We hate to say we told you so… but we told you so.
The future’s arrived. Or at least M-Sport Ford’s future’s arrived. The competition will, no doubt, be along shortly. But right now, it’s all about the Ford Puma Rally1 prototype. As has been the case with pretty much every major evolution of frontline rally car recently, M-Sport was the first to turn a wheel with the Puma.
Some of rallying’s finest design and research brains in both Cockermouth and Charlotte have been busy with CAD, concept and bench work for some time, but physical work on chassis number one – the prototype car at Goodwood this week – began at the start of last year. A first, tentative roll-out followed a year and three months later.
At that point – and throughout the process – the car remained nameless. The Puma switch remained a secret, with more than one source warning DirtFish that it risked a significant amount of egg on face when the first test images arrived.
On March 9 at three in the afternoon, M-Sport tweeted a picture of a section of livery with one number visible: 22. The soundtrack to the social sell was undeniably rally inspired.
And when tomorrow finally arrived, Matthew Wilson became the first person ever to drive a 2022-specification Rally1 car. Powered only by internal combustion and carrying 100 kilos of ballast to replicate the battery and powertrain, history was made.
And the egg?
It’s impossible to deny the first test car was very much a Fiesta WRC, albeit one in original 2017 form without the added aero which followed evolution by evolution down the next five years.
But we kept the faith. This was no ordinary Fiesta. It was bigger. Longer. Almost like a Fiesta SUV. The sort of thing Ford might call… a Puma.
By the end of April, there was another first as Wilson headed to Spain to put miles on a mule which now came complete with hybrid.
Inevitably, the world was focused on hybrid coming to the WRC for the first time. But the step forward to 2022 and Rally1 involves a lot more than a Compact Dynamics powertrain and a Kreisel battery.
Arguably, the bigger change comes in the chassis itself. For the first time since 1986 and Group B, the world’s fastest rally cars come from tubular chassis rather than stock production vehicles.
These spaceframes, however, are a world away from the formula that brought the sport to its knees in the mid ’80s. The safety cell which sits beneath the Puma prototype has been designed and produced by the three manufacturers and the FIA. It’s a steel web offering unprecedented protection to those inside.
In terms of aero and transmission, 2022 is a step backwards in the hope that less will offer more opportunity for new manufacturers considering a WRC future.
But back to Spain. In April.
Matthew explains the early thinking behind the test program: “When we didn’t have a hybrid unit available, at that early stage we just wanted to get everything else running on that chassis.
It’s the most impressive-looking rally car we’ve ever had in Greystoke forest, that’s for sureMalcolm Wilson
“Hybrid is the main focus of what’s new for 2022, but the new regulations bring other changes in terms of going back to a car without an active center diff, five-speed box again and manual gearbox rather than paddle shift and then we have slightly different aero regulations.
“So there were a lot of differences as well as the hybrid so it made sense to run all that sort of thing as quickly as we possibly could, and then as soon as the hybrid unit was available obviously we could slot that in and away we go.”
And away they went.
“All the manufacturers got the hybrid unit at the same time,” said Wilson. “Our first proper test came in Spain. We lost the ballast from the car and replaced it with the hybrid unit.
“We didn’t go directly to the full [100kW] of power, we staggered the introduction through the week, but when it was all there and we got full power from the internal combustion and the hybrid… put it this way, you certainly felt it! It’s definitely a shot in the back, I can tell you that.”
Wilson Sr likes the opportunity to sample the fruits of his team’s labor, but so far he hasn’t tested the Puma Rally1.
“I did go to Greystoke [M-Sport’s full-time test site] to watch the thing perform and I came away thinking it’s probably best if I don’t get in this car!” said Malcolm.
“It was so, so impressive and I could even see from watching from the outside what a good job and how impressive this car is going to be.”
The precise details of where the hybrid can be deployed in stages is still being debated. It’ll come in three-second bursts and can be regenerated in braking and coasting phases, but without the electric we’re left with a current car weighed down by an extra 100 kilos of battery and bits.
Is Wilson concerned that could impact on the spectacle?
“Trust me,” he smiles, “you’re certainly not going to be disappointed – certainly not from any of the tests I’ve seen. It’s the most impressive-looking rally car we’ve ever had in Greystoke forest, that’s for sure.
“For the fans and everybody, it’s going to be another great era and there’s certainly not going to be any disappointed people when the cars arrive in Monte next January.”