UK rallying has been in desperate need of a lift for a while now. Any news that has come more often than not been bad ever since the middle of March, when word filtered through that the second round of the British Rally Championship – the West Cork Rally – was being postponed two days before it was set to begin.
It was on that same weekend that the magnitude of COVID-19 was truly realized. Rally México was curtailed a day early and ultimately was still the last slice of World Rally Championship action we’ve had.
National events across the world continually fell by the wayside too, with all of the UK’s major championships – the British, Scottish, Welsh, British Historic and BTRDA – all subsequently being canceled as a result.
And to make matters worse, Britain’s round of the WRC, Rally GB, was also lost from the world championship’s calendar and faces an uncertain future. A calendar that is usually congested and brimming with entries is now looking worryingly bare.
M-Sport knows the importance of rallying to the UK more than most. Managing director Malcolm Wilson made his name in the UK forests and asphalt lanes, winning the domestic championship in 1994, while his son Matthew made his name in the BRC in the mid-2000s before progressing into the WRC. And team principal Rich Millener has competed in several British events at a clubman level too.
Moreover, the overwhelming majority of M-Sport’s customers compete in the UK in all iterations of Focus and Fiesta World Rally Cars, R5 and R2 machines. Chuck in the fact the team is proudly based in the Lake District and therefore boosts the UK economy, it’s easy to see how much Britain matters to M-Sport.
And that’s why it’s really no surprise that it’s M-Sport that has decided to use its power to help, linking up with Motorsport UK, West Cumbria & Eden Valley Motor Clubs – which usually co-organize the annual Greystoke Stages each year – to host the M-Sport Return to Rally Stages this Saturday.
The clue is in the name. This event is vying to kick off rallying’s return, with the last event to take place in the UK, ironically, being the Malcolm Wilson Rally some 24 weeks ago.
There are other motives at play too, which is just as well as the primary objective of kickstarting rallying’s return could fail given recent news that Forestry England – which owns a lot of the land organizers’ use to run rallies – won’t be allowing any events to happen at all for the rest of 2020.
But M-Sport wants to be a trailblazer if it can. Working closely with Motorsport UK, it has filmed a video explaining the new precautions that need to be taken at an event, with this weekend the first time we will see those in action.
The event itself is a six-stage affair in the confines of the private Greystoke forest, offering competitors 38 competitive stage miles. A total of 43 cars will take the start, all built and manufactured by M-Sport in the last 20 years.
That entry list shows this isn’t just a rally; it’s a celebration of M-Sport. It’ll be fascinating to see so many different machines from the original Focus WRC to the Group N Fiesta ST and the very latest WRC and R5 cars.
As with everything, there’ll be cynics.
‘M-Sport are doing this to make money’ they’ll say. But even if they are, is that such a bad thing? We would all bemoan the end of M-Sport’s spell of over two decades in the WRC, and being left with just two manufacturers. And besides, cars coming out helps to boost the rallying industry which has otherwise been stagnant, with preparation firms prepping cars for the rally and drivers hiring cars for the event.
This might be the only forest rally we see for the rest of the calendar year in the UK, so let’s make the most of it, soak it in, and enjoy it.