If you want a guaranteed conversation starter with a rally fan at the moment, simply ask: “So, do you reckon Ford will return to the WRC?”
This might confuse casual motorsport fans, who have probably seen footage of heavily spoilered Ford Fiestas travelling at high speeds on tarmac, snow and gravel this year, suggesting Ford already competes in the WRC.
This is not the case. The Fiestas are run by UK motorsports firm M-Sport, which has operated the Blue Oval’s world rally program since 1997, but has done so without factory backing since 2012.
Ford still provides some technical support, but M-Sport has nothing like the budget enjoyed by the Hyundai and Toyota works outfits; it earns money from sponsorship and, primarily, by selling rally cars.
A quick glance at this year’s standings suggests M-Sport is doing just fine; the last few years have been relatively lean in terms of results, however, it currently leads the manufacturers’ championship and occupies the top two spots in the drivers’ championship.
A number of unusual factors have led to this situation. Firstly, M-Sport is exceptionally good at designing and building rally cars. The 2017 WRC technical regulations forced teams to start with a clean sheet of paper and while the Fiesta might not be brilliant on any one surface, it’s very good on all of them as well as being strong and reliable, not something all its rivals can claim.
Secondly, the last-minute withdrawal of Volkswagen at the end of 2016 allowed M-Sport to snare the services of reigning four-time world champion Sebastien Ogier. Ogier is the world’s best rally driver, smart enough to score maximum points if he can’t win outright and eight podiums from 11 rallies (including two wins) means he enjoys a comfortable 37-point championship lead.
Crucially, though, without full manufacturer backing M-Sport is highly unlikely to be able to repeat this success. Without the luxury of a proper budget, it’s limited in how quickly it can test and develop its car and world champion drivers do not come cheap. M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson dipped deep into his personal pockets to secure Ogier for 2017 and understandably it’s not something he wishes to do again.
Back to our original question: Will Ford return to the WRC? There are two ways of looking at it. The cynical would ask why would Ford spend money going rallying when it’s currently winning for free? On the other hand, M-Sport has proven it can win so a relatively small investment could ensure it continues to do so. Ogier’s already made his ultimatum: Ford comes, or I go.
In search of answers MOTOR reached out to the parties in question. Ford responded with the following: “Ford is providing the bodyshells to M-Sport for the 2017 season, [but] all the engineering/development is being carried out exclusively by M-Sport for the programme. We continue to evaluate where we invest resources in different motorsports disciplines.”
Meanwhile, M-Sport boss Wilson came back with: “We have had a fantastic season but it’s not over yet and there is still a lot of hard work to be done over the remaining two rallies. Our main priority is to finish this season in as strong a position as possible and every single member of the team is working their upmost to achieve that goal.
Come the end of the year, the work will not stop, and we’ll review our options moving forward. We’re pushing on every front to be in a position to build on the great work so far.”
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Not particularly helpful on either count. So what do we know? Ford already heavily invests in motorsport through its World Endurance Championship and NASCAR programs, therefore any extra expenditure seems unlikely, especially when CEO Jim Hackett last week announced US$14billion in cost cuts.
On the other hand, MOTOR understands that motorsport programs are safeguarded from any cuts and Ford also announced it was ending its World Rallycross involvement, potentially freeing up budget for a WRC program.
Ford Performance boss Dave Pericak attended this year’s Monte Carlo rally, which Ogier won, and told the official WRC site: “We’re going to make [WRC] part of our plan going forward…we’re going to figure out how we can continue to work with [M-Sport] in the future.”
Perhaps that visit wasn’t the red herring the lack of subsequent action led most to believe it was. Furthermore, Ogier said he wanted his future decided by the end of September, yet it’s now well into October with no announcement – why the delay?
The truth is, at this point, we just don’t know, but we’ll keep digging. Personally, as much as I’d love to see M-Sport secure Ford backing and retain Ogier, it seems unlikely. My money would be on Ogier returning to Citroen and M-Sport fielding Elfyn Evans, Teemu Suninen and whoever wants to help pay the bills in 2018. Stay tuned.