Ford Focus WRC: the start of a new era for Ford (1999-2003)

The new Ford Focus road car was launched in July 1998 in Europe, as the successor of the glorious Escort. The Focus was designed following Ford’s New Edge styling philosophy, first seen in the Ford Ka in 1996. As other manufacturers, Ford tried to boost their marketing strategy by building a winning rally car, in one of the eras when the WRC had more social impact, and up to seven manufacturers were fighting for the title.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Ford Focus RS WRC’00, Rally of Argentina 2000, ret.

M-Sport had been commissioned by Ford to run their cars since 1997. In spring of 1998, Ford Motorsport charged M-Sport Team Principal Malcolm Wilson to develop the factory’s new car, the Ford Focus WRC, then known as the C170 project. Günther Steiner, recently recruited from Prodrive as M-Sport Technical Manager, assumed the design and development of the new rally car, and he succeeded to finish it on time and budget. Development was done in close cooperation between Ford’s development centers at Dunton, UK and Cologne, Germany.

The design of the new car took into account its future implication in rallying, especially with regard to the rigidity of the body shell. The wheelbase of the Focus WRC was the longest among the existing WRC cars (2,615 m). This means the car would have a good mass distribution, good stability and minimal overhang, which is important in terms of driveability. On the other side, the car weight was high (above 1300 kg while the minimal weight was 1230 kg), and the engine power too short, according to driver’s impressions.

1999_MC_SimonJpicture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz

S.Jean-Joseph/F.Gallagher, Ford Focus WRC’99, Rally Montecarlo 1999, excluded

For the initial car design, huge efforts were devoted to improving internal cooling, so the car included an elaborated front bumper with multiple air intakes, as well as two air inlets on both sides of the bumper. It also included a front splitter, to minimize the amount of air entering under the car, which was extended on some tarmac rallies, especially on both sides. The wheel arches were flared to accommodate larger wheels. No rear spoiler was initially included, as car equilibrium was presumed to be sufficient.

After a first prototype was shown in the Paris Motor Show in September’98, Malcolm Wilson had the honor of being the first to drive the new car at the World Rally Team’s Millbrook development center in October. The final version of the Focus WRC was not presented to the press until the end of November 1998 in the Ford’s Development Center in Dunton. Different aero modifications had been added: additional air inlets in the front bumper to increase brake cooling capacity, and a small rear wing (compared to the rear wings of the Subaru Impreza or the Mitsubishi Lancer, or even of his predecessor, the Ford Escort WRC), and located neatly atop the rear window. It included a small Gurney flap on the rear end.

Daniel Reinhard 04picture by Daniel Reinhard

The rear wing, designed with the support of the Ford’s wind tunnel, helped to re-equilibrate the weight car distribution, which was already very good (52%/48%), for what not many downforce was required.


The Focus WRC was not the only surprise Malcolm Wilson reserved for the team: Colin Mcrae was incorporated as team leader, surrounded by Simon Jean-Joseph and Thomas Rädstrom, as well as Petter Solberg, as the ‘junior’ member of Ford’s World Rally Team. Also, the come-back of the old-Lancia and Porsche sponsor Martini Racing dressed the car in the typical blue and red elegant style.

Pre-season development tests were carried out in December’98 in the facilities of the John Haugland (ex-rally driver and later mentor of Petter Solberg) Rally School (https://www.hauglandmotorsport.com/), in Norway. Then, the team moved to the south of France to prepare the Rally Montecarlo. Mcrae was charged with all test program, due to the inexperience of his teammates, and the same Malcolm Wilson also took part occasionally. By then, the car had been already homologated by FIA (on December 17th, 1998).

1999_MC_Colin.jpgpicture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz

C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’99, Rally Montecarlo 1999, excluded

The goal for the first rallies was to set some scratches and to improve the car reliability. And they reached both of them in the season starter, in Montecarlo. As it uses to happen when snow suddenly appears in the French Alps, different problems affected many drivers in the first stage (Plan de Vitrolles – Faye), and four leading cars were forced into retirement (Loix, Sainz, Schwartz and Sivera). Ford drivers did not escape to some problems, and Mcrae and Jean-Joseph lost more than three and nine minutes, respectively, to leader Makinen.

Things improved when Colin set the fastest time in the fourth stage (Prunieres – Embrun), and repeated this position in three other stages, reaching the third position at the end of the rally….before being disqualified (together with his teammate) by using a water pump different from that homologated. In fact, the team had been already disqualified in the scrutineering, but they were allowed to participate thanks to the support of fellow teams…until Ford’s appeal failed two weeks later.

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T.Rädstrom/F.Gallagher, Ford Focus WRC’99, Rally of Sweden 1999, 3rd

Thomas Rädstrom had the honor of getting the first podium position for the Focus WRC by being third in the Rally of Sweden, while Mcrae had to retire due to engine problems.

But the real exploit of the car arrived in the Rally Safari, in spite of a disastrous start: the team could only prepare the rally in one day and a half of tests….in Chateau-Lastours (France) to set-up the suspension system, Colin had broken one of his thumbs after a violent movement of the wheel in the tests, and Rädstrom slipped off in the hotel and broke his left leg. Petter Solberg had to be called for a quick replacement of the Swedish driver.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’99, Rally Safari 1999, 1st

With his broken thumb, Colin showed a very regular pace and, even without winning any stage, he was able to win the Rally Safari and to give the Focus WRC his first and unexpected win, while Solberg was fifth in his first experience in Africa.

colin 1999 portugal.jpgpicture by LAT

C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’99, Rally Portugal 1999, 1st

Three weeks later, the team adequately prepared the Rally of Portugal by carrying out tests near Fafe and Arganil. And Mcrae left no room for his rivals, by setting the difference from the first two specials, Ponte de Lima East and West. In spite of being first in the running order for the next two days, and the final rush from the Toyotas of Sainz and Auriol, the Scottish was able to keep his position until the end and he obtained the second win in a row for the Ford Focus WRC.

1999_ACRO_Mcrae.jpgpicture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz

C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’99, Rally Acropolis 1999, ret.

Ford continued to devote efforts to improve the car. For the Rally Catalunya, they prepared a new version of the car with a weight reduction of 40 kg, by using lightweight material in the roll cage, steering rack, engine hoses, and a thinner sump guard.


Before the Rally Acropolis, and due to the high ambient temperatures expected, team engineers spent two days at Ford’s wind tunnel in Cologne, Germany, examining ways of improving the ducting under the bonnet to make the most of the limited airflow.


Changes were not visible from the outside, and they probably worked out, but reliability issues and some accidents condemned the team for the rest of the season, with only the fourth position of Mcrae in the Tour de Corse as a remarkable result. Note the use of the extended front splitter on the picture below. He finished sixth in the Championship, while Ford was fourth.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’99, Tour de Corse 1999, 4th

For the season 2000, Ford set the goal of winning one of the titles, and the team was reinforced with the arrival of ex-Subaru team mate Carlos Sainz. The car received his first update: a new version was homologated, with a new turbo and engine modifications, which was since last races of 1999 prepared by Cosworth. Also, engine cooling was improved, by modifying the existing air inlets of the front bumper. Main modification was the area increase of the front inlet, converting two inlets into one, but with same total size. Also, side inlets were converted into air exits, forcing the airflow to the rear of the car, through two holes practitioned in vertical inside the exit space.The goal was to improve air circulation inside the engine bay, to lower the temperature.

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Comparison of Ford Focus WRC 1999 and 2000 front bumper

The new car included a new rear spoiler, which was no longer a separate aerofoil section but an extended lip on top of the tailgate. It also included a Gurney flap on the rear end of the spoiler. With the original spoiler, the car was unbalanced due to excess in downforce on the rear. The new one allowed an important reduction in drag and a significant improvement in car balance. All these changes were initially defined by Ford Europe aerodynamics engineer Joachim Wenzkus and tested during more than 50 hourst in the Ford wind tunnel in Köln (Germany). But design was not completed until it was refined in real tests, with real conditions and the cars moving sideways.

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Ford Focus WRC’00 rear spoiler

Modifications were initially evaluated in the tests Mcrae carried out in Southern France in September 1999, and later in December, together with Sainz, in Northern Catalonia and Sweden roads.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Ford Focus WRC’00, Rally of Montecarlo 2000, 2nd

The season started well for the Ford team, with Sainz being second in the Montecarlo and Mcrae third in Sweden.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’00, Rally of Sweden 2000, 3rd

Colin Mcrae obtained the third win for the Focus WRC in the Rally Catalunya 2000, with Sainz in the third position, proving that the car also performed very well on tarmac. These were the first points M-Sport scored in Catalunya since Ford charged them to manage their cars in 1997.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC’00, Rally Catalunya 2000, 1st

Mcrae repeated top podium finishing in Acropolis Rally, with Sainz second, and they were second and third respectively in New Zealand, with Solberg fourth.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Ford Focus WRC’00, Rally of Cyprus 2000, 1st

Mcrae was again second in Finland and Cyprus, where Sainz mastered in the first edition of Rally in the Championship, proving he was the best when conditions were new to all, and finishing on top of the podium.


Due to the high ambient temperatures in the Mediterranean island, Ford provided the team with the presence of an aerodynamics expert to offer advice on engine cooling, and it seems it helped.


Thanks to these excellent results, Ford left the island leading the Manufacturers championship 21 points ahead of Peugeot.

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P.Liatti/C.Casina, Ford Focus RS WRC’00, Rally Sanremo 2000, ret.

M-Sport incorporated Piero Liatti for Corsica and Sanremo, to set up the new semi-automatic gearchange system in competition, as well as Tapio Laukkanen in Australia and Wales. But, even with the third position of Sainz in Corsica, the poor results in the last four rallies, with four retirements, allowed Peugeot to recover the disadvantage and to finally win the Manufacturer’s title in Wales. In the driver’s championship, Sainz was finally third and Mcrae fourth, while the title was for Marcus Grönholm with the Peugeot 206 WRC.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus WRC00, Rally of Great Britain 2000, ret.

For the season 2001, the team received a new version of the car, a new driver and new tires. Ex-Peugeot driver François Delecour joined the team for 10 rallies, while Ford broke a long-term deal with Michelin to shift to Pirelli. And a new version of the car was homologated, under the name of Ford Focus RS. Clay models were used for the design of the car, developed by Motorcity Europe (MCE), a design studio based in Cologne, Germany and created in 2000 by David Hilton.

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Ford Focus RS clay model at Motorcity Europe facilities

Gunther Steiner’s engineers introduced several modifications, including the semiautomatic gearchange system, a fly-by-wire throttle and a new ceramic turbocharger.

A new version of the rear spoiler was introduced, with the aim of reducing drag versus previous design. Gurney flap was removed, while the angle of attack was reduced, as well as the size of the spoiler.

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Comparison of Ford Focus RS WRC 2000 and 2001 rear spoilers

Font bumper was again modified, as side air exits were simply removed, forcing all air to exit through the two bonnet outlets.

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Comparison of Ford Focus RS WRC 2000 and 2001 front bumpers

The new car performed very well from the very beginning. In Montecarlo, Mcrae started leading the final leg but had to retire due to the failure of the new fly-by-wire throttle. But Sainz and Delecour finished second and third, proving the potential of the Focus RS WRC’01.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Ford Focus RS WRC’01, Rally of Montecarlo 2001, 2nd

In Sweden, Sainz finished third after leading the pace at the end of the first leg, while Mcrae recovered most of the time lost in an accident in day one by setting seven top scratch times in a row in the second leg, to finish ninth.

Torrential rain flooded some stages of Rally of Portugal days before and during the rally. Under such conditions, Sainz and Makinen maintained a close fight all over the rally, and they arrived at the start of the last stage only separated by 0.3s, in favor of Ford driver. However, Makinen was fastest on this final stage by 8 seconds and won the rally, while Sainz was second.

The Focus RS aligned in Rally Catalunya had a newly designed sump guard, aimed at reducing ride height. But they could do little against the Peugeot 206 WRC and the brand new Citroën Xsara WRC, and Sainz and Delecour were sixth and seventh.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus RS WRC’01, Rally of Argentina 2001, 1st

After four rallies, Mcrae hadn’t scored any point yet. But he took great revenge by winning in a row three of the toughest rallies in the Championship, Argentina, Cyprus and Greece, while Sainz being third in the first two rallies. In Argentina, the Scottish got a start-to-finish win, while in Cyprus he kept a close battle with Richard Burns until the final leg, when Mcrae took advantage of Burns opening road position.

In the Rally of Cyprus, the duo Mcrae and Sainz started the final leg in first and second position. The Spaniard recovered the difference stage by stage, also helped by the running order, and reached the last stage with a small disadvantage of 5.9 seconds. However, the engine of Sainz failed only a few kilometers into the stage, and Mcrae could ensure his third consecutive win, which placed him on top of the Driver’s Championship, while the team was second in the Manufacturer’s trophy.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Ford Focus WRC’01, Rally Safari 2001, ret.


For the Rally Safari, the team decided to install the animal protection bars behind the bumper, in order to minimize their impact on the aerodynamics of the car, allowing to reach a slightly higher top speed.


However, it wasn’t the animals, but the clutch and the engine, which forced the Ford top drivers into retirement, while Delecour was fourth.

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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus RS WRC’01, Rally of Finland 2001, 3rd

Ford and Colin’s leading positions were reinforced after the Scottish third position in Finland and second in New Zealand. But, after Sanremo, good results hardly arrived and, as it had happened one year ago, both titles escaped again, thanks to the consistency of Richard Burns and the brilliant final rush by Peugeot drivers.

To improve these results, the team recruited the rising star Markko Märtin as a third driver for season 2002, while François Duval and Armin Kremer were also engaged for several rallies. With the new year, a new (fourth) version of the car was homologated, named Ford Focus RS WRC’02. Main modifications were related to a new, non-ceramic turbo, to the cooling system, to new electronics, and to a new dashboard system, so none of them related to external aerodynamics. But the most significative change for the team was the incorporation of ex-Subaru Christian Loriaux as Chief engineer, replacing Steiner, who had moved to the F1 Jaguar Team. Loriaux would play a key role in the development of the future versions of the Focus WRC.


Again, internal circulation of cooling air was modified and the 2002 version of the car included an additional air exit on the center of the bonnet, while the exit on the right side was reduced in size, with no louvers on top.


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C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus RS WRC’02, Rally of Cyprus 2002, 6th

Season 2002 started with two podiums thanks to the third positions of Carlos in Montecarlo and Sweden, with Colin fourth and sixth.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Ford Focus RS WRC’02, Rally of Montecarlo 2002, 3rd

As in previous years, the tarmac was not the preferred surface of the Focus and results in Tour de Corse and Catalunya were far from expected. The arrival of the rough gravel rallies increased Ford expectations, as the Focus had dominated there in previous years.

Rally of Cyprus started very well for Ford, with Märtin leading after 3 stages and Mcrae after the second leg. But the final day, the Scottish had three rollovers that left him in the sixth position, with Märtin 8th and Sainz 11th.

Things improved a lot in the next rallies. Sainz gave the first victory to the Focus RS WRC’02 in Argentina, with Colin was third and Martin fourth.

2002_ACRO_Colin_Crash.jpgpicture from crash.net

C.Mcrae/N.Grist, Ford Focus RS WRC’02, Rally Acropolis 2002, 1st

Then Mcrae got two wins in a row, in Acropolis and Kenyan Safari Rally. In Greece, Märtin used his advantageous road position to lead at the end of leg one, to finish sixth, while Sainz was finally third.

After such impressive results, Colin and Ford were back in contention for the Championships. But then, again, results started to degrade, with fourth positions of Carlos in Finland, New Zealand and Australia or Colin in Deutschland as best results.

2002_RAC_Markko.jpgpicture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz

M.Märtin/M.Park, Ford Focus RS WRC’02, Rally of Great Britain 2002, 2nd

It was not until the RAC Rally when Ford came back to the podium, with Märtin reaching his first podium ever by finishing second, followed by Sainz, third. In the Championship, Sainz and Mcrae finished third and fourth again (as in 2000), while Ford was second, for the third time in a row, and, as always behind Peugeot.

Season 2003 started with significant changes: the team came back to Michelin tires and, due to a budget reduction, Sainz and Mcrae left the team and moved to Citroën. Markko Märtin remained as team leader, surrounded by two very promising new drivers, François Duval and Mikko Hirvonen….together with a very young future star, 17 years old, who had impressed Wilson in Great Britain, and who was incorporated initially as test driver, to finally race with a ’02 car in some 2003 rallies. His name….Jari Matti Latvala.

A new car was under development, so the season started with the Focus RS WRC’02, decorated with the colors of RS (Rally Sport), the European performance car and motorsport division for Ford Racing activity. Even so, an extensive program of 21 test days was developed in the interseason period, mainly devoted to adapt the car set-up to the new tires…as well as to test the new car

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M.Märtin/M.Park, Ford Focus RS WRC’02, Rally Montecarlo 2003, 4th

And it didn’t start bad, as Märtin was the only driver to face the avalanche of Citroën cars in Montecarlo, and he finished fourth only 3 seconds behind the third Citroën. The Estonian driver was fourth again in Sweden, while Duval would give the last podium to the ’02 car by finishing third in the first WRC edition of the Rally of Turkey.

2003_TUR_François.jpgpicture from eWRC.cz

F.Duval/S.Prevot, Ford Focus RS WRC’02, Rally of Turkey 2003, 3rd

No further development was done on the car, as all efforts, led by Loriaux, were devoted to the design of the new car, the Ford Focus RS WRC03. But this story deserves a future post, which is tightly related to the still remembered Rally Finland 2003.

This post includes opinions of the author, which are certainly not always right. If you detect any error or you disagree, do not hesitate to contact us, by sending an email to wrcwings@gmail.com. We love to learn!

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