This one might be a first. Has M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta Rally3 been compared with James ‘Buster’ Douglas before? Probably not.
It works though. Sort of. Admittedly, the diminutive four-wheel-drive car didn’t floor its Rally1 opposition in the way Douglas put Mike Tyson down, but it did put more than a few Rally2 cars on the ropes at last week’s Croatia Rally.
Remember Saturday morning’s SS11? Platak, the 9.84-miler. It was heaven and hell for the crews. Up front, Esapekka Lappi picked his way through dense fog, searching corners, praying for the finish.
Running just over an hour behind the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, Junior WRC star Robert Virves took 2.5 seconds per mile out of the Finn in his Fiesta Rally3.
Granted, the fog wasn’t as bad for the Estonian, but the road was in a terrible state with corners converted into mudbaths and the whole stage resembling something from Wales Rally GB rather than an all-asphalt round of the WRC.
Virves ended the stage an impressive 11th fastest overall. Class rival Sami Pajari went even quicker, landing eighth quickest in his Junior car.
Crossing the flying finish, Finn Pajari stopped the clocks on 10m39.2s. That’s just 1.5s down on Gus Greensmith’s Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid.
Now, let’s not forget, the introduction of a 31mm restrictor at the top of 2022 means a Rally3 car packs a 235bhp punch these days. But that’s nothing compared with the haymaker on offer from its heavier weight rival: an electrified Rally1 car doing its hybrid thing summons 530bhp.
Stage 11 on Saturday gave a graphic demonstration of the tortoise and the hare. Here, the hare had all the go and all the grunt, but the Teflon-topped roads turned traction to the stuff of dreams. And that’s where the tortoise made its gains.
Before we go any further, the tortoise analogy has to stop right here. Anybody who’s seen onboards from the top JWRC runners will know those Fiesta Rally3 don’t half shift.
But… eighth overall. How?
“The conditions have been absolutely perfect for the Fiesta Rally3,” said M-Sport Ford team principal Richard Millener.
“When it’s really slippery, there is no point in having 500bhp and however many hundreds of Newton-metres of torque – you just can’t use it all. The combination of having usable power with the Rally3 and slightly different tire compounds compared to what the Rally1 cars are using was what allowed them to do what they were doing with the stage times.”
Don’t tell Malcolm [Wilson] but I was trying my hardest to talk him out of a Rally2 program because I think you can spend the same money and probably get double the events in a Rally3 car.Rich Millener on why Rally3 is the better option for four-wheel drive rookies
The physics equates to less wheelspin and softer compounds. But the physics still had to be driven. And that’s what really impressed Millener.
“One of the key things to take away is these guys are junior drivers,” he added, “a lot of them don’t have so much experience on these kinds of events and they’re coming in and able to set those times. It just goes to show what a fantastic category JWRC is.”
Eighteen months ago Matthew Wilson and I set about a stretch of rough Sardinian gravel in M-Sport’s development Fiesta Rally3. The stage started uphill, which didn’t exactly flatter what was then a 30mm restricted 1497cc engine, but once we were up and out of a couple of hairpins the thing really started to sing. Wilson remains one of the world’s best pedallers and what he did with a €100,000 car was insane.
And, don’t forget, that was with a smidge over 200bhp. With 15% more power, these things are seriously starting to fly.
But that leads me to a more serious question. Is Rally3 starting to tread on the toes of Rally2?
Certainly, it did in Croatia, with the likes of Jon Armstrong, Virves, Pajari and eventual class winner Lauri Joona regularly humbling all but the absolute best of WRC2.
It’s something Millener’s considered too.
He said: “With a lot of the Rally3 drivers going faster than the Rally2 cars I think it also goes to show that maybe jumping into Rally2 too quickly is a big step, you can actually really hone your driving in Rally3.
“Everybody loves to see stories about dominating and being a bit of a giant killer, what better way of doing it than in the third category of the FIA pyramid as opposed to the second and the first one?
“It won’t be like this on all events, but I’m sure we’ll see other times during this year where those kind of cars will be that competitive.”
“We were discussing this with somebody who was asking our opinion on what they should do. They wanted a selected WRC2 program and, don’t tell Malcolm [Wilson, M-Sport managing director] but I was trying my hardest to talk him out of a Rally2 program because I think you can spend the same money and probably get double the events in a Rally3 car. For a driver at that level, that amount of experience is invaluable.
“It’s also a great way to get attention if you’re setting top times. If you are in a highly-populated Rally2 field and you’re learning, it’s a great thing to do, but you don’t get the same attention and if your program depends on partnership and sponsorship that can be very hard to achieve sometimes.”
Following my ride alongside Wilson, DirtFish posed the question of the Rally3 category actually being rallying’s most relevant class. It’s a very fair question.
“It’s a fantastic market,” added Millener, “and I’m sure we’ll see a lot of manufacturers giving us and Maciej [Woda] at M-Sport Poland a bit of a hard time. But it could be a really, really incredible way to find new talent.”
Not to mention new giant killers.