It was impossible not to feel a degree of sympathy for M-Sport Ford World Rally Team at the start of this season. After two glorious years, five out of six titles and success galore, the Cumbrian squad’s star strike force had moved on.
Watching M-Sport say goodbye to Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia 12 months ago was a humbling experience, such is the mutual appreciation between the Frenchmen and their new-found British family. But move on they had. Red was the new blue for the six-time champs.
For the Blues who stayed, this was always going to be a year of tough transition. At the top of the season, standing in the mountains north of Monte-Carlo, team principal Rich Millener talked of different priorities.
“Of course,” he opined, “we want to win and I genuinely think we can win this year, but you get used to winning regularly and we’ll maybe miss that this season. One thing is absolutely sure, this team’s not missing any motivation.”
It might have been a few hours later when Teemu Suninen stuffed his Fiesta into pretty much the first ditch of the season. Worse was to follow when the sister car of Elfyn Evans pinballed its way through the trees and into retirement.
Gus Greensmith made a superb start to his season, dominating the first ever WRC 2 Pro event and posting an exceptional seventh overall. This was a big year for the Englishman who shouldered much of the development work for M-Sport’s new Fiesta R5.
But the highlight for him was a debut in the Fiesta WRC. He drove the car in Portugal and then, for one reason or another, spent much of the summer aboard his dream car. The results might not have come, but he impressed with his speed and commitment in both cars.
Determined to keep Cumbria smiling, Evans was on superb form for much of the first half of the year and would have won Corsica had it not been for a final-stage pothole which punctured his right-front.
Worse was to follow when a back injury sustained at the non-championship Rally Estonia kept him out of action for Finland, Germany and Turkey. That he still made joint fourth was testament to his consistency – and somewhat ironic given that he shared the position with Andreas Mikkelsen who also missed three rounds, albeit for different reasons.
That early season slip aside, Suninen deserves credit for his first full year in the sport. Second in Sardinia was the highlight, a result which coincided with experienced co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen’s arrival alongside him, and there was speed and progression from the Finn.
The last few weeks have brought more fond farewells with Evans and co-driver Scott Martin departing for a two-year Toyota deal. It’s impossible to think of a crew with stronger ties to M-Sport, or two guys who will be missed more by all at Dovenby Hall.