Under the skin of the Blue Oval in WRC
Ford and rally: like Ferrari and Formula 1
If there's been one constant through the rally world, it's been Ford. In the same way that Formula 1 conjures up an instant mental picture of a red Ferrari, the word ‘rally' is practically synonymous with a blue and white Ford.
But since the end of 2012, Ford in rallying hasn't quite been Ford – or not officially. Faced with increasingly challenging economic conditions, the manufacturer withdrew its full factory support to the World Rally Championship, but the brand stayed on in the guise of M-Sport: the company that has run Ford's WRC programme since 1997.
Despite that, together with Sebastien Ogier, M-Sport won the drivers' championship in 2017 and 2018, as well as manufacturers' championship in 2017. It was a truly giant-killing performance, but when Ogier left at the end of 2018, M-Sport had to rely on its home-grown talents.
Elfyn Evans still finished fifth in the championship last year (despite having to miss three rallies with a back injury) and after Evans left to join Toyota this year, the team swooped for flying Finn Esapekka Lappi to line up alongside his compatriot Teemu Suninen (who was third on the last round of the WRC, Rally Mexico in March).
When the next round will be is open to debate, but there's unlikely to be any rally action until at least the summer, which gives M-Sport plenty of time to think about how to get back on top against its factory rivals.
David and Goliath
It's a real story of David versus Goliath. As it is now, the Fiesta has still been able to fight with factory cars from Toyota and Hyundai on more or less an equal footing, despite operating on a much smaller budget. In Monte-Carlo this year, M-Sport recorded its 250th consecutive FIA points finish, a record that started 18 years ago with Carlos Sainz.
But here's the thing. The 2020 Fiesta RS WRC hasn't altered significantly since it was introduced in 2017 to reflect the new-shape model of road car. And its rivals have moved the game on.
“We do what we can with the resources available, but there's no reason why we can't be challenging on all the rallies,” said Rich Millener, M-Sport's team principal. “In Esapekka and Teemu we've got two very talented drivers and if you look at the results of the Fiesta in the past, they speak for themselves. But it's no secret that we're a privately-funded team, and obviously that comes with certain constraints.”
M-Sport's goal is to get Ford back on board as a full manufacturer entry, and with an excellent relationship between the two companies, it's far from an impossible dream. But with automotive manufacturers all over the world feeling the financial squeeze, M-Sport are set to battle on as the underdogs – and fans' favourite – for a little while yet.
Esapekka Lappi came to M-Sport this year in a unique situation, as the Fiesta WRC is actually the third car he's driven in as many years. He started his top-level WRC career with Toyota in 2018 (winning Rally Finland) and then moved to Citroen for 2019, joining M-Sport after the French manufacturer pulled out of the sport at the end of last year. So, while he's only 29, he's already had a lot of experience of comparing different World Rally Cars.
“The Fiesta is quite easy and logical to drive, even in tricky conditions, so that gives good confidence for the driver, which is better than last year, and the chassis is working even better than the Toyota I believe,” said Lappi. “The Citroen was all top-end power, but the Fiesta is the opposite: the torque is quite nice like the Toyota, but when you're in fifth or sixth gear, in the high revs, it's not really going like the Citroen. I think we will have a new engine before Argentina though, which should be a big improvement.”
He was speaking at the beginning of the season, and although Rally Argentina has now been postponed, M-Sport is still planning to keep up the momentum of development. The 2020 season is far from a foregone conclusion.
Sticking to the rules
The current Ford Fiesta is the ultimate expression of a set of aggressive technical regulations first introduced in 2017 to mirror the legendary Group B era, with breath-taking aero and body kits that help make them the fastest rally cars ever.
From 2022 onwards, there's going to be a very different look. The cars are becoming cheaper and less complex, but still just as fast and with a mandatory hybrid element. Initially this will be a standard hybrid element for all – a bit like the early days of Formula E – before the hybrids become more complex and bespoke for the next cycle of WRC rules (from 2025 onwards).
The idea is for the rally cars to use electric power for the service parks and road sections, and also use the electric motor for a power boost on the stages. It should be spectacular. Rumours indicate that Ford might switch from the Fiesta to the all-new Puma for the 2022 regulations, which might even tempt the manufacturer back into the sport officially, making life a bit easier for M-Sport. But for now, there's the 2020 season still to think about…