Operating on a shoe-string budget, up against richer and more established rivals, this is how M-Sport surprised everyone to produce a fairytale season. By Luke Barry.
Nobody deserved it more than Malcolm Wilson. The former driver turned team-owner has been operating his M-Sport division in the World Rally Championship (WRC) since 1997, but that elusive world drivers’ title had so far eluded him.
He had come one corner-cut away with Colin McRae, one point shy with Marcus Gronholm and one nose-dive off with Mikko Hirvonen, but 20 years on from Ford giving his team their first proper contract, his fortunes were about to change.
The 2017 WRC season was keenly anticipated but few could’ve predicted just how special it would be. New technical regulations saw the cars beefed up: power increased from 300 bhp to 380 and a new aero package made vehicles wider, lower and feature much larger rear spoilers and diffusers.
This balanced the playing field with Wilson’s privately run M-Sport team, Hyundai, Citroen and returnees Toyota all brining brand new cars to the season-opening Monte-Carlo Rally. The notable absence of Volkswagen, who had dominated the championship between 2013 and 2016, also played its part in creating such an unpredictable season.
VW’s main man Sebastien Ogier had spoken towards the end of 2016 about how he wanted to work with Wilson one day. Little did he know that a matter of months down the line he’d be starting the 2017 season in one of his Fiesta WRC’s.
Recruiting a four-time World Champion presented M-Sport with its best opportunity yet at taking a drivers title. The squad won the manufacturer’s series in 2006 and 2007 with Finns Gronholm and Hirvonen but that was with the backing of Ford. The blue oval withdrew its support heading into 2013, with M-Sport failing to win a rally since. Although the team still receive technical support from Ford, they are operating on a shoe-string budget compared to their rivals.
It’s when all this is contextualised you realise how special Ogier’s win on the Monte was. The Frenchman wasn’t the ultimate pace setter, but was there to capitalise on Thierry Neuville’s error to win the oldest rally in the world for a fourth consecutive time. It was M-Sport’s first win since Jari-Matti Latvala in September 2012, and it would just be the beginning.
Lead driver Ogier would only go on to win one further rally, in Portugal, which, compared to his six wins of 2016 and eight of 2015, is a low score. But 2017 revealed the other hallmark of a great champion: intelligence. He used his guile and know-how to consistently build up his points tally and ensure the title went home with him, despite being miles from the ultimate pace at times.
The year would prove to be Neuville and Hyundai’s to lose. The Belgian threw the lead away on Saturday afternoon on both the first two events of the season, and would ultimately win four rallies to Ogier’s two and take the most stage wins across the year. But his own blunders and suspension failures aboard his i20 Coupe WRC at key moments would steal the world title from his grasp.
The fight was coming from all corners. Toyota’s Latvala lead the championship after a shock win in Sweden and seemed to have found the consistency to match his sublime speed, but the Finn was let down by technical issues in Toyota’s first year back in the series since 1999.
Then there was Ogier’s M-Sport teammate Ott Tanak. Wilson has nurtured the Estonian throughout his career, dropping him in and out of his team, but 2017 was Tanak’s coming of age. Looking back in retrospect, it’s incredible to think he hadn’t won a rally at the start of the year.
The win in Sardinia was the monkey off Tanak’s back in that sense, but his consistency was evident right from the first event of the year. His second of two wins was arguably the more impressive, given how different the German round of the championship is to the Italian event.
Tanak played just as much a part in M-Sport’s success as Ogier did, while Elfyn Evans also pulled his weight. The Welshman was demoted from the WRC team down to the British Rally Championship in 2016, but bounced back incredibly. After dominating the domestic series and missing out on his home event in Wales, Evans completed the British round of the WRC a year later fastest of all, becoming the first Brit to win the event since 2000.
At least one of Wilson’s Fiesta’s featured on the podium and each and every one of the 13 rounds this season, taking the top step five times. But it was the drivers title Wilson had been craving. That was the target ahead of the year, the rest was just an incredible bonus.
The final stage of Wales Rally GB was a fairy-tale. Tanak crossed the line sixth and ensured the manufacturers title was going to Cumbria. Ogier was next through, and clinched third, which was enough for him to take his fifth World Rally Championship crown with one round to spare. He isn’t the most emotional of drivers, but the tears were flowing at the stop line as the risk he had taken to join this team and the achievement he had just accomplished began to sink in. Evans taking an historic maiden win in his own backyard was the cherry on top of the cake.
M-Sport’s achievements this year are truly remarkable regardless, but considering the size of their operation their success is verging on incomprehensible. They’ve certainly set the bar high for themselves next year.