M-Sport didn’t win any World Rally Championship rounds in 2019.
That was quite a comedown after the 2017/18 title glory with Sebastién Ogier, but to outsiders it also looked like a return to business as usual. Till Ogier turned up, M-Sport hadn’t done any WRC winning since it had full works Ford backing in 2012.
For 2020 it’s swapped one one-time WRC rally winner in Elfyn Evans for another one-time WRC rally winner in Esapekka Lappi, kept Teemu Suninen on board and remains without proper factory resources.
Does that mean more of the (win-less) same?
No. Or at least, for the WRC’s sake, hopefully not.
Here are some reasons why M-Sport has to be taken seriously in 2020.
Last year was a blip not the norm
Yes, Ogier led M-Sport to titles but Ott Tänak and (in the satellite DMACK arrangement) Elfyn Evans also won rallies in its Ford Fiestas during the Ogier era.
It was not a case of a single great driver lifting an underwhelming car to heights it didn’t deserve. This was – and is – a championship-calibre team and championship-calibre machinery.
But Ogier’s exit and its repercussions hit M-Sport hard and it was nearly Christmas 2018 before it was confident it could contest the full 2019 WRC season. It’s tough to switch from that parlous position to a title-chasing mentality in a few weeks, especially with an inexperienced line-up.
Losing Evans for a chunk of the season after his back injury didn’t help either, particularly given that he missed two of his favourite events where he’d come close to winning previously in Finland and Germany.
There were still rallies M-Sport could’ve won in 2019, though, Corsica in particular where Elfyn was robbed by his failure to spot a pothole on the recce. That pothole caused the final-stage puncture which dropped him from first to third.
Lappi is potentially superb…
Some remain unconvinced by Lappi. But M-Sport had a very, very, very long list of rally-winning drivers to choose from this winter as other teams slimmed down or departed, and it didn’t pull Lappi’s name randomly out of a hat.
Admittedly his top-class WRC career has been a touch inconsistent so far but this is rallying. More than any other form of four-wheeled motorsport, it takes time for young WRC drivers to gain the confidence and event experience to hit peak form week in, week out. Tanak’s career journey rams that point home.
So don’t fixate on the anonymous rallies on Lappi’s record. He earned his WRC break with Finnish, European and WRC2 titles. He won Rally Finland at the very first attempt in a World Rally Car, just four events into his top-class career. Even amid the turbulence of Citroen’s 2019 season, he scored three podiums and was finding his feet in the second half of the season.
A young charger with growing experience and a point to prove – those are classic ingredients for an M-Sport star.
…And Suninen could be mega too
So much of the above about Lappi applies to Suninen too. He hasn’t yet fully blossomed and consistently shown what he can do at WRC level. Some of his rallies have been muted to say the least.
But he’s young, he’s still gathering experience, and he’s already got two WRC podiums under his belt – though perhaps more impressive than the podiums he did get were the near-misses on his first two World Rally Car starts. His speed on his exploratory mid-2017 outings in M-Sport’s third top-class car in Poland and Finland was a huge statement of intent.
There’s a major upgrade coming…
M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson recently revealed that there’s an engine upgrade on the way, and it’ll be the biggest change on that front since the car was introduced in 2017 – with plenty of Ford involvement in the process.
He also made clear that as a championship tilt wasn’t realistic this year, M-Sport was going into the season with a target list of rallies it reckoned it could win.
That means it doesn’t necessarily have to make its development plans and homologation tactics bend to fit the full array of events and characteristics on the WRC calendar. It can throw everything on making the car the best it can be for the rallies where the team feels it has a big chance.
And, post-round four upgrade, Wilson feels M-Sport is in with a shout for the top step on every rally.
…And a new British star too
Gus Greensmith will drive the third M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC on selected rounds this year. While we can’t expect him to be winning rallies, he has to be setting his sights on top sixes in the second half of the year.
Greensmith tackled three rallies in a factory Fiesta WRC last season and, while the results didn’t add up to what he might have hoped for, one thing was blatantly obvious: he’s not scared of it.
Combine that lack of fear with an undoubted talent and you’re halfway there. What is it they say? You can teach a driver to be consistent, but you can’t teach them to be quick. Greensmith could prove a valuable asset to M-Sport come the end of the season.
Citroën’s absence won’t hurt
Let’s be frank: Citroën not being there increases the chance of M-Sport being in a position to pick something up on rallies of high attrition or when Toyota and/or Hyundai go awry. Two fewer factory cars to take on is an obvious bonus for the series’ underdog team.
And there’s also a good chance – subject to how crafty the other teams get with additional entries – that M-Sport’s approach to this season will mean it is well-placed to benefit from the running order regulations.
Realistically it’s not going to Monte Carlo expecting much of a result, and that gives its pair of Finns a good shot at being down the start order for day one in Sweden.
That could be a blessing or a curse – depending on whether those first on the road are sweeping fresh snow away, or are the only cars able to get traction on a snow-less mud-mess that they’re churning up for those behind.
But later in the season there will surely be gravel rallies that Suninen and Lappi begin with a much better Friday running order situation than the likes of Tänak and Ogier. If some of those are the rallies where the engine upgrade is in full effect, the M-Sport gang could take a Friday advantage that’s hard to overcome.
And if M-Sport does interrupt the likely Toyota versus Hyundai season-long storyline with a few giantkilling wins, those will surely be the most popular results of the season.