As the rally circus heads to North Wales for the penultimate round of the World Rally Championship season, the silly season is becoming more serious. The crews arrive in Deeside knowing Ott Tänak is defecting from M-Sport to Toyota, while Sébastien Ogier‘s fate remains on a knife-edge. Malcolm Wilson is continuing to twist Ford Performance’s arm to squeeze some extra funding out of the blue oval to help keep his talisman, having already lost the driver whom he treated like a son.
This weekend will allow Wilson & co. to set their long term concerns aside for a single weekend, and take aim at turning their home event into the site of potentially the greatest success in their history; scooping both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles simultaneously.
For such an ever-present team in the championship, with 55 rally wins over the course of two decades, it is extraordinary that only a pair of manufacturers’ titles have resulted. M-Sport have almost always been the bridesmaid, finishing second in the manufacturers’ standings ten times in the space of fifteen years, and seven times in the drivers’ championship during the same period. Whether it was with Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae or Marcus Grönholm, they almost always fell excruciatingly short of glory.
Throughout their era of near misses, M-Sport were backed to the hilt by Ford, the blue oval ploughing support into the preparation firm acting as their factory team. Since that support was withdrawn at the end of 2012, results for the Cumbrian team have been lean, but the 2017 regulation change allowed them a fresh start. A page was turned, a blank canvas granted to start afresh and attempt to reach the top once more.
Since then, it has all come together beautifully for the British team. A podium in every event this season has put them on the cusp of success, and with Thierry Neuville failing to score in the last two rallies, its team leader Ogier can also wrap-up a fifth straight title in Wales. The boss is well aware they are on the precipice of their greatest moment in two decades of WRC competition.
“It’s hard to find the words to describe just what a momentous achievement we are on the verge of securing this week,” said Wilson. “When we started developing the Ford Fiesta WRC, I knew we had the people to design a competitive, rally-winning car, and we always hoped to be in this sort of position.
“Now that it is a reality, it really is hard to find the words. But it’s not done yet and we cannot forget just what a challenging event Wales Rally GB can be.”
Challenging it proved for Mikko Hirvonen in 2009. Closing in on Sébastien Loeb in the closing stages of what was then the season finale, his Focus nosedived over a jump, damaging the bonnet and leaving the Finn unable to see where he was going. A minute – and his shot at the drivers’ championship – was lost. Ogier’s plan to avoid a repeat, and ensure his title challenge runs smoothly, is to ignore the points situation altogether.
“Clearly, this could be a very special event for the team and it also provides us with our first mathematical chance of securing the drivers’ championship,” said the Frenchman. “But we can’t think too much about that. We just need to focus on enjoying the rally and delivering the best performance we can.”
Winning in style is not on M-Sport’s agenda. It doesn’t match their modus operandi. A revitalised Kris Meeke may charge to the front for a home win, or Andreas Mikkelsen could go out to prove a point to his new employers at Hyundai. M-Sport will do what they have done all year, graft away and look to finish on the podium.
Perhaps this time around, finishing second will be enough to secure the crown which has eluded them for so long.