Dovenby Hall wasn’t a place anybody wanted to be the week after Ypres Rally Belgium. Gus Greensmith even encouraged everyone to avoid the place – take a break and reset instead, he said.
But the hallways that house M-Sport’s World Rally Championship concern were a far happier place last week in the wake of Acropolis Rally Greece.
Yes, the result could have been better. First and second after Friday translated into fourth and fifth come the end on Sunday. But with just one Puma barely scraping the top 20 in Ypres, Greece was the perfect tonic to soften the blows of Belgium.
M-Sport team principal Richard Millener never lost faith, but even he must have begun to question how the team could dig itself out of an increasingly large hole. His patience was certainly tested – clear frustration spilling over in interviews and on social media too.
But Greece proved he was right all along. His belief in his people, and the product, wasn’t misplaced at all.
M-Sport and its Puma hadn’t suddenly become bad overnight since winning the Monte Carlo Rally at the start of the season. The car has remained a winner ever since, M-Sport just hadn’t – for one reason or another – necessarily always been able to showcase that at all points throughout the season.
And the relief to have proved the point to the world was obvious – delight written all over Millener’s face in Lamia with Sébastien Loeb leading Pierre-Louis Loubet overnight.
“It’s just to prove what we’ve been saying for a long time, that we knew what we can do,” Millener told DirtFish.
“We’ve got the team, we’ve got the car, and we’ve got the guys and girls who’ve put so much commitment into getting us here.
“So many long days, long nights, arguing with each other because we just want to do the best. And then finally you get days like this where it all pays off.
“The guys in the team read everything that goes on around them. It can be very difficult to motivate people and then finally we can show what we’ve been talking about and what we’ve been saying we can do, we can do.
“Same people, same car. Just a different place. Bit of a reset, as Gus would have put it.
“There wasn’t much time for a reset as we had to go straight back and rebuild the cars but every time you get knocked down, you have to put it behind you, learn from it and keep going.
“And you know that one day it will come right, which it is doing.”
“I’ve never lost sight of what we can achieve together,” added managing director Malcolm Wilson.
“But to come here on a difficult rally like this and to be first and second at the end of day one, you can imagine I’m… as you can say, after the flack that we took on Ypres, on the last few rallies we just haven’t had the roll of the dice.
“But at the end of the day we’ve been in that position before, many times. We understand what you need to do.”
Some of that enthusiasm was washed away come the end of the rally as both Loeb (alternator) and Greensmith (engine) retired due to mechanicals and Loubet ceded ground with a puncture.
But, after three rallies where everyone expected M-Sport to do something good via Craig Breen, the takeaway for the entire team was that it still has plenty to fight for.
The effort the entire army of mechanics is pouring on hasn’t been in vain. M-Sport has the potential to win and looked every bit the winner with Loeb before he was slowed.
Plenty rightfully questioned M-Sport after Ypres, but its response in Greece – at least in terms of performance, if not results – was key to boosting morale for the rest of the season.
“I think we still have to look back at Friday,” Millener said on the rally’s final day.
“Yesterday was a tough one to swallow but we’re back in an OK position, fourth and fifth. If you’d have said that at the start of the weekend then we’d have to be happy with that.
“It’s one of those what-could-have-beens, perhaps. But it just goes to show how hard this event is. We aren’t the only ones to have problems so it’s been good, but maybe not what we hoped.
“It will come and it will work out for us; you can have horrible starts to a weekend that end up fantastic, which is what Hyundai did – and congratulations to them on their first ever 1-2-3. Hopefully it’s something we can replicate before too long!” Millener added.
“But like I said, we keep on going, we’re not beaten. We’ve still got three rallies left this year.”
The worry has to be that, yet again, it was Loeb who jumped into the Puma and started setting the timing screen alight rather than any of the full-time drivers.
But M-Sport isn’t in the race for either of the two championships this season. Perhaps it never really was with a weaker driver lineup than its two, richer rivals across the service park.
That doesn’t matter. What matters is that all the guys and girls right the way through the team have been reminded that, on its day, M-Sport can win. And that’s all the motivation they will ever need as the WRC takes a giant step into the unknown in New Zealand next week.