From the legendary Escort to the modern Focus WRC, Ford has been a mainstay of the World Rally Championship since the early 1970s. This year the team begins another quest for rallying’s top honour with the Finnish duo of Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, and Emirati driver Khalid Al Qassimi hoping to claim a fourth manufacturers’ title for Ford.
The most recent chapter in Ford’s WRC story started when British Rally Champion Malcolm Wilson won the deal to run Ford’s campaign for the start of 1997. The Escort Cosworth that 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 faced a much tighter budget for 2003. The team plumped for cheap, 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 proper debut 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.
In 2007 the team repeated the feat, 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.
In 2008 Hirvonen took Gronholm’s place as lead driver while Jari-Matti Latvala was promoted to the support role. 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 the Citroens came out on top. It was close, though.
The 2009 season was the second for the Hirvonen / Latvala combination, but didn’t get off the best of starts, with Hirvonen consistently coming off second best to 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 in 2009, the team ended the season in terrific shape.