Ford revival focuses on hard work

Reid, Menu and Rydell nurture hopes of ending barren period for Blue Oval

Ford is easily the most successful manufacturer in the history of the British Touring Car Championship, but the last few seasons have been bleak for the Blue Oval. That is all set to change now; with six rounds of the 2000 title race to run, the top three drivers in the points are the three works Ford drivers.

Ford is easily the most successful manufacturer in the history of the British Touring Car Championship, but the last few seasons have been bleak for the Blue Oval. That is all set to change now; with six rounds of the 2000 title race to run, the top three drivers in the points are the three works Ford drivers.

Vauxhall's Yvan Muller and Jason Plato are still in the frame, but the odds are on a Ford driver - Anthony Reid, Alain Menu or Rickard Rydell - to take the title.

The turnaround in Ford fortunes started with a change in approach from the Ford executives who sign off the budgets. Reid saw it when he chose to leave Nissan at the end of 1998 and join them. It looked a pretty disastrous decision last year, when Reid watched the man who had replaced him at Nissan, Laurent Aiello, win the title, but Reid always felt he had made the right decision, saying: "The way the Ford marketing people looked at it was that they were not going to spend the money any more unless it was to win."

It was a big change from the way Ford had appeared to be going about their BTCC business in the years immediately before. A succession of seasons were spoiled when budgets were committed too late and over-complicated programme structures were set up - with one company responsible for building cars, another for running them through the season and a third for buildingengines.

At the end of 1998 the approach changed. Responsibility for both building the cars and running them was handed - crucially for a continuous two-year period - to Prodrive, the Banbury firm which also runs the immensely successful Subaru world rally championship programme that took Colin McRae to the top and is currently giving Richard Burns his run at the drivers' championship title.

Last year the Mondeo won twice - it was a nearly car, but not a top contender. The Prodrive technical director, David Lapworth, the man responsible for both the Ford and Subaru programmes, explained how his team have transformed the Mondeo into the best car on the grid in 2000. "The real secret has been hard work. Last year it had to be right first hit. The deal was put together relatively late so there was no time for deliberation. When we look at the '99 car they had done a very, very good job, but it just missed the mark in a few areas. Over last winter the combination of a very methodical scientific approach and a serious amount of hard work just meant that lots of little details and one or two significant changes completely transformed the car."

In simple terms there has been a slight improvement in the chassis, a bigger one in aerodynamic efficiency and a really significant one in the performance of the engine, which Prodrive took responsibility for at the end of 1999.

A series of run-ins with the BTCC technical scrutineers leave it open for detractors to say that Ford and Prodrive have pushed too far in the universal motorsport quest to take technical rules to the limit. Reid denies that.

"They've played the rules to the limit, but in my view haven't overstepped them. We had no problems last year, but then we weren't real players. It'salways the leading team thatattracts the flack."

He adds: "When Ford puts its mind to something, it's got the resources make it happen." The snipers would say that a vast budget is foremost among those resources, but Lapworth says not. "It [the budget] is less than it has been and it is less than the budget that we know big teams have operated on in the past. What I suspect we have got more of than anyone else is man-hours and effort. I don't think I have ever seen a group of people work as consistently hard as the race team did in the last six months."

One thing that most involved in the BTCC, including Reid and Lapworth, do agree is that they would put money on the winner of the drivers' title this year being a man wearing Ford overalls. Reid, Menu and Rydell are close together at the top of the standings. They all badly want to win it, but Reid has his own particular reason, centred on the late, great, Jim Clark. Clark won this title in a Ford Lotus Cortina in 1964 (between his two Formula One World Championships in '63 and '65). "He went to Loretto school and so did I," explains Reid. "It was his career and the connection with Loretto which got me into racing in the first place and It's been my secret dream to emulate his feat."

Lapworth insists there are no team orders and the answer to which Ford driver will take the prize is unlikely to come until the last round at Silverstone on 16 September.

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