The inside story of M-Sport’s Return to Rally Stages

David Evans was there as M-Sport helped organize the return of UK rallying

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

The noise of cogged belts being used to drive camshafts has never been so welcome. Just before 9am on Saturday morning, Malcolm Wilson pushed a button to surge fuel into the BDA engine sitting before him. In doing so, he breathed life back into British rallying.

Not since March have the British woods been troubled by rally cars. It had been a long five months. And Wilson knew it.

Asked to say a few words at the M-Sport Back to Rally Stages pre-event briefing, MW did just that. He kept it brief.

Standing on the back of a trailer – the whole event was based in Greystoke forest in an effort to contain any possible coronavirus risk – Wilson addressed the 43-strong field.

“I’m not going to talk for long,” he said. “Like you, I want to be back behind the wheel. Let’s have a good day, I hope everybody enjoys themselves and enjoys the competition. But let’s not have any mishaps. Having said that, I would be quite happy if you want to buy some spares after the event!”

Ultimately, it was Wilson who made the mistake. Caught out by an unseen hole on the outside of a corner, his beautiful Ford Escort RS1800 was tipped into the trees before being booked into the bodyshop.

The loss of the course car for the final two stages was keenly felt by the significant number of marshals who were, perhaps not unsurprisingly, keen to get out and see some action. With a field full of M-Sport’s finest from the last 20 years, one pukka Mk II was a more than welcome addition.

Having fired it up for the first time, Wilson then lit it up between controls on his way to the start. Gunning it through the gears before standing on the brakes and throwing the car, left then right to warm his own arms as much as the car beneath him

Half a dozen minutes later and he was through the opening stage.

Even beneath the balaclava, which doubled as the necessary face covering, you could see the smile. It was wider than wide. It was the shining eyes that gave it away.

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

“That was hard work,” said Wilson, pulling his crash helmet off. “It’s been a few years since I drove this thing. It’s actually 12 years since we won the R.A.C. Rally in it. Twelve years. It still takes me back to the start of my career, but it’s definitely harder work now. I think the lack of power steering and the passing of time has done that.

“But it’s the noise that still gets you. I could hear it in there. I love it. It’s like music. I looked down at one point, thinking it was quite loud, and we had over 9,000 revs. That was a good time to change up!”

Not even Wilson’s early bath could dampen his enthusiasm for what was achieved on Saturday. The real sights and sounds of the forests had returned. We know that’s as good as it will get for forest rallying in, at least in England, for the rest of the year, but even that one day had served as both a timely reminder of why we love what we do – and had helped generate some much-needed business for preparations firms throughout the UK.

Wilson was also very quick to pay tribute to West Cumbria and Eden Valley Motor Clubs, without whom none of the event would have been possible. The organizing team from Saturday put the event together in seven weeks – an exceptional feat at the best of times, let alone times ravaged by a global pandemic.

A man who has masterminded the logistics behind plenty of M-Sport’s success, Iain Tullie was on hand – as usual – helping out as an organizer on the day.

“We have the Greystoke Stages in here every year,” Tullie told DirtFish. “This year’s event was canceled, obviously, but this rally was a copy of that itinerary.

“We basically took the plan to run six stages and made it work for today. It takes around 45 minutes to turn the stages around. We do have some time built in for problems, but not much – the guys have done a fantastic job to keep everything running bang on time today.”

And that model of efficiency was drawn up well ahead of Saturday. Motorsport UK’s Iain Campbell explained how the event worked in these times of social distancing.

“Everybody was sent their paperwork through on email,” said Campbell. “That meant there were no road books and no timecards, they had to be printed out at home and brought here ready to use.

“For the time controls, the co-drivers added up the time and wrote the allotted time in the right space on the card – the card was then checked through the window by the marshal. The crews all had to send photographs of their belts, HANS devices and helmets as well as the roll cage stickers and things like that. The scrutineers reserved the right to check any car they wanted at any time.

“Everything worked really well. Even down to a query on a time. If the crew disagreed with a time then there was a QR code specific to that card and that stage. They just had to scan the code and it went direct to the timing guys. It was great.”

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

The Forestry Commission might have decreed that it doesn’t want gatherings of more than 30 people before March next year – ruling out stage rallies in England – but Saturday was a genuine demonstration of what can be achieved in this COVID-defined era.

Handing out the awards at the end of the day, Wilson was in reflective mood.

“To think we achieved this even with the limitation of M-Sport cars coming from the last 20 years, imagine what we could do if we opened the entry up a bit…” he said.

“To be honest, that’s a thought for tomorrow. Today I’m just really pleased with how it went. I thought it would be emotional and it’s certainly been that. To see everything from the Group N [Fiesta] ST all the way through the Focus World Rally Cars and right up to Matthew [Wilson] in the current car, it’s incredible to see all of our history competing in one place at one time. Great day.”

Great day’s about right.