OPPORTUNITIES & KNOCKS
FORD’S RALLY BOSS, MALCOLM WILSON, WANTS THE SPORT TO NURTURE NEW TALENT; FOR WHEN HE WAS BRITAIN’S BRIGHT RALLY STAR, THE SYSTEM LET HIM DOWN. BY JOHN DAVENPORT RECOVERING FROM A LOW POINT IS
not easy, but it helps considerably when your team principal understands exactly what you are going through. Ford’s Colin McRae will vouch for that.
An unpleasant crash in Corsica last September effectively brought his challenge for the world rally championship to a halt. He had just won in Cyprus and was lying only two points behind eventual champion, Marcus Gronholm. But the remaining three rallies of the year brought the Scot only one further point The accident had knocked the stuffing out of the seemingly devil-may-care McRae.
This year did not start much better, with three retirements and a lowly placing in Sweden giving him the grand total of zero points after four rounds.
But the team’s unabashed confidence in him and determination to get the Ford Focus RS WRC on winning form was rewarded in Argentina, Cyprus and Greece. This hat-trick of wins catapulted McRae into the lead of the WRC, and no-one was more pleased for him than his boss at M-Sport, Malcolm Wilson. You do not immediately sense it, he is such a quiet character, but Malcolm is very determined about several things. The obvious ones are winning manufacturer and driver titles in the world rally championship. Less obvious is his passion about helping a young driver — or drivers — to a WRC crown. his only in talking to him about his own rally career that the depth of his feeling on this subject comes out
In 1980, his future was bright The young Cumbrian star was the only British driver regularly setting fastest stage times in the Open Championship, a very competitive series that had Finnish superstars Hannu Mikkola and An Vatanen on its roster.
A minor shunt on the final night of the Circuit of Ireland dropped his self-prepared (another string to his bow) Escort down to fourth, while a dodgy alternator cost him a points funsh in Wales. But in Scotland, he was mixing it with the Finns, once more reaffirming his talent, when he met his nemesis: a narrow concrete bridge on Inchnacardock. He broke both anldes (see sidebar, page 93) in the ensuing shunt And the momentum that he had been building since his first event in 1973, since he was 17, shuddered to a halt
He was back by the end of the year defying the early dire prognostications about his injuries, to win the Cumbria Rally. Such fortitude would have to be repeated as he regularly rebuilt a career knocked back when on the verge of cracking the world stage. Believe you me, Malcolm knew exactly what McRae was going through. That first rally was a navigational event in his native Cumbria, at the wheel of his dad’s 1300cc Escort. He finished ninth overall and first novice; good enough to convince him to build his own 1300 Escort He entered it for the Derwent Stages, his first stage event, in April 1974, and upset the apple-cart by finishing 13th and taking his class ahead of the `unbeatable’ CCC S+
Outright wins came in 1975, despite a “reliability nightmare” with an Escort Twin Cam, and it was decided the time had come for Malcolm to spread his wings.
Fatherly financial support for 1976 came with the suggestion that he should do a championship that took him out of Cumbria and the Borders. The Castrol/ Autosport series was ideal and, ironically, he won its Lakeland Stages a rally his company has now sponsored for 14 years.
Success with a Group 1 RS2000 in 1977he won the class on the Scottish and RAC saw him step up to an ex-Billy Coleman Escort RS1800 for ’78. He took to the 240bhp car like a Finn to gravel and, aged 23, was crowned the Castrol/ Autosport champion. Wilson’s talent was now attracting attention: from international
co-drivers 1976 RAC winner Stuart Pegg landed him a couple of runs in a South African Escort, while Terry Harryman guided him to fourth on the Ulster Rally and from Ford.
But nothing was handed to him on a plate. He would have to survive from the crumbs that fell from the top table either that or barge his way into the party. For the Blue Oval could call on their Finns to spearhead the Open campaign. To join them, you had to beat them. It was as simple, as tough, as that.
Wilson’s deal for 1979 was a semi-works Escort RS, sponsored by Thomas Motors and Total for the Open Championship. He was in good company: his team-mate was another young charger, someone called Henri Toivonen. On the Welsh Rally, Malcolm was third, three places ahead of Toivonen, while on the Scottish he
was second, four places ahead of Mildcola. He backed up these fine performances by winning the Castrol/ Autosport title for the second time, in his own Escort.
His reward fiir this brilliant year? He had to prepare his own Escort for another attempt at the Open series in 1980.
Ford had stopped entering an official team and instead were taking time out to develop a new car. But they were giving tacit support to David Sutton, who was running Escorts for Vatanen in the WRC and Open series, and for Mikkola when his deal with Mercedes allowed. Wilson’s accident meant he was unable to prove his point against two of the best drivers in the world and make the big jump to a works seat. It was not all bad news, though, as he signed up with the Rothmans team for 1981, alongside
Pentti Airilckala. On the schedule were a handful of European WRC events, plus the Open. Results did not come easily, and the WRC outings were put down to experience. But some sterling drives on the Open brought him fourth place overall.
The momentum was building again. Gradually.
He turned down an offer from Vauxhall and stayed faithful to Ford, who handed him a testing contract for its new RS1700T. A works deal was finally beckoning for 1983.
That was the good news. The bad news was that RS 1700T was canned and replaced by the ill-fated Group A Escort RS 1600i. Alongside co-driver Phil Short, Malcolm retired with mechanical failure from five of the six Open Championship rounds in 1983. Once again, he had to take
things into his own hands, buying for 1984 the ex-works quattro in which Stig Blomqvist had won the RAC Rally. Immediately he was challenging the Finns again, his career rekindled. Despite some unreliability he won twice, once ahead of Michele Mouton.
The wins kept coming in 1985 — the National Breakdown, Welsh and Scottish — and he led the Manx International in a works quattro Si until a clipped kerb led to impacts with several walls. The following Per Eklund termed it, ‘An Fl accident. First bend I see suspension, next bend engine, next bend car.”
Wilson prefers to remember the good points: “Those two seasons in the quattro gave me more satisfaction than any other in terms of mastering a car.” Teams were gearing up for their programmes based on Group B and young men that could pedal
a 4WD car like Malcolm could were in demand. His first loyalty lay with Ford for whom he gave the RS200 its maiden victory, on the 1985 Lindisfarne Rally. But then I persuaded him to try a MG Metro 6R4. He drove it all day at Gaydon, where it went like a train. On the rough, its suspension was not in the same class as that of the RS200, but the engine had no turbo lag and the gearbox was uncomplicated. He decided to take my offer and drove the Metro throughout 1986. It is a shame we were unable to provide him with the same reliability he’d enjoyed at Gaydon.
The real bad news, though, was that Group B was banned at the end of the year. Malcolm was left high and dry. Again. He did three national rallies with the Metro in 1987, winning two by large margins and finishing 13,4
third on the Manx after a puncture had dropped him to 78th. He got some drives with Peugeot GB too, in a 205 1.9 GTI, but it was bitsand-pieces stuff. So when he was approached by Vauxhall with a two-year deal, he didn’t refuse this time even though it was only for a two-wheel-drive Kadett/Astra.
He was rebuilding. Again.
He astounded the pundits in 1989 by finishing third in New Zealand and sixth in Australia results he backed up with 10th, best two-wheel-drive car, on the RAC Rally.
Ford’s Peter Ashcroft lured him back with the suggestion that he could do the British championship in a two-wheel-drive Sierra and move into the Siena Cosworth 4×4 for a WRC programme. Away from home, the Sierra was alarmingly unreliable. Sound familiar? On the Tour of Corsica,
it locked into reverse entering parc fermi, which resulted in Malcolm having to reverse over the start ramp in the morning. He so nearly earned undying fame when FISA’s Jean-Marie Balestre failed to appreciate the car could only move backwards and stood behind it as it was flagged away. Malcolm finished fifth there to add to a seventh in Monte Carlo and 10th in San Remo. Not bad, but hardly the results his talent merited. He devoted the whole of 1992 to test-driving Ford’s new car. Sound familiar? This time, though, it wasn’t canned. The Escort Cosworth made its debut in 1993, Malcolm first driving it in anger in Sweden. He set fastest time on the opening two stages, but an accident on the third ended his long-held ambition to win that event. However, he did collect a third on the RAC Rally and was
sixth on the Acropolis.
His priorities were now shifting. He stayed home in 1994 to win the British championship. But more importantly, he had seized the chance to build up his business. His Escort Cosworths were cleaning up in Portugal, the Middle East and Italy. Momentum was building. At the same time, the fortunes of a rudderless Boreham were waning. It was about to be shut down.
It was a fantastic vindication of Wilson’s extra-driving activities when Martin Whitaker took responsibility for Ford’s motorsport programmes in 1996 and placed the rally part of it with Malcolm. He would run the new WRC Escort On November 18, M-Sport was formed and Wilson retired from driving. He was 40. Now employing drivers against who’m he had once competed, he
has not forgotten the crisis points that set back his own career. Better than anyone, he appreciates the need to give young stars proper machinery, a consistent formula and the chance to do a wide variety of events. “There’s too much talk about drivers being good only on one surface,” he says. “Hannu proved that wrong long ago. If you are young and quick, the surface does not make much difference. What really matters is your experience on that event”
Wilson knows how easily a career can be deflected by setbacks and is striving to ensure that does not happen to his charges.
He knows, too, how difficult it is to run a successful team. As a driver, outside influences conspired against him. As a team boss, his destiny is in his own hands. A fact he is making the most of.