Behind the scenes in Monte-Carlo for the dream debut of the team’s new driver.
Chris Williams looked agitated. M-Sport’s usually quiet command centre was silent. Too silent. Everything was working: split times were going to plan and the #1 Ford Fiesta WRC being tracked south down the D2566 towards Peïra Cava.
Seconds took minutes. And the minutes felt like they would never end.
Sixteen minutes – and 10.6 seconds, to be precise – after Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia left the start of Rallye Monte-Carlo’s 17th stage, they arrived at the finish.
“Stage complete,” was the message from the car.
Williams joined his M-Sport colleagues and went bananas.
Four and a half years had passed since the British-based M-Sport won its last round of the world championship. And now, on his maiden outing with the team, Ogier had delivered the dream debut.
Backs slapped, colleagues hugged and tears dried, there was a moment to take in what had been achieved.
“He had so little time in the car before the event,” says Williams, M-Sport’s head of rally development – the man responsible for designing the new-generation Fiesta, the fastest rally car ever to come out of the Cumbrian factory.
“We knew we had done the best job possible with the development of the car, but we also knew Sébastien was just so short of time to test it. We didn’t know what to expect.”
The opening round of the 2017 World Rally Championship would be a step into the unknown with Ogier. But working with the world’s finest was nothing new. Williams has worked with the McRaes, Sainzs and Gronholms of this world. He knows world champions.
“He’s demanding in a way world champions are demanding,” he says. “From this event, we have a long list of little things he wants doing. We’ll make him happy.”
Ogier made M-Sport happy when he finally agreed terms with team principal Malcolm Wilson on December 12 last year.
“He was a very tough negotiator,” says Wilson, “I don’t mind telling you that. I can see just why he’s a four-time world champion. Both him and Julien have an attention to detail that’s absolutely 100 per cent. They’ve been in the team just over a month or so and, already, we are learning from them.”
Wilson prides himself on fostering a family atmosphere in his team, which is why Ogier and Ingrassia were invited to Wilson’s house for dinner in the middle of the team’s pre-season strategy meetings earlier this month.
“It was the first time I went to dinner at my boss’ house,” smiles Ogier at the recollection. “Sometimes, English cooking doesn’t have the best reputation, but I can tell you now, Mrs Wilson was the exact opposite. Her cooking was excellent!”
Mrs W was delighted to welcome the latest in a long line of rally legends into her home.
“They were lovely,” she says, “so hard-working and clearly very, very dedicated – just like us. And they liked the food. They can come back!”
Time was short when Ogier arrived at M-Sport World Rally Team headquarters in northern Britain. There was much to be done ahead of the season’s start, but all of those preparations were put on hold for a couple of hours while Ogier and Ingrassia met the team. All 200 of them. From the cleaner to the accountant, hands were shaken, welcomes warm.
Miguel Cunha is number one technician on Ogier’s car. He liked what he saw from the start.
“He reminded me a lot of Carlos [Sainz],” he says, “he’s clearly a man of detail, a man who’s obsessive about getting everything right. That was like Carlos. I like that.”
Cunha, like Williams, has worked with heroes throughout his career. He doesn’t really do star-struck.
For the younger generation, the arrival of Ogier and Ingrassia, four-time world champions was slightly more nerve-wracking.
Stuart Loudon is a semi-professional co-driver working towards his big break in the World Rally Championship. In Monte Carlo, he was co-ordinating M-Sport’s weather-note crews and basically making sure vital meteo details were in the right hands at the right time.
“I don’t mind telling you, I was nervous as hell at the thought of working with Sébastien and Julien,” he says. “But they were both fantastic. Seb was great and it was an honour to work closely with him, but being a co-driver it was Julien that I was really looking forward to following. He was amazing; he sent me a couple of emails before the event and made a point of coming in and seeing me during the event. When he came over and gave me the big hug after the finish, it was unbelievable. These world champions had joined M-Sport – the best team in the business – and I was part of it. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Monte Carlo, 2017: it’s going to be a long time before anybody from M-Sport forgets that one.