Rich Millener: Dodging the ditches on my day as a driver

In an exclusive column, the M-Sport team principal recounts his adventure behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta R2

2020 M Sport Rally21st – 22nd August 2020Photo: Drew Gibson

M-Sport team principal Rich Millener stepped out from behind his desk at Dovenby Hall to get behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta R2 at Saturday’s M-Sport Return to Rally Stages.

In an exclusive column for DirtFish, he explains what it was like to practice what he preaches to Esapekka Lappi, Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith.

Did I want to go back into Greystoke in a rally car? Last time I was there I fell into a ditch for a while. And getting the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team up and running again in time for next week’s Rally Estonia is very much front and center of all of our worlds here in Dovenby Hall right now.

But still, that itch wouldn’t go away.

My last rally was an all-nighter in the Devon lanes, when I finished second overall on the Barbara Carter Memorial Road Rally last December. But a road rally in south-west England was really no match for a gravel stage event in one of the country’s most famous forests.

I called our good friends at Castrol to inquire if they might still have their 1600cc Ford Fiesta R2. They did. And good news, they were willing to let me borrow it. Lovely man that Donald Smith.

It needed a little bit of preparation, just some functional stuff because it hadn’t run on an event for a while. That meant a few hours in the factory after hours, but fortunately I know a few folk who are pretty handy with the spanners – and they were willing to give me a hand.

And suddenly, it was Friday and we were leaving M-Sport and heading east to Greystoke for the recce. My M-Sport colleague Kirsten Dallas would be co-driving for me – she’s done a few events before and knows the sport really well.

We were running a mille piste-style recce, with the cars all running in convoy and some of the crews using their rally car. We were using one of the M-Sport Ford Kuga recce cars. Or we would be once DirtFish returned it.

David Evans and Colin Clark had persuaded me that it would be a good idea for them to take my recce car to have a look at the stages and make a video. I told them exactly when I needed the car back, but they seemed to be having a little bit too much fun in the woods – and managed to hold up the recce for the entire event.

Nice one boys.

The recce went well once we got our car back. I know Greystoke quite well from tests and, like I said, I’m even on first-name terms with one of its ditches. But still, there are places which can catch you out. There was one particularly tricky section, made a bit more complicated by the rain and, I knew, once the red mist came down I’d be having a go there.

I thought about the note for that corner and said to Kirsten: “Can you add something to that one?”

She nodded.

“Add: ‘Don’t be a t***.’”

It worked. And I wasn’t.

There’s nothing like getting the chance to drive a rally car as fast as you dare down a stretch of gravel road. It’s bloody fantastic.

I was really sensible through the first couple of stages and was happy with the way they went. In the third, once I tried to push on a bit more and things got a bit scrappy. I was braking later, trying to make time, but losing the odd second. I would regret that later…

Adrien [Fourmaux] gave me a few tips, helped me with the set-up and things like that with the car, before telling me it was my driving that I needed to improve.

I tidied things up through the afternoon and the times got better as the event progressed. We were in a bit of a battle for third in class and eventually lost out by, well, by nothing. We were tied for the bottom step of the podium with Andy Turner in the same car. I’d gone wide in a junction on the last stage (see above) – that second I needed was there. In fairness, that second I needed was in a few of the stages!

Huge credit to the West Cumbria and Eden Valley Motor Clubs who ran a superb day. The six stages were all on time and there were absolutely no issues through the event. My only complaint is that it was over so quickly.

I work with the world’s fastest rally drivers on a daily basis and that gives you a real insight into what it takes to be the best of the best. I can honestly say I won’t be troubling those guys any time soon. Doing a stage rally every four years is enough for me to keep my eye in and it gives just a small insight into what those guys are doing.

Now, it’s back to the day job and time to reflect on a great weekend. Thankfully one where I didn’t get to meet any more ditches.