Malcolm Wilson doesn’t have a big presence on social media. He’s a touch preoccupied for it right now. Instead, Wilson’s energy is directed at keeping his business of more than four decades afloat and at the very sharp end of the World Rally Championship.
In hardware terms, Teemu Suninen’s speed through last week’s Monte Carlo Rally opener demonstrated the Cumbrian-built Ford Fiesta WRC remains a potential rally-winner.
The final split revealed the Finn to be half a second up on Ott Tänak’s Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, the next fastest thing through SS1.
The conditions for the 12-mile run from St Disdier to Corps was wet with intermittent rain and an ambient of three degrees. Pirelli’s new super-soft tire compound was the universal choice. Yes, the corners were getting dirtier, but this was as good a level playing as we were going to get across the weekend.
And the Fiesta was quickest.
Now, I realize there will be no end of experts questioning the merit of extrapolating 11-and-three-quarter miles’ worth of speed across the spread of a WRC weekend, but I don’t care. I don’t care because I’ve talked to engineers from rival teams and they all agree with Wilson: M-Sport’s Ford remains very firmly at the races.
The missing ingredient right now – and on this front, social media’s on the money – is a frontline lead driver. A Sébastien Ogier. Or an Ott Tänak or Elfyn Evans or Esapekka Lappi. Suninen’s quick and a potential winner, but he’s still short on the experience needed to lead a team.
The same can be said about Gus Greensmith – except the potential winner bit.
But do the experts out there not think Wilson’s well aware of that? I’m baffled at the vitriol in some of the social media surrounding M-Sport’s entry to this year’s WRC.
Maybe I’m too close to the team, in fact that’s almost certainly the case. But to see the likes of team principal Richard Millener berated for the choice of drivers and a lackluster round one performance, saddened me.
Close as I am to M-Sport, I’m more than happy to call them out if and when I feel they get it wrong.
They got nothing wrong last week. Or this year.
How do I know that so conclusively? Because the doors are still open. M-Sport is still trading.
Wake up, people. This year’s about surviving some of the harshest economic conditions in history. You know, the pandemic thing…
I offered MW a precis of social media’s finer insights. After a moment of reflection, I wondered what the response would be. Shout? Shout louder? Laugh. Cry? What?
Eventually, the Cumbrian offered a quiet, measured and entirely appropriate response.
“Don’t these people think it hurts me to know what this team and what this car is capable of?” he questioned.
“Not winning when you know you have a winning team and car is horrendous. But it’s where we are right now.
“Do they not think I’d love to have Sébastien, Ott and Elfyn in the team and driving the car like we did in 2017? Trust me, if I could, I would and if I did then be in no mistake, the result would be the same as 2017: we’d win everything.
“But right now we have a different priority. Everything I’m doing is aimed at keeping the company running, getting through this nightmare period of COVID-19 and Brexit and getting out the other side. And, for us, the other side means the 2022 car.
“But before we get to 2022, don’t forget we’ve still got plenty of development coming this year, we’ve still got the new engine, for example. And I’d also like to mention Adrien [Fourmaux]. We’ve got a long history – a history I’m very proud of – of developing young drivers.
“Look back to François Duval, Markko [Märtin], Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti [Latvala] and the rest. Adrien’s the next one for us. What he did in WRC2 was fantastic. He drove with plenty of speed and absolute maturity. He was under big pressure to bring the car to the finish and he did that.
“But to look back to the bigger picture, I don’t mind telling you, the aim for me personally is to hit 2022 running like we did in 2017 – with the fastest car and the fastest driver. I want to be right back at the front next year and if that means sacrificing this season to do that, then that’s what we’ll do.
“The economics of this thing’s pretty simple: we’ve already made 100 people redundant here and folk out there are asking why we’re not employing a driver for x millions of pounds per year?
“It’s simple, it’s because by not doing that we can keep the other 100-plus staff from being made redundant as well.
“We’ve got Teemu, Gus and Adrien [Fourmaux] with us for this year and we will be making the absolute best with them.
“Was I angry when I saw Teemu crash? Of course, I was. But I spent a lot of time looking through the onboard from the stage and there wasn’t one moment before that. Not. One. He got the line wrong for one corner and paid a very, very heavy price for that. Before that, he was nowhere near the ragged edge. I don’t care about the fact he crashed; I’m pleased he showed the speed we have in the car.
“Obviously that put a bit of pressure on Gus to make the finish, but he came to the event with his Monza shunt still very much in his mind – the conditions were very similar. The priority for Gus this week was seat time and bringing the car home.”
With a 19-year point-scoring record on the line, it’s imperative that a 257-event record continues with a driver registering a score for M-Sport on every WRC round.
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Wilson. “Yes, it’s nice to have scored on every rally since Colin [McRae] and Carlos [Sainz] at the 2002 Monte, but to be quite honest if that record’s lost, it’s lost. The priority is for the drivers to keep pushing forwards to continue to show the car’s speed.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m not interested in what the outside world’s saying about us right now. If any of those folks had the slightest idea of what Rich [Millener] and everybody here went through just to get us to Monte Carlo, they would, perhaps, have a bit of a think about what they’re writing.
“It’s fair to say, between the coronavirus, Brexit and the resultant global economic downturn we’ve sailed into the perfect storm. If you don’t mind, I’ll get my head down and focus on getting this ship to the other side of that storm.”
Amen to that.