LONDON - Ford Motor Co. is entering the all-new Focus subcompact in the 14-race World Rally Championship as it continues to try to leverage motorsport exposure into worldwide sales success.
Martin Whitaker, head of Ford's European motorsport operation, harbors no illusions about the task ahead, which will take his team's relatively untested cars through the snow-rutted terrain of Sweden, across the treacherous plains of Kenya and the gravel and dust of Portugal.
Ford's participation in the grueling series represents a $33 million investment.
'Motorsport is in our bloodstream, but perhaps we needed a transfusion,' Whitaker said. 'The investment is what is required to get the job done. People say Ford never really invested the right amount in motorsport. Perhaps we didn't invest it wisely enough and we spread the blanket too wide.'
Whitaker earned his organizational and political spurs working for the McLaren F1 team and Grand Prix ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. 'Our successful Escort rallying heritage is part of history in this sport, and this season marks year one for Focus with no favors sought nor offered,' he said.
Ford put the Escort out to pasture last November following 46 world rally victories. Meanwhile, the Focus was being developed secretly at a helter-skelter pace.
Even by the standards of must-do, can-do, top-flight international motorsport, the creation of the rally Focus was bewilderingly rapid. From project sign-off at Ford's world headquarters in the United States in December 1997 to first shakedown tests last October, development took just 317 days.
'It is no secret that most world rally cars normally take about 18 months to develop from scratch. The Focus is genuinely all new, so we could not graft components from the Escort,' Whitaker said.
Rally rivals such as Mitsubishi and Subaru have cars at their fifth level of evolutionary development. Before it was retired, the highly developed Escort was, in essence, a Sierra Cosworth in drag.
Entrusted with putting Ford back in the winner's circle is former driver Malcolm Wilson, whose uneven gait is a legacy of having both ankles shattered during a multiple roll crash in 1981.
As the head of M-Sport, located in Ford's northern English outpost of Cumbria, Wilson carried out the initial test work on the four-wheel-drive rally Focus.
Wilson's unit is linked to a state-of-the-art rally design and development center at the Motor Industry Research complex in Millbrook, north of London.
Both Millbrook and Cumbria have direct computer connections to Ford's small- and medium-sized vehicle development centers in Dunton, England and Cologne, Germany, for instant data transfer. Those connections were pivotal in the development of the rally Focus.
Although it shares the same basic profile and styling of a production Focus, the rally car is powered by a 2.0-liter, 300 horsepower Zetec E turbocharged engine, a six-speed gearbox and a 4wd transaxle.
The engine is mounted low and far back, virtually in the passenger compartment.
There is a central irony to the Focus rally program, a truly intercontinental challenge covering Europe, South America and Australasia (including China) - even though rallying is not part of the U.S. motorsport consciousness, the rally program is bankrolled from Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters.
Neil Ressler, custodian of Ford's motorsport program and chairman of Cosworth Racing, understands the importance of rallying beyond the North American market.
Before his visit to witness the Focus' debut in Monte Carlo, Ressler had never attended a rally, although he has vast knowledge of F1, Champcar and most other racing disciplines.
(The car ran well at the Monte Carlo rally, but it was unable to gain series points because its fuel pump did not meet specifications.)
Despite the lack of stateside association or marketing value for participating in the rally series, Ford has shrewdly linked its name with Cosworth and showed a high-performance, three-door Cosworth Focus at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show just after Christmas.
'People should not question our commitment to this program,' Ressler said.
'We are excited about it and ... do not expect it to be easy. The fact that I have never been to a rally tells you something about U.S. attitudes.'
So, when will Ford's investment pay dividends? 'Hopefully very soon,' Whitaker said. 'It would be very easy to say we are new to this business and we don't have to create expectations. But winning is the bottom line. Ford is intent on returning to the top.'
Whitaker acknowledges that as new the kid on the block, Ford faces the accumulated experience and success of Subaru, Mitsubishi and Toyota, all keen to sustain motorsport pedigrees earned in world rallying.
This year's rally series involves eight automakers, including Peugeot, returning with its dramatic 206, and newcomers Hyundai, Seat and Skoda.
Ressler said the reasons for remaining involved are clear.
'In running a major company, motorsport would not make the top five or six rating for what is vital, or important to success. But it contributes in ways in which other operations cannot,' he said.
'Marketing, sustained brand recognition, the training of engineers, engineering excellence, morale, the overall halo effect. Racing spurs on your best engineers.'