First Drive: The 2021 Mach 1 Pushes The Non-Shelby S550 To Its Peak

Flicking the switch to the right of the shifter, I enable Track Mode before space clears on the Streets of Willow course. Accelerating into the first turn, the TREMEC 3160 glides into gear and the 2021 Mustang Mach 1 revs to life with an aggressive rasp, which unfettered by a rear seat, throbs forward from the trunk.

“I’d say the tone is better than some we’ve done before, just because we’ve got a wider tip with some perforation on it. So you’ll notice a difference in tone quality  on a Mach 1 versus other ones,” Ford Performance Chief Engineer Carl Widmann said. “It (the perforation) will take the high frequency out, so you’ll just end up a little bit more ‘roar’ content at the end of the day. So it gives it a different character. We try to make sure each of them has their own little character. This one is a little bit raw and raspy versus what we tuned the Bullitt to.”

This is the car we always envisioned in terms of the chassis and the aero. This is the car our team has wanted to build since S550 started. — Mike Del Zio, Vehicle Dynamics Engineer

Underneath the raw exhaust tone, the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires dig in and there is grip for miles. It’s my first time on this track in years and my first time on a road course since the pandemic broke, so I am getting a feel for the path and the pony at the command of my right foot. Accelerating out of a turn, I drop the hammer in one of the straight sections until it’s time to downshift. The raspy revving serenades the California hills and the auto rev-matching takes one job off my plate, as Ford’s latest specialty Mustang confidently dives into the corner.

This car feels familiar, yet different all at the same time. Its balance is immediately apparent, but so is the fact that it brings together facets of some of the tuned Mustangs in recent memory. While many consider it a GT350 replacement, the Mach 1 really represents the natural evolution of all Fords sub-halo Mustang variants — and it feels so good doing its thing on the track.

“This is the evolution of all the S550 base cars we’ve done. We didn’t always get what we wanted in the past, and this is us finally getting everything that we wanted,” Vehicle Dynamics Engineer Mike Del Zio enthused. “…As soon as we started working on a platform, we are always planning the next thing. ‘What can we do with this? Where can we take this?’ This is the car we always envisioned in terms of the chassis and the aero. This is the car our team has wanted to build since S550 started.”

The 2021 Mustang Mach 1 shares the same 480-horsepower Coyote powerplant as the Bullitt, but takes that output to a new level on the track with an upgraded suspension and supporting calibrations. When paired with the optional 10-speed automatic, the engine just stays in the sweet spot of its powerband. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

So you might ask why they didn’t just do that back in 2015, but there are a number of constraints, not the least of which is time. That means engineers often have a goal in mind that doesn’t get realized until a platform matures.

“You only can do so much and you kind of get these windows in terms of the teams, the money, the timing, and the marketing,” Del Zio said. “Occasionally, you get that window and you get a Boss and you get a Shelby, and you get, hopefully, this Mach 1.”

Partially enabling the existence of such cars is a relatively consistent team of engineers that loves the Mustang brand, knows what the customers want, and is intimately familiar with the hardware. In fact, the Mach 1 is the final steed to benefit from the tutelage of longtime, and recently retired, Mustang Vehicle Engineering Manager, Tom Barnes, who oversaw the track testing of this machine.

“I think what’s great about the Mustang community,” Widmann said. “It’s really easy for these guys to be part of that, to channel that energy and that creativity in the engineering work that they do.“

For this project, the Mach 1 borrowed hardware from a diverse group of stallions ranging from the Bullitt and Performance Pack Level 2 to the Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT500. However, the spirt of its mission was lifted from the more affordable fun machine — the EcoBoost High Performance Package.

Aerodynamics are key to the Mach 1 personality from both a cooling and downforce perspective. The Handling Package option includes the rear Swing deployed on the Shelby GT350. With a removable Gurney flap, it allows tuning the aero for track characteristics.

“That was, that was our goal for a term we’ve coined, which is ‘Nimblicity,’” Del Zio shared “…Hop in and the car’s immediately easy to drive, but it’s still rewarding as you continue to spend time with it.”

From our brief experience, we’d say they achieved Nimblicity in spades. The Mach 1 offers balanced, controllable handling with plenty of grip. Coupled with sporting, rev-happy 480 horsepower from a naturally aspirated Coyote, it is both fun and fast without a hint of drama. It even rides comfortably on the street. To get there, however, the Mustang team began with some familiar hardware, including the Bullitt Mustang’s 5.0-liter engine.

“We started the base Mach 1 at a Bullitt, but the Bullitt was never intended to be a track car. What we did is we took the learnings from both the Performance Pack Level 2, which was a good track car that didn’t have coolers — looking for that price point — and the EcoBoost High Performance handling package, which wasn’t supposed to be a track car, but has that great nimble feel,” Del Zio said. “Let’s put those two together with the cooling package and run that base 255 to 275 Michelin Pilot Sport from the Bullitt and see what we get?”

This is the first time I can say that the automatic is as fast as the manual on the track… — Mike Del Zio, Vehicle Dynamics Engineering

“In addition, we’ve got a unique fascia and we used the spoiler from the Performance Pack Level 2,” Del Zio added. “We were able to tune the MagneRide to look for a more progressive damping both on the road and on the track, which was enabled by some new signals from the CAN bus, that we were able to utilize. Then we also shared with the GT500 that stiffer intermediate shaft on the steering shaft.”

While the aero and handling are a big part of the modern Mach 1 story, the two transmission options offer a big leap forward as well. The TREMEC 3160 six-speed manual from the GT350 gains auto rev-matching, while the 10R80 10-speed automatic benefits from a new programming algorithm and a Track Mode shift schedule that excels on the road course by grabbing the clutches faster and allowing brisker, more responsive shifts.

Simple things like adding that splined intermediate shaft from the Shelby GT500 combined with tuning efforts of John Oliver, who returned to the Mustang fold after previous dialing in the 2005 Mustang steering, delivered noticeable dividends. The Mach 1’s sharp steering features just the right level of assist. Moreover, the car tracks straight, even over rough pavement, which is an improvement over even the stellar Shelby GT350, which was prone to steering itself on uneven roads.

“So part of that is the hardware, that I-shaft, and part of that is the great work that John has done,” Del Zio said. “With those two things, along with the MagneRide, we were able to mitigate, that rut wander, both on the big-tire car and even on the smaller-tire base car.”

It’s those little tweaks that take existing hardware and use technology to blend it with the other components for the kind of result that stokes the passions of enthusiasts, but it isn’t quite as simple as bolting on a few parts.

“So it’s always hard to make it transparent and refined of all these pieces of hardware, all working together as an integrated package. When you look at a vehicle, you don’t see the details of how everything actually functions and is tied in together from the hardware perspective,” Widmann said. “But that’s really something you get from the factory. They can do all that. If you’re going to try to just bolt all the parts together, you’d have a heck of a time trying to get them to integrate.”

While Ford offers a classic, Magnum-style wheel on the Mach 1, more than half of its customers are opting for the more modern, bird’s nest-style wheel, which is two pounds lighter but 1 inch wider than the standard wheel.

As you can see in the Shared Hardware sidebar below, engineers cherry-picked some key components from some of the most impressive S550s in recent memory. Yet as good as the parts are on their own, getting them to work in concert is crucial to the success of a car like the Mach 1.

“You could have our dynamics team come set up this car and it would be best on the track car anybody’s ever driven, you know, for money,” Vehicle Integration Manager Victor Condelee explained. “Then somebody on the road would hate it because it’s too stiff. It doesn’t do what they want to do, so we help them understand the customer’s demographic and then adjust our algorithm to ensure everything is playing great together.”

Of course, the base Mach 1 is just the beginning. We wheeled it on the street, and it is a hoot, but on the racetrack Ford let your scribe pilot Mach 1s optioned up with the Handling Package, which uses the same Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires deployed on the Shelby GT350R as its foundation.

“So stepping up to the Handling Pack, it’s sort of all starts and ends with that tire – the Cup 2 fitment with the 305 in front and the 315 in the rear. Now what do we do to make those tires work? We’ve got stiffer spring rates front and rear, we’ve got  a larger rear stabilizer bar. We’ve got a unique MagneRide calibration,” Del Zio said. “The steering is the same. And then you’ve got the aero treatment, which is the same unique facia from the base Mach with an additional splitter on the front, and we stole the GT350 Track Pack wing with the Gurney flap. It will do 168 miles an hour, even with the Gurney installed, and the base car does 166 mph.”

Ford designers and engineers collaborated on an aerodynamic style that both plants the power on the track and keeps engine, transmission, rearend and brake temperatures in check for repeated track laps.

That aero treatment is key to delivering the performance on the track, but fusing the styling with Mach 1 heritage looks with aerodynamics that would both slip through the air and feed the various coolers that allow this vehicle to perform consistently lap after lap.

“Jonathan Gesek did the (Performance Pack) Level 2 with us, he did the 2018, and he did this one. So this is his third one. He’s been with us and kind of assigned to us,” Widmann said of the designer’s work. “It’s tricky to the balance between aerodynamics and cooling. It actually is pretty hard to do. You have to deliver it all. You need the cooling capability, so you have to innovate as you go through it.”

While the engine, rearend, and transmission cooling fell into place as the designers and aerodynamic engineers worked through the styling, it was taming the brake temperatures that proved the biggest challenge.

“One of my favorite things was we laid out the front coolers, figured out the side heat exchangers, and we were working on brake cooling for weeks on end. We needed an innovation because it couldn’t get enough air through the brake ducts,” Widmann explained. “If you reach underneath the car, there’s an airfoil. So we do pull air like a reverse NACA, so it’s that combination of creativity that you have to do to get it all to work…”

Owners of the 2021 Mustang Mach 1 will be able to attend a complementary Track Attack at the Ford Performance Racing School to learn how to make the most of their vehicles on the road course.

During three-lap stints on the track, the brakes were always there, offering no surprise. What did deliver a shock, however, was moving into a Handling Package car with the optional 10-speed automatic. As you might recall, this transmission was a late addition to the Handling Package order sheet, but in this author’s experience, it was worth the 11th hour engineering.

“As we started developing the base car with the automatic, we determined that it’s as fast and the cooling seems to be working, so let’s put it on the more aggressive car. Let’s see what issues and challenges we have, and what we have to fix,” Del Zio said. “It ended up that putting the auto on the Handling Pack car was a pretty easy exercise, even though we did it in a very short amount of time. We didn’t even have to adjust the calibration much.”

Swapping to the auto on the track offered more time to concentrate on the course and let it rip. In Track Mode the shifts never felt out of place and the car felt just as fast if not faster on the Streets of Willow as its manual-trans cousin.

“This is the first time I can say that the automatic is as fast as the manual on the track, and that was enabled by the unique Track Mode and the great work that the transmission calibration team did,” Del Zio enthused. “So they both excel in terms of longevity on the track and also in ultimate lap times.”

Shared Hardware

While the 2021 Mustang Mach 1 is more than the sum of its parts, it does draw from the robust Mustang engineering performed over the past six model years. The parts were carefully plucked from various models, then calibrated via the EPAS, MagneRide, and other electronic controls to arrive at a cohesive performance machine. To get there, engineers selected this hardware:

Performance Pack Level 2

• Brake Booster

• Brembo six-piston front brakes

Shelby GT350

• Intake manifold

• Oil filter adapter

• Engine oil cooler system

• TREMEC 3160 six-speed manual

• Incandescent park/turn lamps

• Front subframe and rear subframe with stiffer bushings

• Tire fitment (Handling Package only)

Shelby GT500

• Rear axle cooling system

• Rear toe-link

• Rear tire spats and lower diffuser

• Splined intermediate steering shaft

• Swing spoiler in low-gloss Magnetic with adjustable Gurney flap (Handling Package only)

Left in D, the 10R80 will do its thing with no other inputs than those from your right foot. Optionally, you can move the gear selector to S and switch it to Sport mode for use with just the paddle shifts. It will do the job until you take over with the paddles, but even in D, you can momentarily flick the paddles — engaging what engineers call Alive and Drive mode — which allows momentary manual shifts, but returns to automatic shifting after a few seconds.

As someone who loves manual shifting, I almost feel guilty saying that I loved the automatic Mach 1 with the Handling Package. It might just be my favorite combination at the moment, but my time in the cars was brief.

Suffice it to say that both versions live up to the Mach 1 name while building on many of the past S550 attributes we have grown to appreciate. The 2021 Mustang Mach 1 draws on history both recent and distant, but it is definitely the fastest road course 5.0-liter yet to leave Flat Rock thus far, setting the bar for any Mustang that doesn’t currently wear a Shelby badge.

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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