you don’t have the transmission and diff coolers, the car doesn’t cost as much as the Shelby. Overall, you really are getting close in terms of the inherent performance parts and while it may not beat a Shelby around a racetrack (it’s close), the car is very fast and extremely capable.”

As we shared in our prior story on the package, the engineers didn’t hold back on the PPL2 development to create an artificial gap between this package and the top-tier Shelby. As such, this package is closer in performance to the GT350 than it is to the Performance Pack Level 1 that it expounds upon.

“Essentially it has all the guts of the Shelby — the Magneride, the aerodynamics, and the Cup 2 tires — along with the 460-horsepower Gen 3 engine, which is awesome. It is really closing the gap to the Shelby as the fastest non-specialty Mustang around the racetrack,” he enthused.

That is high praise from a driver of Billy’s stature, so we are even more excited about the arrival of this option, which should hit the streets in the spring.

About the author

Steve Turner

Steve Turner brings decades of passion and knowledge in the world of Ford performance, having covered it for over 20 years. From the swan song of the Fox Mustang to the birth of the Coyote, Steve had a front-row seat.
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