Ford of Europe has announced today that it is ending its association with the World Rally Championship after 32 consecutive seasons and breaking ties with its competition team M-Sport, which has prepared the cars since 1997.
“Ford has a long and proud history in the WRC and this was not an easy decision,” said Roelant de Waard, vice president, Marketing, Sales and Service. “At this time, however we determined that it was better for the company and the Ford brand to reduce our commitment to the WRC and deploy our resources in other areas.”
The announcement means that the existing contract between Ford Europe and M-Sport will be terminated a year before it was due to expire at the end of the 2013 season. While this is likely to prove costly for the Cologne-based manufacturer, it is clear that the deep-rooted financial problems we reported last week have influenced the decision to quit.
Echoing the sentiments expressed by BMW last week, when it withdrew all future funding from the Prodrive-developed MINI WRC programme, de Waard added: “…we have reached a point where the Ford Fiesta has become the car of choice in rallying, and we want to see this continue in the future.”
Ford has been a perennial in top-flight rallying since the 1950s and established an in-house competition department in the latter part of the 1960s under Stuart Turner, the svengali behind the Mini-Cooper’s successes on the Monte Carlo Rally and other international events.
This team became the powerhouse of the sport throughout the 1970s with its Escort RS1600 and later RS1800 cars becoming the most numerous and successful of the era, winning the manufacturers’ and the drivers’ titles in 1979 with Swedish ace Björn Waldegård leading the squad.
The arrival of a new generation of four-wheel-drive turbocharged cars in the early 1980s saw Ford take a brief sabbatical – although Ari Vatanen brilliantly held out to claim the 1981 drivers’ championship in a privately-entered Escort. The works team and Stuart Turner returned with a Group B supercar – the RS200 – in 1986 but the category was killed off at the end of the car’s first season and focus shifted to the production-based Group A regulations with the Ford Sierra Cosworth.
The Sierra was never able to mount a world championship challenge against either the mighty Lancia Delta Integrale or the dramatic influx of Japanese manufacturers that swept the WRC in the late 1980s. In 1991-92 Ford developed a new, compact 4WD Group A car in the Escort Cosworth, which showed promise but was ultimately left trailing by the likes of Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru.
In 1997 a new era began with former Ford driver Malcolm Wilson creating M-Sport as a dedicated, specialist operation to develop and run Ford’s WRC campaign. The Escort soldiered on for two more seasons while M-Sport developed Ford’s first genuine high-tech WRC Car in the revolutionary shape of the Focus.
The Ford Focus campaign of 1999-2003 was one of the best-funded ever seen in professional rallying, with both an enormous test and development budget together with top-name drivers in Colin McRae and, later, Carlos Sainz. Even in an era of profligate spending for Ford of Europe in motor sport with its Formula One, rally, touring car and grass roots programmes, the Focus campaign was monumental but ultimately failed to deliver the required results.
Despite gaining the prodigious talents of young Estonian ace Markko Märtin, Ford’s WRC programme was on the receiving end of some draconian budget cuts long before the arrival of the second generation car in 2006. By then Märtin was gone and neither mercurial double champion Marcus Grönholm or the reliable Mikko Hirvonen could offer any resistance to the pre-eminence of Sébastien Loeb – although they did scoop the manufacturers’ trophy in 2006 and 2007.
At no time in the five years since then has Ford ever looked likely to challenge Loeb and Citroën, while Ford has repeatedly slashed its budgets while complaining about the woeful efforts the WRC was making to promote itself. It was right to do so; all the points raised against the WRC by Ford were the very factors that were sending it into obscurity – but one always felt that, had they been winning, those complaints would have been less vociferous.
As it is, Ford has been a rank outsider in a two-horse race for many seasons now. At a time when Volkswagen is preparing to enter the WRC with a programme to rival that of Ford in the late 1990s it has clearly decided that another probable defeat in a three-horse race is best to be avoided.
Doubtless M-Sport will continue to develop the Fiesta in WRC and WRC2 guise, and it has a range of front-wheel-drive variants for use in WRC3. In domestic and regional championships around the world there will be competitive M-Sport Fiestas for many seasons to come but this really does mark the end of an era.
With some justification, rally fans around the world will be feeling as Formula One fans would if Ferrari were to jack it all in. The WRC has lost a wayward icon – but an icon nonetheless.