From the legendary Escort to the double title-winning Focus, Ford has been a mainstay of the World Rally Championship since the early 1970s. While the team’s Fiesta RS WRC remains largely unchanged under the skin, the car features a revised livery and there’s a change to the driver line-up too with Petter Solberg returning to the squad for the first time in more than a decade to replace the Citroen-bound Mikko Hirvonen.
M-Sport, which has masterminded Ford’s WRC campaign for 15 seasons, has developed the new challenger and will once again operate the Ford World Rally Team. But it’s a far cry from 1997 when the partnership began.
The Escort Cosworth that Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport team inherited was long in the tooth, however, and the best Carlos Sainz could manage was wins in Indonesia and Greece on the way to third in the drivers' standings.
Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Thiry impressed at times in 1998, but work had already started on the new Focus WRC. It made a long-expected debut in Monte Carlo in 1999, and big-money signing Colin McRae showed its promise. McRae went on to win the tough Safari and Portuguese events, but a troubled second half of the year denied the team a title.
The Focus WRC proved to be competitive and versatile but fragile throughout 2000, claiming wins in Spain, Greece and Cyprus in McRae's hands. McRae won again in Argentina, Cyprus and Greece in 2001, but a nightmare start and end to the year kept the Scot and Ford out of title contention.
A more reliable Focus WRC won three rallies in 2002 and scored points on every round, but both McRae and Sainz were on their way to Citroen, and M-Sport had to work with a much tighter budget for 2003.
The team plumped for affordable, but rising talent in the form of Markko Martin and Francois Duval, while a new, leaner, meaner version of the Focus from designer Christian Loriaux made its debut mid-season. Martin won in Greece and Finland, but speed came at the cost of reliability and it wasn't a title contender.
Martin won again with the car in Mexico in 2004, before a more heavily-revised version made its debut. It proved to be the quickest car on asphalt at the end of the year, winning in France and Spain courtesy of Martin. For 2005, increased attention on the new Focus WRC meant an even more slimmed down programme with former Skoda drivers Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta providing consistent results, but no rally wins.
In 2006, it was all change at Ford. After a teasing appearance on the last event of 2005, Loriaux’s brand new Focus made its debut proper in Monte Carlo, together with a new driver line-up of Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen. The team went on to have its most successful WRC season, with Gronholm and Hirvonen winning eight rallies between them and earning Ford the manufacturers’ title for the first time since 1979.
The team repeated the feat in 2007, with another eight wins and another manufacturers’ title. On his last season before retirement Gronholm scored six wins and narrowly missed out on a third drivers’ title. The team began its association with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority midway through the year with Khali Al Qassimi making his debut on Rally Finland.
Hirvonen took Gronholm’s place as lead driver for the 2008 season while Jari-Matti Latvala was promoted to the support role from the semi-works Stobart M-Sport line-up. Both drivers took wins in the season, with Latvala becoming the youngest man ever to do so. Hirvonen was Loeb’s closest challenger throughout the year, but in the end it was Citroen’s Loeb who came out on top.
The 2009 season didn’t get off to the best of starts with Hirvonen consistently coming off second best to the dominant Loeb and Latvala scoring few, or no, points on four of the opening five rallies. A perfect one-two result in Italy, however, marked a turning point in the season, and although it proved too late to stop Citroen taking another FIA crown, the team ended the season in terrific shape.
Hirvonen began 2010 with a bang with victory in Sweden but his form nosedived as Latvala emerged as a more consistent performer to take the runner-up spot behind Loeb in the title race courtesy of two wins, including an emotional success on home soil in Finland.
The Fiesta RS WRC made the perfect start to the new World Rally Car era in 2011, dominating Rally Sweden and taking all three podium positions. Lead pilot Hirvonen took the drivers’ title race down to the wire and just missed out to Sebastien Loeb. The consolation for Ford was the best ever finish for a manufacturer in the World Rally Championship, with the Blue Oval taking an unprecedented eight of the top 10 places on Wales Rally GB.