The questionable future of the M-Sport rally team has made many fans worry: what will happen to the WRC if the next team also pulls the plug on the top class?
The most recent decision of that kind was made by Citroën, in 2019. The reason for the withdrawal was that it was not possible to fill the suddenly vacant driver’s seat of Sébastien Ogier with an A-category star. Ott Tänak had just joined Hyundai, where Thierry Neuville also continued. Elfyn Evans was not yet a title contender at the time, and Kalle Rovanperä had never participated in the World Championship with a WRC car.
In the case of M-Sport, there has been one scenario going on in recent years: to continue in the top class is their great desire, but whether they will be at the start line in the next season can often be set in stone at the very last moment.
The same applies to the year 2024 because the Ford Puma Rally1, built by M-Sport, has poor reliability, the speed is so-so, and why would any top driver want to tame it, when the title hopes can be nipped in the bud? And if there is no top driver, but there is a car with poor performance, why would any sponsor want to open their wallets? This makes the future complicated because although cars exist and there are always people who’d be willing to be behind the wheel, in the end, it is still money that makes those wheels turn.
Lappi was damn right
Yes, M-Sport leaving the top class would be painful, especially emotionally. After all, the British company has been in the WRC since the 1990s and has also enjoyed success. M-Sport has played a crucial role in Estonian rally history because they have helped many of our drivers – Ott Tänak and Markko Märtin for example, to name the most famous.
But if you put your feelings aside, you must agree with Hyundai driver Esapekka Lappi, who has the following to say before this year’s Greek Rally, regarding the possible departure of M-Sport: “In practice, it would have almost no effect.”
This rings especially true in a situation where it seems that both Toyota and Hyundai will bring four cars to the track in every rally next season. M-Sport currently has only one world-class driver, and although Tänak does not seem to fit in with Toyota, Hyundai would surely and gladly welcome the 2019 world champion. And it is quite certain that their other pilots will accept this as well.
A glimpse into the past
Two teams in the highest class would make many rally fans shed tears. “Our field is dying!” “Who cares about this WRC anymore?!” “Senseless nonsense, just some rice rockets flying around!” Things along those lines can probably be seen in heaps on social media.
However, competing with two teams is not necessarily a kiss of death for the WRC, especially when it comes to giants like Toyota and Hyundai, who invest tens of millions of euros in rally sports a year and try to advance the field and the series. You may say the duel between the Asian giants may seem boring, but if it means that Tänak, Neuville, Evans and Rovanperä continue with the full season, then it is clear that the title fight is by no means boring.
Now let’s face the facts: when, for example, M-Sport, Hyundai and Volkswagen were competing as factory teams in 2016, was the WRC more exciting than it is now? Ogier won the title with a 108-point lead over Neuville, and Volkswagen failed to win just three of the 13 stages.
Or let’s take 2011 to balance things. During that time, there were two factory teams: Ford and Citroën. The representative of the others, Sébastien Loeb, became the world champion again, but the Finnish Mikko Hirvonen, who raced with Ford, lost only eight points to the Frenchman. Citroën’s second fiddle Ogier was 26 points away from his compatriot and Jari-Matti Latvala, who finished fourth, was 50 points away from Ford. There was a lot of excitement, even though there was a shortage of factory teams!
Regarding teams, the WRC is about quality, not quantity.