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GP Week : Issue 107
So long, farewell W ales Rally GB will be the end of the regime in which the current formula of World Rally Cars have been allowed to compete in the World Rally championship. One manufacturer – Ford – has been represented on every round of the championship since the World Rally Car formula went live at Monte Carlo in 1997. For two years Ford campaigned Escort cars, which were converted from their existing Group A specification to take advantage of the changes permitted under the new rules. Then for the third year of the series, 1999, they arrived on the scene with the Focus. 2010 therefore has been the 12th year in which the Focus was the rally flagship of the company, a model which during its lifetime was reworked in two major upgrades, for the 2003 and the 2006 seasons. The World Rally Car rules were conceived from the outset to allow manufacturers who produce cars with a less than ideal basic specification for sport to compete on equal terms with those whose production cars were initially more suitable. The formula was a great success. In the end no fewer than 10 manufacturers produced World Rally Cars that the FIA homologated and, between them, there were a total of 14 different World Rally Car models seen in competition. This initiative was coupled with a planned expansion of the world championship itself. The FIA demanded that only those manufacturers who had entered the world series, or undertook to do so, could homologate a World Rally Car. This rule itself was responsible for making it possible that up to seven different manufacturers were registered for the championship at any one time during the 12-year period. The man who came in at the start and stayed the distance was Malcolm Wilson, whose team M-Sport had already been active at World Championship level in the ‘90s. It was the result achieved by their private team of Escorts of Harri Rovanpera and Jarmo Kytolehto in the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1996 (both drivers headed the official works Fords for a long time) which clinched the deal that M-Sport would run the official Ford world championship team in 1997. Catalunya Rally 2010 was the 200th rally run under World Rally Car rules, and therefore for someone who had not missed any of them, his 200th rally running cars at this level. Malcolm Wilson reflects: "I never imagined how well this new formula would turn out. In 1997 we were really using a kind of production car, obviously with quite a few modifications but it was still based on the existing Group A car. “At the start of the formula it was only Subaru that immediately introduced a purpose-built car, but Carlos Sainz took second place overall on our first official entry, the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally. For us, the Focus was the first real change brought in by the new rules. The Focus was completely different mechanically to the old Escort. It involved changing from a north/south (longitudinal) engine configuration of the Escort into an east/west with a transverse transmission, something then completely new from a Ford point of view and a major step for us at M-Sport. We started development work on the future Focus rally car in '98 and that has been our basic World Rally Car model ever since. “For us at M-Sport there have been some very exciting periods in World Rally Car work. Obviously the first was the launch of the original Focus rally car in '99 which was immediately competitive and won outright on only its third entry, the Safari Rally. “ Then Christian Loriaux joined M-Sport as Technical Director in 2002 to develop the '03 car, which was very different in its design to earlier versions. Like the original Focus, this car was again very quick right out of the box. “ The next major step was the launch of the current car at the end of 2005, the model we call the '06. This had a lot more major changes in the design. As soon as this radically new car was finished, we had just one day testing in a forest in Cumbria and then the two rally cars were put on a plane and sent down to Rally Australia. “Both cars (Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta) set fastest stage times on that event and of course on its next appearance, the first event for Marcus Gronholm, he gave us a win in Monte Carlo. Looking back on those occasions, and especially how well the cars went on their debut, those were really great moments. When you've designed and developed a car and take it to its first event and you do fastest times ... well, that probably means more to me than the outside world can understand.” The basic World Rally Car formula was a revolution in the way that rules about car preparation were conceived. Do you think it was a good formula? “I really do. It got a lot of manufacturers coming into the sport. In due course things started to get a little bit out of hand design- wise but, to be honest, I think that's where Jacques Berger (FIA Head of Technical Department) and the technical guys from the teams together made necessary changes. The things which have been done in the last few years to bring down the cost have really helped and been a big asset. Okay, some manufacturers have now gone but many were there for several years and I know that in relative terms it is no more expensive now to do a world championship event than it was even before we got the Ford contract 15 years ago.” The World Rally Car work was the impetus behind the commercial basis of the M- Sport facility at Dovenby in Cumbria: “Our whole business model at M-Sport has changed over the years. The target for Ford, when we renewed our contract in 2004, was to start building a complete ladder of opportunity in rallying and get more Fords back on the world championship events, like we used to have in the heyday of the Escort RSs. “The recent years have been a really exciting period for us because the Fiesta programmes meant we have got that complete ladder. “Obviously this year has been really exciting because of the Fiesta Super 2000 programme as well. I think we're now up to around number 40 of those, but I never thought we'd build 97 Ford Focus World Rally Cars, in addition to the Escort WRCs. It would have been nice to get to that magic 100 Focuses made but with the Malcolm Wilson’s Ford team has been part of every WRC event of the outgoing formula. He reminisces with Martin Holmes 48