Adrien Fourmaux will become the latest in a long line of drivers to make their World Rally Championship top-flight debut with M-Sport when he drives a Ford Fiesta WRC on Rally Croatia next week.
The Cumbria-based outfit has been providing opportunities for young rally stars ever since it began running Ford’s WRC team in 1997. Over the next 24 years with – and without – factory Ford backing, M-Sport has become a cornerstone of the championship; winning three manufacturers’ championships and two drivers’ titles in that time.
Fourmaux will be hoping to emulate those who shone on their debut and use that as a springboard for future success.
Here’s our ranking of the top 20 drivers to have made their debut top-flight performance with an M-Sport (under whichever sponsorship guise) World Rally Car since 1997.
Each driver is ranked on that debut rally, although their preparations and experience have been taken into account. What each driver did following their debut may be mentioned, but this was not considered when the ranking was made.
20 – Gus Greensmith
2019 Rally Portugal – DNF (accident)
Greensmith will be team-mates with Fourmaux on Rally Croatia. The Englishman made his top-flight WRC debut almost two years ago in Portugal. He was running in seventh after the opening day but went off the road on Saturday’s final stage and had a second – this time rally-ending – crash on Sunday’s powerstage while just outside the top 10.
Greensmith scored his first points in Germany later that year and his career-best finish is currently a fifth-place, achieved on Rally Turkey 2020.
19 – Federico Villagra
2007 Rally Italy – 11th
Villagra arguably had the least speculator debut of any of the drivers on this list, but he avoided any major incidents and finished in a respectable 11th place overall. He became a regular points scorer in the top-flight over the proceeding four years for the Munchi’s Ford World Rally Team.
18 – Guy Wilks
2007 Rally Norway – DNF (accident)
Although he more recently turned his hand to driving and commentating on rallycross, Wilks was a handy rally driver who almost signed for Subaru in 2005. Instead, he had to settle for beating Kris Meeke to the runner-up spot behind Dani Sordo in that year’s Junior WRC standings.
While Sordo graduated to the top-flight in 2006, Wilks had to wait another year for his shot at the top class. It finally came on Rally Norway aboard a 2005-spec Ford Focus. It ended with a crash but before then he demonstrated strong pace and he proved that when he finished sixth on Rally Ireland a few months later in a Subaru Impreza.
17 – Ken Block
2010 Rally México – 18th.
Block’s sporadic top-flight WRC outings have produced mixed results and his debut was no different. He began by outpacing Kimi Räikkönen on his first stage but thereafter, he usually was only quicker than Villagra. A crash on Saturday morning broke his suspension and he ultimately finished over 46 minutes behind the rally winner Sébastien Loeb.
His best WRC result would come three years later, also on the Mexican gravel when he finished in seventh place.
16 – Eric Camilli
2016 Monte Carlo Rally – DNF (accident)
The lasting memory of Camilli’s one – and so far only – season in the WRC’s top-flight is one of wasted potential. The Frenchman was thrust into an M-Sport seat alongside the experienced Mads Østberg after being poached from Toyota and ultimately it seemed like he was out of his depth with just two top-six finishes compared to Østberg’s eight across the season.
Having said that it’s easy to forget that Camilli’s maiden campaign actually started reasonably strongly. On the Monte, Camilli made a solid start and began to match Østberg’s times. He’d lamented his cautious approach after the opening day: “I didn’t sleep too well last night,” he said after stage five. “I was thinking I was maybe too cautious yesterday. But today is better.”
On the very next stage, he slid his Fiesta off the road and into a tree.
15 – Martin Prokop
2011 Rally GB – 21st
Prokop wasn’t the first Czech driver to make his debut with M-Sport (Roman Kresta did with Jolly Club in 2001 before a full season with Ford in 2005), but he was by far the quickest. Having won the Junior WRC championship in 2009, he earned his top-flight debut on the final rally of the 2011 season.
He crashed on the opening day but made a strong recovery from outside the top 50, and he set the sixth-fastest time on the powerstage to cap off a strong debut. Prokop returned the following year to score points on nine of the 11 rallies that he competed on.
14 – Tapio Laukkanen
2000 Rally Finland – DNF (mechanical)
A long-forgotten, but quietly impressive M-Sport debut. Laukkenen was 12th overall on the opening day, having set two stage times within the top 10. His pace improved on the second day and he climbed to ninth place. Unfortunately, a mechanical issue ended his rally on Saturday’s penultimate stage.
His next appearance was even better as he grabbed fifth overall on Rally Australia. If that had been his debut performance, Laukkanen would’ve been higher up on this list.
13 – Janne Tuohino
1999 Rally Finland – 8th
Twenty-two years before a sauna injury ruled him out of his top-flight WRC return on home soil, Tuohino made his debut on Rally Finland. He only set two top-10 stage times but he ended up in a solid eighth position.
He went onto make sporadic appearances for the next two decades and often found himself in the lower reaches of the top 10.
12 – Andreas Mikkelsen
2006 Wales Rally GB – DNF (accident)
At just 17-years-old, Mikkelsen made his top-flight bow in a two-year-old Fiesta. It was perhaps unsurprising that his debut was littered with incidents given his inexperience.
But there were plenty of flashes to speed that would later translate into three WRC event victories – and he’s not given up on breaking back into the top-flight to increase that total.
11 – François Duval
2002 Rally Sweden – 10th
Duval showed one of the most impressive rates of improvement across his debut top-flight WRC outing of any of the drivers on this list. He began the rally with the 22nd-fastest time and then set the sixth-fastest time when that same stage was repeated on Sunday morning.
A difficult first day left him playing catch up, but Duval strode into the top 10 and built the foundations for a solid WRC career that accumulated in his one and only victory on Rally Australia in 2005.
10 – Craig Breen
2014 Rally Sweden – 9th
Breen had proved he was more than ready for his top-flight debut in 2014, having enjoyed success in pretty much every major European rally series outside of the WRC’s premier class.
When he got his opportunity in a private Fiesta as a Peugeot driver, he didn’t set the world alight with eye-catching stage times, but he drove a solid and consistent rally.
Breen hovered around the top 10 before climbing to ninth place on the powerstage when Elfyn Evans went off the road. He started one more rally for M-Sport before ending up as a factory Citroën driver two years later.
9 – Hayden Paddon
2013 Rally Spain – 8th
Paddon had already registered 14 WRC points prior to his top-flight debut, the majority of which came from a sixth-place finish overall in a high-attrition Rally Australia in 2011 with a Group N Subaru.
The New Zealander demonstrated solid pace from the off when he outpaced M-Sport regular Østberg on the very first stage. He couldn’t keep up with the Norwegian thereafter, but he ended the rally in a comfortable eighth place in his only rally for M-Sport before joining Hyundai’s fledgling team in the following year.
8 – Petter Solberg
1999 Rally Sweden – 11th
Solberg’s second top-flight WRC start on Rally Kenya is far better documented – and it may well have taken the number one spot on this list – but that’s not what we’re here to rank. His debut on Rally Sweden came aboard a Ford Escort WRC, and he managed to set nine top-10 stage times in the 19-stage rally.
It wasn’t quite as speculator as another M-Sport rookie who made their bow in this same rally and it certainly paled in comparison to his very next rally, but it was more than enough to convince Malcolm Wilson to call up Solberg to replace the injured Thomas Rådström on the Safari Rally – and the rest is history.
7- Jari-Matti Latvala
2003 Acropolis Rally – 10th
The current Toyota team boss, who has started more WRC rallies than any other driver in history, made his first start in a Mitsubishi Lancer at just 17-years-old on Rally GB but his World Rally Car bow came one year on one of the championship’s toughest rallies.
Latvala never ranked higher than ninth on a stage, but he arguably had greater – and more – competition than the more recent entries on this list. And given his inexperience, not just in terms of age but the number of rallies completed prior to this point, it was an impressive debut performance that would later lead to 18 WRC victories.
6 – Mark Higgins
2001 Rally GB – Withdrawn
Higgins probably had more rallying experience than any other driver on this list when he made his top-class WRC debut aged 30 – albeit his experience on the international stage was predominantly limited to appearances in the FIA 2-Liter Cup.
When he finally got his chance on home soil on Rally GB in 2001, he grabbed it with both hands. After five stages, he was the lead Ford driver after Colin McRae famously crashed, ahead of his far more experienced team-mate Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard overtook Higgins on the next stage, although Higgins ended his first day with a top-five stage time.
He repeated the feat on Saturday morning but on SS11, Sainz was involved in a collision with spectators and M-Sport withdrew Sainz and Higgins. This denied Higgins a points finish on debut, but he’d return a year later and earn a sixth-place finish.
5 – Markko Märtin
1999 Rally Sweden – 8th
As mentioned, Solberg was not the only rookie debuting in a Ford on the 1999 edition of Rally Sweden. The 2003 World Rally Champion was beaten by Märtin in 14 of the 19 stages and finished over a minute behind – although both drivers finished outside the points. Märtin’s start in the top-flight is far less remembered but equally – if not more – impressive.
Märtin would later take five WRC victories with Ford before switching to Peugeot for 2005. On Wales Rally GB, his long-time co-driver Michael Park was killed in a crash and Märtin stepped away from rallying.
4 – Elfyn Evans
2013 Rally Italy – 6th
Evans only peaked as high as seventh on the stage times during his maiden top-flight WRC rally, but it was an extremely impressive first start when you consider he’d barely driven an R5 Fiesta before his debut, let alone the top-spec Fiesta WRC.
Not only was the drive last-minute call-up but he was competing with a brand-new co-driver, Giovanni Bernacchini too with Nasser Al Attiyah unable to compete and only one element of the entry permitted to be changed.
Evans was consistent and looked far more comfortable than his short CV suggested that he would be. He has since taken three WRC victories and came within touching distance of the crown in 2020.
3 – Ott Tänak
2011 Rally GB – 6th
There’s a strong case for Tänak taking the number one spot on this list. He was running in fifth place on Saturday morning and set a top-eight time in over half of the 23 stages and ended up just half a minute behind Matthew Wilson, who knew the Fiesta inside out.
But the caveat to his success is the high-attrition rate of the rally, with Mikko Hirvonen, Loeb, Sébastien Ogier, Solberg and Dani Sordo among those suffering major dramas.
Regardless, Tänak’s debut was mighty and he’d later prove countless times that he had the pure underlying pace and consistency to be a World Rally Champion – albeit with Toyota.
2 – Teemu Suninen
2017 Rally Poland – 6th
The only entrant on this list to win a stage on their debut top-flight appearance – and a proper 9.35-mile stage on his first day competing in a World Rally Car. Suninen followed that up with three more top-five stage times and was on for a fifth-place finish before a mistake on the powerstage dropped him to sixth place.
He proved it was no fluke with an even more impressive performance on Rally Finland – his second top-flight outing – where he finished in fourth place and that would have been second if not for two mistakes late on.
Arguably, Suninen is still yet to live up to the promise shown during his impressive debut performance and perhaps he was overshadowed by fellow rookie Esapekka Lappi’s victory on Rally Finland.
1 – Pontus Tidemand
2013 Rally Sweden – DNF (mechanical)
How can we place a DNF as the most impressive WRC top-flight debut with M-Sport from the last 24 years? Least not, a driver who has since only made four top-class starts; all again with M-Sport.
Well, that’s because Tidemand’s debut was mightily impressive and unfairly forgotten. Yes, he’d learnt his rallying craft on the Swedish snow but driving in the top-flight of rallying’s world championship is a different beast altogether.
On the first proper stage he was immediately fourth quickest, only slower than Ogier, Latvala and Loeb. He proved that was no fluke with the fifth-fastest time on the very next stage and he never outside the top eight for the remainder of the day.
Heading into Saturday, he was in sixth place and only increasing in confidence. Tidemand was the third-highest Fiesta but ahead of both Juho Hänninen and Thierry Neuville. We’ll never know what would have happened next because an engine issue stopped his maiden rally in its tracks.
He returned a year later but he couldn’t quite replicate the same scintillating pace, although he did finish in eighth place. He’d have to wait another five years for his shot in the top-flight and Tidemand wasn’t able to make much of the chances that year.
Regardless of him rarely delivering in the top-flight since, his debut top-flight WRC appearance was superb and eclipses the debuts of drivers who would go onto far greater success