There’s a great degree of optimism surrounding M-Sport Ford ahead of the 2022 World Rally Championship season.
Just what is this new package capable of? That question has been pondered plenty in the lead up to the Monte Carlo Rally, and could be sensed keenly as Craig Breen lined his Ford Puma Rally1 at the start of the shakedown stage.
Sébastien Loeb – driving, for now at least, on the opening round only – almost sent the internet into oblivion when he topped the initial running of shakedown, before he was ultimately pipped by Sébastien Ogier’s Toyota.
But the evidence so far seems clear: M-Sport should, at the very least, be competitive in 2022. And that’s massively important, given it essentially sacrificed it’s entire 2021 season in order to be ready for this new hybrid era.
Richard Millener’s words during M-Sport’s media session on Wednesday were telling: “Everybody’s working as hard as they can and I think the feeling is we’ve got a team coming together in every department to give the best we possibly can. I would kind of compare a little bit to how we were in 2017.”
It’s a more than fair comparison given the parallels between five years ago and now.
In 2016, M-Sport scored just two podiums with Mads Østberg, but the regulations reset for the 2017 season was firmly on the team’s radar. Volkswagen’s sudden departure from the WRC left the then four-time world champion Ogier as a free agent and M-Sport won his signature.
The car proved to be on the money as all three drivers – Ogier, Ott Tänak and Elfyn Evans – won rallies across the year, but the acquisition of Ogier really helped M-Sport hit the front as it scooped both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles.
This year it doesn’t have the same recognized winners in its full-time ranks, but poaching Breen – one of the WRC’s bigger prospects – from Hyundai was shrewd business. And then there’s Adrien Fourmaux, who is one of the hottest young talent in the service park right now.
In short, all the ingredients look to be in place for M-Sport to at least challenge Toyota and Hyundai once more.
“Every department, every person in the whole of M-Sport has worked incredibly hard to get to here from people that are back at base that you won’t see – in purchasing, on goods in, unpacking, putting stuff in stores – they’re all motivated to get everything we needed to get here in time,” said Millener, when asked by DirtFish if there was a spring in the team’s step given it’s expected to be more competitive.
“[In 2017] we had Séb Ogier then and we worked very hard to have the team together to perform in the best possible way and as a team I don’t think we’ve reduced our ability to work and give the drivers what they need. That’s still the level it was.
“So we feel we’ve got a good car, good line-up, good approach and when all that came together last time we did very well. But it’s easy to talk about, it’s harder to do.
“I think the team’s very excited to get going now and we’ve got to remember it’s a long season, it’s not all about Monte Carlo. We just need solid results here.”
The prospect of a third team in the fight is a mouth-watering one for fans, and on the evidence of Monte shakedown it looks incredibly tight between all of the teams.
If you're looking and worrying about what the others have done, then you probably didn't develop your car in the right wayRichard Millener
Millener’s counterpart at Toyota, Jari-Matti Latvala, is expecting a tight contest given every single team has the same hybrid unit from Compact Dynamics “so there is probably less freedom than you had in the past”.
“That’s why I do believe that the cars are going to be quite close to each other,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be massive differences. The results will be made by the drivers who will get used to the new regulations [the] quickest.”
Having the quickest car at the start of a new period of regulations doesn’t of course guarantee success either. Hyundai’s i20 was fastest in 2017 but M-Sport pinched both championships.
M-Sport has a track record with developing good all-rounders straight out of the box though, as the Focus RS WRC, Fiesta RS WRC and Fiesta WRC all won on debut in 2006, 2011, and 2017 respectively.
Having now seen its rivals in the flesh in the Monaco service park, is M-Sport confident it’s gone the right way with the design of its Puma Rally1? Has Millener noticed anything on Toyota’s GR Yaris or Hyundai’s i20 N that’s intriguing?
“I had a look at the Toyota but haven’t seen much of the Hyundai,” he said.
“There’s very little directions that others have gone, noticeably the air scoops for the hybrid cooling, but honestly there’s probably not so much we can learn now. We’ve been very focused on our development of our car and the direction we want to go and we’re confident in our direction.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re looking and worrying about what the other cars have done then we probably didn’t develop the car ourselves in the right way. But our guys have been very committed to what we’ve done – we’ve had a good test program, we’ve had good reliability, we’ve had good speed and feedback from a range of drivers.
“I’m sure there’ll be little bits that we like and they don’t but [things such as] the Fanatec [steering] wheel are obvious to see but underneath, the real technical details, are very difficult to see what people are doing.
“We can’t change anything this week, so our intention is to go strongly with what we have and just give our best as a team now to make sure the drivers are fully aware and briefed, and ready to challenge in the rally and do everything they can to get us a good result.”
Will it be enough to win the world championship? At this stage of the season, with just one short shakedown stage to go off, it’s really impossible to tell.
But make no mistake, M-Sport intends to be in the fight. History suggests that that’s the minimum it could – and should – be aiming for.