The battle to sign Ogier

The multiple champion’s wish to stay with M-Sport faces financial hurdles

Strange how one weekend in motor sport – even separated by a continent and eight hours of time difference – can define the shape of a season. The Japanese Grand Prix will be remembered as the moment when Lewis Hamilton (barring any kind of disaster) secured the 2017 Formula 1 title as Ferrari’s challenge wilted again.

And during that very weekend, Sébastien Ogier effectively did the same thing in the World Rally Championship, in this instance by finishing second to Kris Meeke in Spain as the rival Hyundais ran into trouble.

Both these multiple champions are on top of their games, yet both acknowledge that they owe a lot to the misfortunes of their key rivals, who have not only stumbled with mechanical reliability but also suffered from fits of impetuousness that have led to premature retirements.

There’s one big difference, though. Hamilton has generally benefited from having one of the best two cars, whereas Ogier’s advantage – if there is one at all – has been less clear-cut.

Of course, the 2017 Fiesta RS WRC is a very good machine, otherwise there is no way that it would be leading both world championships. But it’s equally clear that, without full manufacturer support, there are going to be disadvantages for M-Sport compared to its factory rivals, despite the wealth of experience that the Cumbrian outfit has accumulated. Imagine Hamilton leading the F1 standings in a Williams, for example, and it’s probably a closer parallel.

The young Hamilton, of course, spent plenty of time in Cumbria in the past. He was good friends with Matthew Wilson (M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson’s son) when they were both competing in Formula Renault, and used to pay visits to the Wilson family home in Cockermouth.

The Wilsons and the Hamiltons inhabit different worlds now, but both seem certain to become champions by the end of the year, albeit by very different means.

What happens after that, though, will be fascinating. Ford recently announced that the company would next year be suspending its factory involvement in the World Rallycross Championship, a programme that has been spearheaded by Ken Block. However, Ford’s global performance director Dave Pericak was keen to reassure everyone that: “We remain absolutely committed to hot hatches and all things performance.”

What the company didn’t say was what Ford would be doing instead to demonstrate that commitment. But with a sizeable chunk of budget saved, and Malcolm Wilson lobbying hard to get Ford officially back into the WRC, could those spare dollars be on their way to Cumbria?

For now, Pericak won’t be drawn.

There’s a strong argument to suggest that Ford doesn’t need to invest any money in M-Sport because the company is getting so much positive publicity for free. But the stark truth is that 2017 is a one-off, and unless Ford puts something in, it is unlikely to see anything out again.

Ogier would like to stay and Wilson would like him to remain as well – but not at any cost. M-Sport’s team principal has already categorically stated that he’s not going to do anything that jeopardises the long-term future of his company. Because to keep M-Sport profitable, Wilson doesn’t want – or need – to spend a lot of money on the WRC programme.

The real profit is made in Cockermouth by the plethora of R5 and R2 cars sold – and these are now sufficiently well established to stand on their own two feet, with or without the halo effect of a WRC programme. Look at Skoda: sales and performance of the Fabia R5 (the WRC2 class winner again this year) don’t seem even remotely affected by the absence of a WRC equivalent.

Wilson had to dig very deep into his own pockets to get Ogier this year, with his heart probably ruling his head for once. You won’t find anyone more passionately committed to rallying, but he’s unlikely to sign Ogier again unless he can find some financial help.

And he can’t even sell much sponsorship to recoup some of the cost, because part of the deal with the Frenchman is that Red Bull covers a huge chunk of the car. But, of course, he always knew that signing Ogier was a calculated loss leader: the bait to lure Ford back in. And now is the crucial moment when we see if that gamble has paid off.

Citroën is pushing hard to get the 2013-2016 champion into its car, and Kris Meeke’s fantastic win in Spain showed that, under the right circumstances, the French team could be a tempting proposition if the price is right.

M-Sport’s other driver, Ott Tänak – arguably the star of the season – has been poached by Toyota, so unless Wilson is given the financial wherewithal to fight back, there’s a chance that he could lose both.

That would then probably leave M-Sport with a much cheaper driver line-up of Elfyn Evans and someone like Teemu Suninen: promising, certainly, but hardly the complete package that’s proved so devastatingly effective in 2017.

As Citroën has demonstrated, success takes a long time to build up, but it can unravel surprisingly quickly – especially when a star driver departs.

For the Ford Motor Company, there’s still a chance to become the most successful manufacturer in the history of rallying: they’re currently on 86 wins compared to 98 for Citroën. But it has to act right now to hang onto its most prized assets – and stop the gap from becoming insurmountable.