M-Sport team principal Rich Millener has been left less than impressed on Friday evening in Sardinia, bemoaning a disastrous day that he feels doesn’t reflect the quality of his team.
Three M-Sport cars were entered on Rally Italy but none of them have made it to the end of the day without retiring.
Teemu Suninen crashed his Fiesta WRC on the opening stage, Adrien Fourmaux only made it to the next one in his Rally2 variant and Gus Greensmith was forced to stop on the final test with a transmission problem.
Even before that, Greensmith was down in a lonely seventh (albeit with the caveat that he was competing with stand-in co-driver making his World Rally Car debut). But it was still a far cry from the podium finish Millener thought possible prior to the weekend.
Greensmith escaped the ire of his boss though given his issue wasn’t self-inflicted. But Suninen and Fourmaux are well and truly on the naughty step tonight.
“It’s really difficult,” Millener said.
“I think the two mistakes from the other guys are, they know that they made mistakes and it’s not what we want or kind of what we expect from them and they’re very apologetic to the team but they sometimes can forget how hard those guys and girls are working to be here, especially with the calendar at the moment being so close together.
“The real frustrating thing is we know that we are better than this, and the results we seem to be getting at the moment just seem to be knocking us back time after time,” he added.
“It’s not really what we want to see from either of them. We know we didn’t test and there’s various things you can say, but ultimately we wanted more.
“Gus’s retirement, not his fault, something broken on the startline it’s just been a bad day for him. In terms of the team, it’s frustrating to keep people motivated when we’re having this bad run of luck, and the frustrating thing is we know we can do better.
He hadn't had a test, he hadn't driven on the tires but we wouldn't have been disappointed if he was last WRC car on the stage and improved over the course of the weekend, that's what we were looking for.Rich Millener
“In some ways we think we deserve better for the effort we’re putting in but sometimes things are difficult but we’ll keep going and we’ll get back to where we want to be.
“We’ll come back, we’ll still keep fighting and like we say we’ve got the tools and the people to do the job and we’ll get there.”
The 2021 season has been a trying one for M-Sport. The team doesn’t have the budget to pay two professional drivers for the season, nor does it have the funds to test as often as it can like its rivals.
Suninen then crashed out on the very first test on the Monte Carlo Rally, which makes his Italian error all the more galling.
There have been flashes of optimism from Fourmaux who stunned on his WRC World Rally Car debut in Croatia particularly, and Greensmith is on an upward curve following a confidence-boosting performance on Rally Portugal.
But the team is yet to win a stage of the 73 that have been completed this season, and can only boast a best finish of fifth courtesy of Fourmaux in Croatia and Greensmith in Portugal.
Asked by DirtFish what Suninen’s blunder, in the context of his strong road position and encouraging previous form in Sardinia, means for the rest of the season, Millener admitted the crash “certainly hasn’t helped”.
“We’re old enough and wise enough to not make snap decisions,” he said. “We need to think about it but it certainly hasn’t helped.
“That’s two rallies now in the WRC after the first stage he’s got no further. Like I say, he hadn’t had a test, he hadn’t driven on the tires but we wouldn’t have been disappointed if he was last WRC car on the stage and improved over the course of the weekend, that’s what we were looking for.
“But he went out on the first stage and it makes things hard.”
DirtFish’s Colin Clark then put it to him that perhaps Suninen is under pressure with his part-time program in the top class, and maybe he wasn’t handling that pressure all that well. But Millener doesn’t see that as M-Sport’s issue.
“I think pressure is part of this job, so if you can’t deal with it then that’s not our problem,” he said.
“It’s down to somebody else’s problem to solve it himself, we can’t do everything for them. We give the drivers the best car we can and the best team we can and the rest is down to them.”
Describing the incident, Suninen said: “Under braking I pulled the handbrake and stalled the engine, and then I didn’t have the engine to pull through the corner and just slide off.”
While it was undoubtedly a driver error, Suninen pointed to the fact he had no competitive experience of Pirelli’s gravel tires on the World Rally Car prior to SS1 and the fact his last gravel rally in the car was this same event last year as to reasons how this could have gone wrong.
“Honestly it was quite tricky to jump into that car without any testing, with the new tires,” he explained.
“I think I haven’t been in that car on gravel for seven months, and then I have to jump straight into a rally and try to survive.
“The driving style is quite different from a WRC2 car, so I was a bit shocked kind of at the beginning of the stage that there is big wings and a lot of grip on fast corners and need to get used to it. It’s a big shame for our rally.”
Fourmaux’s error was a touch more innocuous as he marginally cut a corner and broke something on the front-left of his Fiesta Rally2.
“It was a small mistake this morning, which was in part inexperience on gravel,” said Fourmaux.
“Unfortunately there was a big stone in the verge on the inside of the bend where I tried too tight a line, which meant that our battle for victory in WRC2 ended on the second stage of the rally.
“We will restart under SuperRally tomorrow and I hope to show some good stage times as we make a recovery.”
There can be no denying this was a big shame, but the big frustration lies with Suninen given the expectation on his shoulders and the fact this was a repeated mistake.
But perhaps the Finn can thank Fourmaux, as you can bet that without Fourmaux’s error, the heat on Suninen would’ve been even more intense – particularly when you consider Fourmaux is the driver sharing and swapping cars with him this year.
Either way, it’s hard to disagree that given all the effort M-Sport is putting in to keep its World Rally Championship program afloat, the team does deserve better than two simple – and needless – errors in two stages.
What do you think? How should M-Sport deal with this going forward, and what could Suninen have achieved this weekend had he not made his mistake? Leave us your thoughts in the comment box below.