Guenther Steiner on engineering McRae's Focus WRC beast: 'It was unbelievable'

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The Ford Focus WRC was an instant hit after being designed in record time – Guenther Steiner remembers how he and the M-Sport team did it

A Ford Focus rides to victory in the Kenya's Safari Rally, the longest, hottest and toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship March 1, 1999. The Ford Martini World Rally Team drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist brought their car home over 7 minutes ahead of their nearest rival to record the first rally win for the Focus in only its third event. (photo by Ford Motor Company)

Steiner and co worked against the clock to produce the Focus WRC – with success coming fast

Ford Motor Company / Getty Images

It isn’t often that the abiding memory of a World Champion is associated almost equally with two iconic cars, but Colin McRae might just be a case in point.

Just as mentions of the 1995 WRC title–winner conjures up images of him ‘donutting’ round a service park in a 555-branded Subaru Impreza, so too is he known for threading the teardrop shaped, Martini-liveried Ford Focus through tight mountain roads and over unforgiving Kenyan terrain – as well as shunting it a few times.

The original Focus design was a huge success, performing straight away to win in its third rally, claiming 11 WRC rounds in total and coming agonisingly close to bringing McRae and his co-driver Nicky Grist the 2001 title. However, as the then-project leader and now-Haas F1 team boss Guenther Steiner described to Motor Sport, the car was designed and built in record time in the most modest of workshops – making the achievements all the more remarkable.

“It was unbelievable,” says Steiner. “This was a very small team, nothing to do with the [WRC] teams that you see now.”

The Italian made his first forays in motor sport working on Group A Lancias and Ford Escorts for the Jolly Club, eventually bringing him into contact with M-Sport’s Malcolm Wilson. When Wilson landed the contract to design and build Ford’s new Focus WRC car, he was unequivocal in recruiting his project leader.

“Malcolm knew me very well, knew what I was able to do,” says Steiner. “He said ‘I’ve got this project from Ford to develop this car, are you interested to set it up?’ I have a very good relationship with Maclolm, and I believed in what he was doing. So I said yes.”

Keeping the faith was going to be essential for Steiner and co if they were to realise Ford’s WRC dream. It might have been a big money-project, with rally star McRae lured over from Subaru by a lucrative contract, but the facilities the tiny team worked with weren’t exactly on a par with their rivals. Matters were made worse by the fact the crack squad had only nine months to take the car from the drawing board to its full debut in the 1999 Monte Carlo Rally.

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist driving their Ford Focus WRC on a stage in the 1999 Monte carlo Rally

Focus debut brought a podium until disqualification

Alamy

“When we developed it, it was a small team of not even 10 people, who had never worked together,” says Steiner.

“We didn’t have big facilities – we had rented space in Millbrook, the [Ford] proving ground,”

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“Toyota had this big facility with dynos and everything. We were in a rented office, rented workshop, putting together a WRC car for the first time.

“Unfortunately, the chief designer at the time – Christian Beyer – passed away a few years ago. He was the guy who for one year worked day and night, the guy’s mission in life was to do this thing – and he did a really good job.”

And so he did. The Focus was a compact, aggressive design and immediately competitive.

Powered by a turbocharged Zetec E 16V engine putting out 300bhp, the road car’s stiff body shell lent itself well to a competition car design. What also helped was the teardrop shape being aerodynamically compliant, having an drag co-efficient of 0.36.

Additionally, the car also borrowed from its road-going counterpart the advanced rear multi-link suspension. Unusually sophisticated for a street car available to the public, giving Ford an advantage under WRC rules which forbade radical alterations to the suspension of the road vehicle on which the rally car was based. Therefore Ford customers got a taste of WRC technology in their family car.

AUTO - WRC 1999 - ACROPOLIS 990606 - PHOTO FRANCOIS BAUDIN/DPPI COLIN MCRAE (GB) - GUNTHER STEINER / FORD - AMBIANCE

Steiner on McRae: “He took everything to the limit”

FRANCOIS BAUDIN/DPPI

Also present was a sequential six-speed gearbox and a pair of active hydro-electric differentials for the front and centre axle with a mechanical differential at the rear.

Steiner articulates the challenges of converting a road-going Focus into an all-conquering WRC beast.

“The regulation was based a lot on the road car, so the biggest challenge to find way around this to introduce technologies,” he explains.

“If you go and turbocharge a normally aspirated engine, you run into issues. They are not made for the internal pressures of a turbo-charger – the blocks start to crack with the increased heat etc – so developing a turbocharger to put on that engine [was a huge challenge].

“Then also to get body shells made without the stuff you don’t need, because otherwise you buy a Focus, and then you have to strip it down for two weeks. It’s all this getting the big corporate involved, to help you out to give you a good basis.”

Steiner and his team tackled the formidable project with aplomb though, producing the tidy Focus WRC package. As well as having a competitive car, M-Sport had hired arguably the handiest charger in the business to drive the project both literally and laterally. Steiner is in no doubt of the benefit of having McRae and his unrelenting approach on board to test the Focus.

“It was all about Colin,” says Steiner on developing a car around the flying Scot. “He was a superstar, he was the best at the time, you know? So obviously, what he said, went.

“The car was pretty good, and Colin enjoyed that. He took everything to the limit, and that helped us as well, because he was never shy to tell you his opinion. If something was wrong, you knew it was wrong – you got it in specific words, which helped to move forward.”

The progress was startling. Just nine months after the bods were scrutinising a blank sheet of paper at Milbrook, the car was competitive from the off with McRae and Grist securing a third place in the 1999 season-opening Monte Carlo Rally – until they were was disqualified.

Colin McRae of Scotland in a Ford Focus WRC slides his car through the wet conditions before retiring with electrical failure on the first full day of the Rally of New Zealand outside Auckland 16 July 1999. World Champion Tommi Makinen of Finland in a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO leads Frenchman Didier Auriol by 1 minute and 15 seconds after nine of the day's ten special stages with Finland's Juha Kankkunen in a Subaru Impreza WRC 1 minute 27 seconds behind the leader in third position. AFP PHOTO/Andrew CORNAGA (Photo by ANDREW CORNAGA / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CORNAGA/AFP via Getty Images)

Steiner says implementing competition technologies in a road car design was the biggest issue facing the M-Sport design team

ANDREW CORNAGA/AFP via Getty Images

A water pump placed in a different location to that as displayed on its homologation form led to the exclusion, but it was clear the car had pace. Steiner believes that the disqualification was actually indicative of the Focus and its design team’s innovative qualities.

“It really pushed the envelope,” he asserts. “If you look at that car now, everybody followed. Just look at the rear wing. It was exploited to be a real rear wing and not just a winglet.

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“The car was very, very strong too straight away – it was actually a bit overweight because of that. I think that was the most important thing. We had some good electronic engineers too with the active differential and all that good stuff, which helped a lot as well.”

It was just as well – despite a characteristic recce prang meaning he started the car’s third–ever WRC round with a broken thumb, McRae traversed the none-more-tricky terrain of Kenya to win.

“We won the Safari – it was unbelievable,” says Steiner, unable to hide his smile as recalls the victory. “This was a very small team, nothing to do with the [WRC] teams that you see now.”

The car would win again next time out again with McRae, the Scot eventually finishing sixth in the championship that year. Five more wins over the next two seasons saw him come within a whisker of the ‘01 title, but for a terrifying crash on Rally GB whilst leading.

By this point though Steiner had departed to help run the other big Ford project in the shape of its Jaguar F1 effort, but there’s a special place in his heart for the Focus WRC. He believes had M-Sport been given a bit more time, it could have achieved even more.

AUTO - WRC 2001 - GREAT BRITAIN RALLY 011125 - PHOTO: FRANCOIS FLAMAND / DPPI COLIN McRAE - NICKY GRIST / FORD FOCUS WRC - ACTION

McRae lost out on the 2001 WRC title to Richard Burns by two points

FRANCOIS FLAMAND / DPPI

“For me in my career, it was the most important project,” he says. “It was my first opportunity to head something up. I think it made me what I am. I got a lot of respect, there were [before the project started] a lot of naysayers because we had a small team, small facilities.

“Now you can look back and say, for nine months, it was a pretty good car, because we won the third rally. But going back, if you would have had another six months of development, we could have won the championship.

 

“In the beginning, we just didn’t have enough time to develop the car, to test the car. Because we got only nine months, we retired from a few rallies, there were mistakes made, and you cannot just keep up with the momentum and you fall back.

“For sure, it was frustrating that we didn’t win the title. But when you look back now at what we achieved, it was pretty good.”