Here at DirtFish, we’re keen to bring you the thoughts of as many rallying figures as we can during these unprecedented times – including through this new feature series.
It’s a simple premise: the same set of six questions, all asked to personalities throughout the rallying community.
Our third interviewee is M-Sport Ford World Rally Team boss Richard Millener.
What’s your best rallying memory, and why?
Most people might think it is the obvious one: the two World Rally Championship titles in 2017 and 2018. Don’t get me wrong, that is my best WRC memory and will be hard to ever beat. However, my best rallying memory is when I made my first real attempt at competing in a rally myself. It was the Somerset Stages, 2012.
Starting from Butlins (an…interesting holiday village, should I say!) the event included 43 miles of local forests as well as the infamous Porlock Toll Road – three miles of uphill Tarmac with two tight hairpins and all in a car on a gravel setup with Tarmac tyres. I remember watching this event as a kid for a number of years and it was fantastic to be able to compete and actually enjoy the event.
At the time I thought I could be a bit of a driver. I’ve since realised this might not be the case… [Richard is too modest to mention he won his class by two minutes in Somerset eight years ago] But I still try to do as much clubman rallying as I can – this is why I got involved in the sport in the beginning: the fun, the banter and the pure sporting element. When the current [COVID-19] situation has eased, it’s made me realize I want to do more clubman rallying. Quite honestly, I miss it and I miss the people involved at that level.
If you could make one change in rallying, what would it be and why?
I would really like to find a way to reduce costs for competitors. Let’s look, for example, at entry fees for events: why are they so high? Why do they keep rising? What can we do to target this and reduce it? I know organizers have a tough job facing increasing insurance requirements, increased health and safety requirements, increased organizational costs in general, but there must be a solution. I would like us to find one target each year and try to find a way to reduce that cost for the competitor.
No matter what people say, getting into motorsport is neither particularly easy or cheap, but I understand there are some sensible options. We need to try harder to shine a light on them. So again, after this pandemic, I would love to see a real drive in this area.
One example where we could focus in Britain is the cost of forest hire in the UK. It’s incredible because of the damage to the road. We have looked in the past at finding tires that impact on the gravel surface less, but I haven’t seen much update in these areas. Maybe we should re-visit and make this a priority? Taking £100 or £200 off an entry fee for a forest rally it would be incredible and make a real difference at the clubman level.
If you could choose one era to live in our sport, which one would it be and why?
Boring answer here, the one I did live through! That was 2000 onwards. I loved the cars, especially the Subaru – that was what got me interested in the sport. Naturally, I much prefer my Fords now.
I loved the number of events in the championship, the daily highlights on free-to-air television on Channel 4 in the UK. The amount of manufacturers involved around this time – with Ford, Subaru, Citroën, Peugeot, Suzuki, Hyundai, Škoda and Mitsubishi – it was fantastic. And I loved the Super 1600 cars, like the Citroën Saxo and Suzuki Ignis – they were complete little buzz boxes and you just couldn’t beat the Renault Clio and Ford Fiesta for looks at the time.
It was an ace time for WRC and a time where some of my fondest rally memories are from. Random memories as well, like Guy Wilks hitting a tree with the underside of his Ignis having narrowly avoiding a marshal, and [Colin] McRae taking the most outrageous cuts on the Safari Rally. There are just too many classic moments to list!
How is rallying helping you through lockdown right now?
It’s keeping me employed through what is a pretty tough time right now. Everybody is desperate to get going again and plan for the future, but it just isn’t possible at the moment. I hope, in the coming months, we can have some more positive news, but it’s difficult right now and, for sure, our sport is not one that can be behind closed doors. It wouldn’t work and it would spoil what the sport is about.
I have been happy to see how the Esports side of things has come alive during this time and it’s been great to see all the younger WRC 2/3 and JWRC drivers keep their community close, even if they cannot be close in reality. It’s been fun to watch [the gaming] and perhaps we will use this element more in the future now we know the potential of it.
Which rally are you looking forward to most once we’re through this and why?
That is a tough one, each event is different and each one has its own attractions. I guess one of my favourites is always Rally d’Italia in Sardinia. It’s usually held in early summer where we have great weather and a beautiful, quiet island. And, let’s face it, you cannot beat Italian food.
It’s also where Ott [Tänak] scored his first win with us and Teemu [Suninen] scored his podium with Jarmo [Lehtinen] on their partnership debut last year. Sardinia holds some good memories for me and our sport in the sunshine is always fantastic. If there is a downside… the mega long days on the event are not my most favourite part. Good job Italians have great coffee!
You can have a conversation with one person from the history of rallying, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I am fortunate enough to be able to talk with a lot of people in rallying and I can say I’m lucky enough to have spoken to – and get on well with – all my childhood heroes. Not so many people can say that and it’s an incredible part of my job with the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team.
This is a tough question and I don’t think I could choose just one person, I would choose a bunch. I would take a team manager from the era I mention earlier, the early 2000s, as well as a recce mechanic and a rally mechanic. I’d set up a nice barbecue outside in the sun (maybe do it in Sardinia!) and have a few beers over a night of stories about the competition and what really went on back then. Some of the things you hear, you cannot quite believe if they’re being made up or not!
Regardless, fact or fiction, any reminiscing of this sort provides a great night’s entertainment and reminds you how lucky we are to work in this sport and make friends from all over the world while visiting so many great countries. Rallying, come back soon – we’re missing you!