As far as popular victories go, M-Sport’s return to the World Rally Championship winners’ circle, courtesy of an inspired Monte Carlo Rally drive from Sébastien Loeb that netted the nine-time champion his 80th career win and eighth on event, was right up there.
Especially so when you consider the team went without a podium in 2021, and last won a rally in October 2018.
But did it truly represent M-Sport’s return to being a title-challenging force?
DirtFish writers Jack Cozens and Luke Barry argue whether that’s the case, or if the result needs to be contextualized.
Enthusiasm needs to be used to push on
It’s only right that M-Sport should revel in its Monte Carlo Rally success. The threat the pandemic posed to the business is not to be underestimated, and it toiled to an extent in 2020, and in particular in 2021, to make sure it could get back to the sharp end this year.
It’s done just that with its Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid, and Sébastien Loeb’s victory vindicates its sacrifices.
But that doesn’t mean we should overlook the conclusion that, on balance, the Toyota was the quicker car on the Monte. It wasn’t by much, but the stats back that up – with the GR Yaris taking nine stage wins to the Puma’s seven.
Perhaps this is influenced by the time at which each of the two leaders stamped their respective command on the rally, but the way in which Sébastien Ogier seemed to be able to turn the screw on Saturday, then control things on Sunday before his penultimate-stage puncture, appeared to be with a greater authority than with which Loeb first grabbed the lead on day one proper.
Pertinently, though much is rightfully made of how Loeb excelled, one week after concluding the Dakar Rally, what can’t be forgotten is that without that puncture Ogier would have been a comfortable winner – powerstage jump-start penalty or no powerstage jump-start penalty.
You can only beat what’s in front of you, and beating Ogier is as hard as it comes. It’s worth remembering too that Craig Breen’s Puma was the next car home. But the same opportunity to bed in and score a podium won’t be afforded on Rally Sweden next month.
It’s been documented that Breen was told in clear terms to get the car to the end in shipshape, so a third-place finish for those efforts while finding the limits of a new car was, as Malcolm Wilson described it, a dream start.
But Kalle Rovanperä only finished 36.4 seconds in arrears despite being in the rough end of nowhere on Friday, while only car issues stopped Gus Greensmith and Thierry Neuville – in a tricky Hyundai – being in that fight.
All that’s without considering that Elfyn Evans was clinging to the coattails of Loeb and Ogier before his slip, too.
Speaking immediately after the rally had finished, M-Sport team principal Richard Millener was mindful of the size of the task at hand.
It's not so much that the enthusiasm needs to be tempered, it's about using it to drive M-Sport on if it's to sustain a title challenge
“We came here knowing our goal was to prove we could be on the pace and we could do well,” he said.
“I don’t think we can prove that any more than we have. The work starts again tomorrow to see what’s possible for the remainder of the year.”
It’s this sentiment that underlines the point. It’s not so much that the enthusiasm needs to be tempered, it’s about using it to drive M-Sport on, if it’s to mount a sustained challenge for the title.
My colleague David Evans was right when he said Loeb and M-Sport answered every question asked of them. But there’s a long season ahead, and the team will need to be doing that on every rally to topple a team with the might of Toyota.
– Jack Cozens
Monte performance justifies early favorite talk
I can understand the argument that the M-Sport Ford hype train has run away from the station rather early, and that could prove to be a miscalculation as the season progresses.
But my counter argument simply has to be: M-Sport was the best team on the Monte, so why wouldn’t we be talking about it as an early favorite based on the small sample we have?
The excitement can be totally understood when placed in context too. After winning three championships from four across 2017-2018, M-Sport was one stage away from victory in Corsica with Elfyn Evans in 2019 but never got close again in two-and-a-half years. For it to all come good on round one of the new era – an era it pinned all of its hopes and resources on – is therefore a massively feel-good tale.
Although having said that, I’m actually not sure if the hype is really centered on M-Sport itself, or if the team has just been caught in the slipstream of Sébastien Loeb mania.
That’s not to decry the performance of the Puma Rally1 but simply to say it’s unlikely M-Sport would have won had it not had Loeb in its ranks for the Monte. That’s primarily because Ogier was in town for Toyota, and he would’ve been well clear without Loeb to battle.
But Ogier certainly had his view on the new cars, telling DirtFish on the Friday when Loeb led: “It’s a fact at the moment that my friends from M-Sport have been doing an amazing job one more time, and produced one more time the best car out of the box, that’s clear; not only from Séb’s times but Gus for example as well.
“Nothing bad about that, he’s a good driver promising a lot, but it’s a bit unusual to be beaten when you are on the limit in Monte Carlo.”
It’s the second half of Ogier’s point there that is perhaps most pertinent. What impressed me anyway – and clearly its drivers too – about the Puma was how easy it was to drive.
While Ogier had small battles with his GR Yaris, Rovanperä could not make sense of it all for the first half of the rally and Takamoto Katsuta never seemed to get on top of it at any point throughout the weekend.
But all four of the M-Sport drivers were on the money straight away – Breen less so, but he admitted he was only at “60-70%” of his capability as he was learning the rally as much as he was learning the car.
The point is clear, though. Toyota has done a great job, make no mistake about it, but M-Sport appears to have made a car with a wider operating window that suits all of its drivers. At least for round one.
Hyundai is playing catch-up but has more than enough capability to make this more than a two-horse race to Rally Japan. However, if it can’t then we should have an epic scrap on our hands regardless.
Just three points split leaders M-Sport and Toyota after round one and it should be similarly close after Sweden too, even if I’m personally finding it hard to look beyond an Evans or Esapekka Lappi victory next month.
– Luke Barry