Stobart Ford World Rally Team

BP Ford World Rally Team

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team which was also known as the BP Ford World Rally Team until mid-2007 and the Ford Motor Co team prior to 2005 is Ford of Europe's factory World Rally Championship team. In its current form it has been a competitor since the 1997 season, when Ford Motorsports selected Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport company to run its team, entering the Ford Escort World Rally Car. The team took their first victory in the 1997 Acropolis Rally.

Personnel

Malcolm Wilson is the team director.

History

1998 season

1998 marked the final season in which the Ford Escort RS Cosworth was used, with that year's Rally of Great Britain its last event, ending the model name's thirty year association with factory-backed international rallying. The team's drivers were a pair carried over from previous seasons: four-time world champion Finn, Juha Kankkunen, who had joined the team as a refuge from his former banned Toyota team as a replacement for a disappointing Armin Schwarz mid-way through the 1997 season, and Belgian Bruno Thiry, a championship mainstay and veteran pilot of previous Ford rallying models, including the Escort RS Cosworth.

As events transpired, neither driver would manage to mark the Escort's swansong year with a final victory. The Escort still proved, frustratingly for the championship hopeful Kankkunen, persistently ineffective in the task of scoring points on the asphalt rounds of the calendar, woes for which neither could Thiry's performances compensate. A late injury to the Belgian provided an early season cameo role for 1981 world champion in an Escort, Ari Vatanen, on the Safari Rally, who finished third on that event, behind compatriot Kankkunen and first-time world rally victor for Mitsubishi, Richard Burns. Kankkunen eventually scored sufficient points and podiums, including second ahead of Thiry in Britain, to finish fourth in the 1998 drivers' standings, although with the announcement of the looming high-profile arrival of Colin McRae to the team for the following year, this success did not deter the Finn from deciding to leave the M-Sport outfit, both he and Thiry proceeding to sign Subaru contracts for 1999.

1999 season

The Ford Focus WRC replaced the Ford Escort WRC for 1999. It debuted on the Monte Carlo Rally in January, with Colin McRae and Simon Jean-Joseph as drivers of the two Martini Racing-liveried works machines. It set several fastest stage times and McRae finished a provisional third place on the stages, but he was later to be disqualified after they were found to be using an illegal water pump. McRae gave the Focus its first win two events later on the Safari Rally, Kenya, finishing over 15 minutes ahead of the second placed Toyota of Didier Auriol. Although McRae then immediately followed up this success with victory on the next round in Portugal, the Scot's title chances faded amid reliability problems with the new car and a series of costly shunts. McRae finished sixth in the drivers' standings.

During this debut season many drivers drove the second Focus of the team - Jean-Joseph for some tarmac events, Petter Solberg and Thomas Rådström on loose-surface rounds and Piero Liatti for the San Remo tarmac roads.

2000 season

His former role at Toyota now redundant after his former team's withdrawal as manufacturers' champions at the end of the 1999 season, double world champion Spaniard Carlos Sainz chose to return to his 1997 team for the 2000 season, joining the incumbent Colin McRae. Both drivers drove the Focus WRC in all of the events of the season. They finished 3rd and 4th respectively in the drivers championship, albeit only managing to bring Ford 2nd place in the manufacturers title race, an eventual second to Peugeot. Once again, bit-part driver Piero Liatti was called upon to help improve Ford's points returns on asphalt.

2001 season

McRae and Sainz were joined for the 2001 season by a regular third driver in the returning Ford favourite of the early to mid-1990s, Frenchman Francois Delecour. McRae's season oscillated between a protracted pointless run on the season's first few rounds, including retirement on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally having led the event from Tommi Mäkinen, and the success of three consecutive victories on the Argentine, Cypriot and Greek events, the latter placing him as joint leader of the championship with Makinen, at the championship's mid-point. Having topped the standings outright entering his final home round, however, McRae led in the initial stages only to crash out of the event, allowing a consistently points-scoring Richard Burns to sneak past him for the title. Ford also lost their opportunity for the manufacturers' title on this event, as rivals Peugeot secured a decisive 1-2 finish with Marcus Grönholm and Harri Rovanperä.

Sainz, meanwhile, endured a winless but not wholly uncompetitive season, even remaining an outsider for the title entering the final event. A crash of his own put paid to such ambitions, with the Spaniard slumping to sixth place in the points standings, with 33 points.

2002 season

McRae and Sainz regrouped for both drivers' final seasons with Ford in 2002. Simultaneously, youngster Markko Märtin replaced Delecour as the team's third driver, having found himself crowded out by the presence of Richard Burns and Petter Solberg at former team, Subaru.

Sainz's third place in the championship beat his Scottish team-mate's fourth place in the standings. His only victory of the year came on that year's Rally Argentina, which he inherited after the unlikely exclusion of the both of the initially 1-2 finishing dominant works Peugeots of Marcus Grönholm and Englishman Burns. McRae began his own season with fourth place on the Rally Monte Carlo, but he suffered an injury to his hand when he crashed out on the Tour de Corse, which left him hampered and struggling to a single-point-scoring finish on the following tarmac round in Spain. Injury worries for Sainz, meanwhile, came not from himself, but in the form of long-time co-driver Luis Moya, who was forced to end his unbroken year-on-year chain of appearances with his compatriot in order to recuperate, with Marc Marti stepping in for the double world champion's home rally. Intrusive spectator parking on the event blinded Sainz, causing him to eventually crash out. With the Fords having initially dominated the stage times on the first rough gravel event of the year in Cyprus particularly through McRae, Märtin and François Duval, successive retirements left McRae as the sole occupier of the lead for the Blue Oval, which he lost after a number of unfortunate shunts which eventually left himself holding on to a mere sixth place overall, and the two factory Peugeots as 1-2 finishers on this event.

After Sainz's perhaps fortuitious Argentinian win, McRae resumed his role as rally winner on the Acropolis and Safari rallies. The first success came despite initially being unexpectedly led on the stages by an imperious Märtin, while the latter, achieved on the landmark occasion of the fifthieth running of the fabled endurance event, and its last at World Rally Championship level, in retrospect proved to be the last career victory for McRae and Welsh navigator Nicky Grist, ironically on the day on which the Scot became the first world championship driver to reach the quarter-century mark of individual WRC wins, and came to stand alone as the most successful driver in the history of the World Rally Championship.

Despite the profile of these attainments, both McRae and Sainz were to leave the team at the end of the year as team-mates to the then less seasoned Sébastien Loeb at new championship full-timers, Citroën.

2003 season

In the absence of the departed McRae and Sainz, Ford opted to promote their younger supporting drivers, Estonian Markko Märtin and Belgian François Duval, to their top two seats. A comparatively thorough redesign of the Focus debuted at the 2003 Rally New Zealand, where Märtin in particular proved immediately competitive, leading only to later be forced into retirement. The team's new leader did score his first of five career rally victories on that year's Acropolis Rally, however, (notwithstanding a dramatic mid-stage moment for he and navigator Michael Park, when the car's bonnet unexpectedly flew up), as well as becoming only the third non-Scandinavian victor of the Rally Finland, formerly the 1,000 Lakes Rally.

The junior Duval, meanwhile, as had been publicly predicted by team boss Malcolm Wilson, secured his first career podium finish on this year's Tour de Corse.

The two drivers finished the season in 4th and 9th places respectively in the drivers' standings.

2004 season

Märtin and Duval again drove the two works Fords in 2004. Märtin managed to win the French, Spanish and Mexican rallies, giving him third place in the overall championship. Both drivers left at the end of the season, to join Peugeot (Märtin) and Citroën (Duval).

2005 season

The 2005 season saw Ford take on two relatively inexperienced drivers; Finn Toni Gardemeister and Czech Roman Kresta. Gardemeister achieved podiums at the Monte Carlo Rally, Rally Sweden, Acropolis Rally and the Tour de Corse. Kresta's best individual rally result was sixth, which he achieved on five events. The duo respectively finished in 4th and 8th places in the drivers' championship standings.

2006 season

The team's entrants for the 2006 season comprised the new-look, all-Finnish team of 2000 and 2002 champion Marcus Grönholm, codriven by Timo Rautiainen, and the youngster Mikko Hirvonen, who renewed his link with the M-Sport ran team for the first time since 2003, codriven by Jarmo Lehtinen. Grönholm joined the team from Peugeot, with whom, as planned, he ended his association after the joint withdrawal from the sport of both PSA Group marques. He won his first two events for the team, on the Monte Carlo Rally and the Swedish Rally, but was closely shadowed on both of them by the two-time champion and now driver with semi-works Kronos Citroen, Sébastien Loeb, who was soon to assert himself sufficiently in order to overtake the Finn in the points standings. Despite further victories, including Greece and Finland, Grönholm never regained the championship lead from the Frenchman and with the exception of Hirvonen in Australia, the two proved the only two drivers worthy of individual rally victories all season. Although with four rounds remaining and a 34-point lead, Loeb's injury from a mountain-biking accident shortly after the Cyprus Rally appeared to offer Grönholm a chance to close the deficit, the Finn's title challenge was finally mathematically ended with a crash on the penultimate round in Australia.

His team, however, were to benefit from Loeb's absence against a now weakened Kronos Citroen left to depend on their inexperienced Spaniards, Xavier Pons and Daniel Sordo (although the team initially called upon Colin McRae to substitute for Loeb on their first event without him, in Turkey). Ford, already gaining on the points lead due to the combined proficiency on gravel of their two senior drivers, soon reclaimed a championship lead they were never to lose, achieving its greatest success in winning the manufacturer's title, the first such win for Ford since 1979.

2007 season

The team's primary entrants for 2007 were unchanged from 2006. After watching his opponent of the previous year, Sebastien Loeb, return to winning ways on the official return of the 2003-2005 manufacturers' championship-winning factory Citroen team on the season's curtain-raiser in Monte Carlo, Grönholm followed up his own third place by winning for the first time that season in Sweden in February, and led his opponent, now driving a newly homologated Citroen C4 WRC, in the drivers' standings over the championship's post-Rally Finland summer break (an event also incidentally won by Grönholm, for a record-beating seventh time, to further extend his points lead).

Unfortunately for the drivers' championship ambitions of both the Blue Oval concern and Grönholm, however, having announced his impending retirement from WRC competition at the end of the season, the elder Finn was to suffer an early exit on Rally Japan, in doing so surrendering the long-held lead in the standings to Loeb. Grönholm then shunted his Focus, knocking himself briefly unconscious, on the tarmac stages of the inaugural Rally Ireland and penultimate round of the year. Combined with adversary Loeb winning, this meant an almost impossible points deficit to overhaul for the rapidly fit-again Finn come the season-ending Wales Rally GB. It culminated in the Frenchman, settling for a safe third on the rally to the Finn's second, triumphing in the second long points duel between the pair in consecutive years. Ford, however, aided by supporting team-mate Hirvonen's continued superiority on loose-surface events over his Citroen counterpart Daniel Sordo, sealed a successful defence of the Constructors' Championship. Meanwhile, Hirvonen, for his part, in addition to ending the season in style by topping the timesheets after the three days' competition in Wales, had also earlier taken his second and third career world rally victories in Norway and Japan.

At the half way stage of the 2007 World Rally Championship, a joint venture between BP-Ford and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Board was announced to bring a third official Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to the team's campaign. Khalid AlQassimi and co-driver Nicky Beech contested the Neste Oil Rally Finland, ADAC Rallye Deutschland, Rally RACC Catalunya-Costa Daurada and Rally Ireland.

For their work in the 2007 season, BP Ford and M-Sport received the Rally Business of the Year Award from the Motorsport Industry Association.

2008 season

Mikko Hirvonen and codriver Jarmo Lehtinen resumed the implicit role within the team of the Cumbria outfit's leading crew for the 2008 season, after Marcus Grönholm and codriver Timo Rautiainen elected to retire following the 2007 season, with the more experienced Finn later to be found dabbling for Ford in rallycross and maintaining his links with the BP-Ford WRT team in an "ambassadorial role". Hirvonen was joined in the new-look M-Sport line-up by another fellow Finnish driver, Jari-Matti Latvala, who stepped into the vacant berth from his former spot at the satellite Stobart Ford team. Khalid AlQassimi returned with a programme of ten events on the 2008 WRC calendar aboard a third car. His co-driver, Nicky Beech, was replaced by Michael Orr, former co-driver to Matthew Wilson.

The season got off to a promising start for both drivers, with Hirvonen taking second to the seemingly omnipresent Loeb on the Monte Carlo Rally in January, before Latvala shattered Henri Toivonen's long-standing record as youngest World Rally Championship-qualifying event winner by outpacing Hirvonen to victory on the following Rally Sweden. Hirvonen collected his second win of the year on the Jordan Rally and led Latvala in an astutely tactically judged Ford 1-2 on Rally Turkey to assert a slender points lead over Citroen's Loeb heading into both Finns' home round of the Championship in August. Unfortunately for Ford, however, neither Hirvonen nor Latvala were able to defeat Loeb, with the now dominant Frenchman proceeding to record his eighth and ninth victories of the season on the New Zealand and Spanish rallies.

Gallery

Links

BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team Website - http://www.wrcford.com/

Sources

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