In quitting the WRC, Ford of Europe has elected to break its contract with M-Sport, the team which has built and run its cars since 1997, with a year still to go.
Clearly there will be some financial compensation for Malcolm Wilson and his Cumbrian concern, but the team – and its suppliers and staff – will no doubt have a troubling few weeks ahead.
“I would like to thank Ford of Europe for their enthusiastic support and the faith shown in the team over the past 16 seasons. We understand that tough decisions have had to be made and look forward to continuing our strong technical partnership into the future,” Wilson was quoted as saying in today’s mutual announcement.
In the short term, M-Sport will weather the storm reasonably well. Throughout its time running the works cars in the WRC, Wilson’s organisation has enjoyed an enormously profitable business from building, servicing and selling Ford rally cars for a host of disciplines.
Customer-owned WRC cars have competed in national and regional championships around the world as well as in the world championship itself, plus there is now a complete staircase for drivers and teams in M-Sport’s range of Fiesta rally cars which begins with the humble R1 ‘grass roots’ car to the more potent R2 and R3 front-wheel-drive machinery.
Furthermore the architecture of the current Fiesta WRC has been developed into the ‘Regional Rally Car’ platform: a basic package which can be tailored into either WRC or Super 2000 spec for competing in the FIA’s big regional series around the world.
Let’s not forget also the less regulated cars that have been campaigned by Marcus Grönholm and others in rallycross, and that have featured in Ken Block’s celebrated Gymkhana movies.
At the Paris Motor Show last month it was also revealed the Fiesta Regional Rally Car would provide the foundations for an R5 model to enter the WRC2.
When launching the car, M-Sport’s commercial director John Steele said: “We are predicting that the build numbers will be similar to the S2000 and we are working to make the car as economical as possible – the target is to make it half the price of the WRC. But this will only be confirmed once the test programme has been completed.”
As such, M-Sport has plenty of business to take the sting out of Ford’s announcement, but it is going to face a much tougher world in 2013. For a start its longtime rival, Citroën Racing, is being forced to become more self-sufficient and launching a range of customer rally cars of its own, from the DS3 R3 through to a new DS3 R5.
Peugeot has also revealed its own R5 car based on the new 208 model, and already has an R2 version ready to roll. Škoda meanwhile has enjoyed one of the most successful competition programmes in modern history with its Fabia S2000 which remains a potent force and will be joined by a Volkswagen-assisted R5 car in future. And if that weren’t enough, Toyota has announced a new Yaris R1 series at the foothills of a new era in rallying.
As such, M-Sport and its Fords are no longer going to be the ‘go-to’ outfit for privateers wanting the best machinery. Also, with no manufacturer interest, the selling point to aspiring stars of buying into a relationship with one of the big names in the sport will not be there.
Let’s face it – on the strength of results at the top level in recent years, a customer might well be swayed by Citroën’s record over Ford in the WRC or by the prolific successes of both Škoda and Peugeot in recent seasons.
If things are likely to get tough in 2013 they will almost certainly get tougher unless M-Sport’s commercial department can woo another motor manufacturer before long. Between the abrupt end of Subaru’s WRC programme and the smaller-scale reboot with MINI, Prodrive suffered a decimation of its workforce – and it is that which will doubtless be keeping Malcolm Wilson awake at night in the aftermath of Ford’s withdrawal.