Retention of five-time world champ may be twisting Ford’s arm to give M-Sport full factory backingIt sounds as though Ford is getting serious about rallying again. It will have to if it wants to retain now five-time world rally champion Sebastien Ogier.
The Frenchman, the second most successful in World Rally Championship history (behind only his countryman Sebastien Loeb, winner of a record nine titles, consecutively), is due to arrive for the season-ending Rally Australia at Coffs Harbour next week still without an announcement of who he will be driving for next year.
He even hinted recently at retirement, or perhaps at least a sabbatical, to spend more time with his family, now including a young child.
Having enjoyed the massive support of Volkswagen that yielded titles for him and co-driver Julien Ingrassia in the four previous seasons before that manufacturer’s pull-out at the end of last year, Ogier has made Ford factory support a condition of sticking with M-Sport next season.
He loves the team in all other respects but wants more than behind-the-scenes technical assistance for it from Ford to feel completely confident of battling and beating the factory teams of Hyundai, Toyota and Citroen again next year.
While neither the Blue Oval nor M-Sport principal Malcolm Wilson have given any indication of an imminent announcement, French website Autohebdo – which translates to Auto Weekly – reported this week that “according to our information, Ford is preparing to officially return to the WRC by supporting M-Sport”.
“This partnership would meet all the conditions to retain Sebastien Ogier,” it said.
The superstar of the modern WRC, with its more aggressive hot hatches this year, has described the negotiations as a “ping-pong exchange”.
The imminent withdrawal of the Ford factory-backed World Rallycross Championship team of Focus RSs driven by American Ken Block and Norwegian Andreas Bakkerud is being seen as freeing up money for the Blue Oval to commit to M-Sport to keep Ogier.
Wilson said weeks ago that he won’t have the resources to retain Ogier and Ingrassia unless Ford raises its commitment or M-Sport can get another major partner.
Ford withdrew its full support for world rallying campaigns in 2012 but M-Sport continued to field cars of its brand and this year amazingly has delivered the Blue Oval its first WRC manufacturer title for more than a decade.
Wilson said the season that climaxed by clinching the driver, co-driver and manufacturer titles at the recent Rally of Great Britain in Wales, where M-Sport’s Welsh driver Elfyn Evans and English co-driver Daniel Barritt scored their breakthrough WRC victory, had been “truly amazing”.
“We did open a few bottles of champagne, but the good stuff will have to wait until after Rally Australia [on November 16-19],” Wilson said.
“We’ve had all three drivers secure at least one victory this year, and a podium on every event [Estonian Ott Tanak is M-Sport’s third driver but is off to Toyota next year].
“We want to end on another high and secure [at least] another podium to complete our clean sweep.
“We won’t be letting standards slip.”
Ogier has won Rally Australia at half of his six starts – in 2013, ’14 and ’15. Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen, who won last year as a Volkswagen teammate of Ogier in that manufacturer’s finale to the WRC, returns this year as a Hyundai factory driver.
Another Hyundai driver, Belgian Thierry Neuville, is locked in a battle with M-Sport’s Tanak to be the season’s runner-up to Ogier.
Tanak said the stages at Coffs Harbour are “completely different to anything else we experience [in the WRC]”.
“Even the shadows in the forest are different,” he said.
Ogier said that, with less pressure on him having clinched his fifth straight title, “we can go to Rally Australia fully focused on enjoying the great stages that they have there”.
“If it’s dry our road position won’t make it easy, but we will try our best as always,” he said.
“It’s quite an intimate event – the locals really get behind the rally and we always receive a very warm welcome.
“If we could end the season with another strong result it really would be the perfect ending to an incredible year.”