With refreshing candour, Jari-Matti Latvala announced in France that he is currently perched on the horns of a dilemma – should he renounce his undisputed Number 1 status at Ford in 2013 to join the Volkswagen ‘superteam’? His fear is that there are no guarantees of Ford continuing with its WRC programme beyond the end of its current deal with M-Sport, ending in a year’s time.
But are his fears justified? In a word: yes.
To many, many fans around the world, the idea of Ford turning its back on rallying is akin to Ferrari calling time on its F1 team. It has been omnipresent in the sport for 60 years, won countless rallies and produced a series of sporting icons.
Yet cast aside the era of global domination that Ford achieved in the heady days of the 1970s, when Stuart Turner ran the show and BDA-engined Escorts snarled and barked in the forest, and there really is little to show in the trophy cabinet against what has been spent. When you the situation from the standpoint of a Ford accountant, the return is lamentable.
Those dollars are all-important. Ford’s sales fell almost 10% in Europe during the first half of 2012 to reach its lowest level in 17 years and a predicted $1bn (£630m) loss in revenues. Factories are going to close, and essentials such as energy consumption are being targeted in the remaining factories – so an expensive WRC programme of, say, £30 million per year looks like a hard sell.
Ford’s budget has itself been repeatedly slashed over the years since its high watermark in the days of McRae, Sainz and the first generation Focus WRC… by 40 per cent in 2004 and by a similar figure again in 2008. By comparison VW is believed to have spent 100 million Euros just getting to the startline with its Polo WRC – and will throw whatever is needed at the competition budget to succeed… including Latvala’s salary.
Tellingly, since 2009, motor sport no longer has its own director within Ford’s European management structure – Gerard Quinn is but a manager (and a renowned budgetary hitman), who reports in to both the Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Service and to the Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs.
Success on the stages is one thing, therefore, but if taking part in rallies is failing to shift metal off the forecourt then there’s no reason for Ford to devote a hefty chunk of its budget to the WRC. The one thing that Quinn has in common with Ford’s earlier motor sport directors such as Mark Deans and Martin Whitaker is a preoccupation with how badly the WRC has done at selling itself.
Whether it’s service parks that are hidden away out of the public eye rather than encouraging the locals in to explore, the lunacy of holding the Rally of Italy in Sardinia rather than the mainland or the absence of investment in online access to the sport… year after year the Ford bosses have watched millions of dollars getting thrown into the weeds.
Since the end of 2011, Ford has had to carry this cost without Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority funding. The cars carry Castrol colours but BP is a production partner to Ford Motor Company, meaning that a lot of what is believed to be a notional $10 million ‘sponsorship’ is in fact made up from deals that help deliver cars more cheaply rather than direct cash to the rally programme.
A year ago, Ford renewed its wedding vows to the WRC with a 24-month agreement to M-Sport. Gerard Quinn was absolutely transparent about the rationale, however:
“We had to be confident about the stability of the championship and to ensure it continues to provide great value and increased exposure globally,” he said. “We discussed it with our stakeholders and after receiving such assurances we look forward to focusing on competition once again.”
What happened? The WRC promotion imploded a month later, with the 2012 series taking place in a virtual blackout. As a result, Quinn made noises about switching to a cost-effective and well-promoted effort in the IRC but this is no longer available. So all eyes at Ford’s offices in Cologne will be on what Red Bull is going to make of the job of selling the WRC worldwide.
In three months’ time, Red Bull Media House will open its account as the WRC promoter with the biggest event on the calendar, the Monte Carlo Rally. That one event must set the tone for the year as a whole in how the WRC presents itself to the world from that point onward.
Let’s assume that they’re starting with a clean sheet of paper, not only developing online platforms for the WRC but also attacking all the TV stations that they are advertising with around the world, massaging the American interest in rallycross and working together with the teams to ensure maximum effort in all promotional activity.
After that, however, the job of keeping Ford in the WRC must rest with Malcolm Wilson and the M-Sport team. They have to give Gerard Quinn the tools that he needs to go to the accountants in Cologne and justify committing to the series until 2015 at least.
The revenues that M-Sport brings from selling and servicing customer cars in the WRC, WRC2, WRC3, regional and national series might give leverage to ease the pain – although it must now face competition in the marketplace from Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Citroën.
More importantly, the WRC programme itself needs to show signs of success, and produce either Ford’s first drivers’ championship victory since 1981 or its first manufacturers’ crown since 2007 – with or without Jari-Matti Latvala.