On the face of it, M-Sport was always going to be heading into this weekend’s Rally Finland on the back foot.
Toyota’s GR Yaris Rally1 was brought up on these roads, and Hyundai allocated Finland as one of its permanent test sites earlier this season. M-Sport could test its Puma Rally1 in Greystoke forest, but the characteristics in north-west England are a far cry from Scandinavia.
So the fact that the Puma Rally1s didn’t turn a wheel on Finnish soil this year until Thursday morning’s shakedown stage really did cement M-Sport’s position ahead of round eight of this year’s World Rally Championship.
It begs an obvious question: why wouldn’t the team choose to test for the fastest rally of the year?
“Straight in with the big question,” smiled team principal Richard Millener, appearing on the very first episode of DirtFish team talk on Wednesday.
“I’m pretty sure Craig didn’t test here last time in the Hyundai and he did alright…”
Breen, now an M-Sport driver, indeed did ‘alright’ last year, finishing third on his final appearance for Hyundai.
But, back to the point. Why didn’t M-Sport test for Finland?
“We have X amount of resource, Y amount of time and Z amount of budget,” Millener said. “We don’t have all of those in place to be able to test in Estonia, do the rally, test here and do the rally.”
Budget has been a massive topic of conversation in the M-Sport camp for years, particularly since 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the team enjoys a strong technical partnership with Ford Performance, it is not a fully-fledged works team and occasionally feels the pinch.
The fact it’s running five Rally1 cars – one more than Toyota and two more than Hyundai – obviously has a sizable impact too.
“We had a discussion about when the pinch points in the season were going to be, this probably being the biggest,” Millener continued.
“We’re being ambitious with the number of cars we’re running. We could run two cars and that would allow us to free up some resource. But as anybody knows, customer drivers are a big part of the business that enable us to be here with the main cars.
“So it’s a balancing act and we knew that this one was going to be really tricky. We looked at the calendar and Estonia/Finland, yes they’re different. they’re different speed. But in general they’re quite similar; there’s a very short amount of time between the two, so it’s not like the drivers haven’t been in the car for a few weeks.
“Same surface, same speeds, so we made the decision not to test for this one. There’s as much to be made in time in being positive and just accepting the fact we weren’t able to test than testing and saying ‘oh, we didn’t do very well because we didn’t test.'”
Competing without testing is a feeling Gus Greensmith got used to last year where the rally team’s budget was compromised in favor of developing this year’s hybrid Puma Rally1.
It’s obviously not a dream scenario for any rally driver, but Greensmith doesn’t believe all is lost.
“Last year we did the rally without a test, the same as this year, which always makes it a lot tricker. But the one thing we do have this year is a very good shakedown,” he told DirtFish.
“The shakedown’s far trickier than what we see in the rally, which is very rare. Huge undulations, big jumps. If we can get good confidence from the off in shakedown then I don’t see a reason why we can’t be competitive this weekend.
“But for sure if the feeling isn’t quite there and we’re trying to find it then it could be quite tricky.”
M-Sport’s performance on the Rannankylä shakedown stage was reasonable, but there’s still plenty of time to find. Toyota’s leading Finns predictably set the pace, but Breen was seventh, two seconds down on the pace-setting time, while Pierre-Louis Loubet was eighth, a further four tenths behind.
But can M-Sport really compete in the rally proper this week?
“Finland’s always going to be tricky when the two other teams are based here. Unlimited testing for them makes it very difficult to compete, especially when you don’t test,” Greensmith said.
“But if we can see ourselves at the end of the weekend in the top six, that would be a great result. We’ll see what we can do.”
Breen represents the team’s best hope given his two previous podiums in Finland, and the fact Millener has unleashed the shackles and told him “to throw caution to the wind”.
“There’s no doubt around what the idea is and what the intention is,” Breen said of his boss’ instructions.
“It’s great in some respects. It’s the golden carrot everyone really wants. There’s nothing to worry about. It was similar enough in Estonia honestly. That was the way we headed into it but unfortunately what happened, happened.
“I still really enjoyed the rest of the weekend; our speed was good with the road position so I’m just trying to take that into the event here. Start strong again and see what we can do.”