A busy year for M-Sportby Rob Widdows on 28th February 2014
You may be looking forward to a busy season. You may, like the guys at Red Bull, already be feeling the pressure. So much to do and so little time. Motor racing, especially at its highest levels, moves like an express train on a mission.
Spare a thought then for Malcolm Wilson.
Apart from being one of the friendliest, most communicative people in the sport, this dynamic former rally star is surfing the crest of a wave. Not only has his M-Sport team built the new GT3 Bentleys - and the engineers at Crewe are very particular about who they work with - their World Rally Championship teams underpin the series. This year they are running two ‘works’ teams as well as overseeing the Fords of various privateers. They are busy, busy boys up in Cumbria right now.
Normally you’d meet Mr Wilson in a wet, muddy service area and likely as not somebody at M-Sport would be handing round mugs of tea. Although this super-professional team is now big business, it still has that family feel that many of us associate with days gone by. Before looking at the 2014 WRC season thus far let us take a step back to the end of last year when M-Sport swapped the mud for the desert.
It was a little odd, last December in Abu Dhabi, to see Malcolm out of context. At the same time as preparing for the 2014 WRC season, which began just a month later in Monte Carlo, here he was presiding over the maiden race of the GT3 Bentley. Working closely with Bentley Motorsport boss Brian Gush, this was M-Sport’s first ever foray into circuit racing.
“They gave us tough targets on weight, power and aerodynamics,” he observed, “but the prime target was ‘to make it win’ and I’m confident we can do that. We have done it for customers before and we can do it again.
"Obviously I have always been focused on rallying but there’s plenty of race experience within M-Sport and I was very pleased with our performance in Abu Dhabi. I can see why people get as hooked on this as they are for rallying.”
M-Sport’s biggest customer has been Ford, for whom Wilson has run rally teams since 1997. However Ford withdrew its ‘manufacturer support’ from the WRC in 2013 and M-Sport goes into a new season with two ‘independent’ teams, one led by Robert Kubica, and a second squad for Mikko Hirvonen and Elfyn Evans. Both teams run the Fiesta RS WRC against strong opposition from Volkswagen and Citroën.
After Rally Sweden Jari-Matti Latvala tops the table for Volkswagen ahead of team-mate Sébastien Ogier and Citroën’s Mads Østberg while both Hirvonen and Evans have points on the board. Kubica has shown spectacular speed – although mistakes that he describes as “a little bit crazy” have kept him out of the points thus far.
WRC standings after Rally Sweden
1. Jari-Matti Latvala, Volkswagen 40pts
2. Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen 35pts
3. Mads Østberg, Citroën 30pts
4. Andreas Mikkelsen, Volkswagen 24pts
5. Bryan Bouffier, Ford 18pts
6. Kris Meeke, Citroën 17pts
7. Mikko Hirvonen, Ford 13pts
8. Ott Tänak, Ford 10pts
9. Elfyn Evans, Ford 8pts
10. Henning Solberg, Ford 6pts
“We have to face facts,” says Wilson, ever the pragmatist, “Sébastien Ogier is going to be the favourite at every rally – but with Robert on board and Mikko back in the team we have an incredibly strong driver line-up. I’m just so impressed by the way Robert works, the hours he puts in, the attention to detail, he’s a top sportsman and he can win a rally this year. He will be a great mentor for Elfyn and – if we can put pressure on the likes of Ogier – then we can capitalise on any mistakes and get the results.
"The WRC has been through some difficult times but with Hyundai back in, with Citroën, Volkswagen and ourselves, there are better times ahead and we have something to build on from here. The WRC looks stronger than it has for many years.”
Meanwhile testing continues with Bentley, ahead of the first Blancpain race at Monza in April, and next stop for the rally teams is Mexico at the beginning of March. Days off are going to be a rare luxury at M-Sport this season. That’s life at the highest level, whether you are running a Ford Fiesta, a Bentley or a hybrid Grand Prix car.