“This is a completely different thing. It took an active crew to get something out of it. Wise words from a man who knows his muddy onions. David Lindsay has spent the last two decades rocking the M-Sport, and thus Ford, a World Rally Championship contender. From the Focus WRC popularized by McRae to the previous Fiesta WRC that won honors with Ogier – and everything in between – he pushes it. If anyone can deliver a quick vox-pop of how the new hybrid-powered Ford Puma WRC feels, friend David.
The 2022 season brought a number of major regulatory changes, and the growth from Fiesta to Puma visualizes that well. As well as being safer, the car is bigger, with an FIA-regulated 107mm wheelbase and an additional 70 kilograms of wood. Or rather the battery. This is the electrification’s first appearance at a top-flight rally, and it will cause quite a stir.
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Photography: John Wycherley
The Puma’s mechanical core is not far from the Fiesta it replaces. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine continuously drives all four wheels via a five-speed sequential gearbox, with a peak output of around 400bhp. What’s most definitely new is the addition of another 134bhp in the hybrid boost, greatly improving the power-to-weight ratio… sometimes.
And it’s the same for all cars; Battery packs arrive sealed from Compact Dynamics and placed in locations selected by the FIA to maximize safety and create balance in the weight distribution of Rally1 class competitors Ford, Hyundai and Toyota.
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But neither the Puma nor its rivals the i20 and Yaris will be 500 horsepower cars for long. At the starting line, drivers will be given full power for their first acceleration, which lasts about three seconds. Which is basically the car’s 0-62mph time. It then returns to petrol power only until the driver gets what is called a ‘valid regen’. Basically, they have to brake hard enough and long enough to meet a set of criteria and unlock the 30 percent boost that might already be there untapped.
“It’s not like the endurance side; hybrid is not something that has come slowly over the last few years,” said Craig Breen, who moved from Hyundai to lead the M-Sport attack in the championship. “This is the first exposure we have had so we have a lot to learn. Obviously I need a little time to get myself up to speed.”
Will drivers brake in the corners they normally level? “There’s definitely a bit of adaptation that needs to be made,” Breen said. “This is an exchange; We want to unlock as many boosts as we can, but obviously every time you brake. You slow down the car.
“So you have to be realistic about where you’re really better off braking a little bit more, and getting a boost, and where you’re better off not worrying about it and just bringing the pace. It’s going to take over the rallies for years to come and it may take a few seasons before people can really get over it.”
It’s hard to imagine some of the most committed rally drivers of yore – a certain Scot, whose image adorns the base hall of M-Sport’s Lake District, springs to mind – all cool with deliberate hard braking where it’s not needed, just for a quick electric boost to the straight. next. Mind you, braking hard into a corner before exiting with a whole heap of extra power can make for some great slapstick action.
Which brings us to a new aspect of security. The Fiesta WRC that came out was exactly that – the shell of a production Fiesta given a motorsport makeover. At the heart of all new Rally1 cars is a steel frame chassis that follows strict regulations with several bespoke panels (some of which are carbon) bonded to it. Side impact protection has been a big focus, and several high-speed shunts in testing – involving rival Puma – have given the new spaceframe a tough test. While some cage angles are determined by the FIA, M-Sport promises you’ll be able to tell the three Rally1 gladiators apart in their simplest form.
Upstairs, though, you see a much more racing Puma than you’ll find on the street, which has three doors and a sleeker aesthetic unlike seeing your partner a few weeks after they’ve tried a fad diet. Or have been ravaged by the incessant stomach flu. It sits much lower to the ground than its road-loving cousin and appears to have had the liposuction done from it, though that might be a trick of its bespoke proportions. I suggest this is the main base for the Puma RS to walk around – with a full 534bhp output, obvs – and get lots of grins and ‘ifs’ in return.
To be fair, this would be many of performance on the road. My stint in the co-driver’s seat amounted to a few minutes at Kirkbride Airfield, but never having so little time in the car gave such a clear and lasting impression of what it can do. You want a low-priced set that mimics loose-surface motorsport? The fall Cumbrian airfield gives an old impression of it.
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But David makes the Puma look incredibly precise, with the ballet handbrake turning the cherry on top of its incredibly hard braking after a number of zero-to-130mph(ish) laps. Puma is at once surprising and not confused, amazing but not. The modern rally car is a true swan of motorsport, expensive distinction, and dampening that provides the driver with a sense of calm.
But the holy cow is fast. Those three full seconds of propulsion were rocket precision, and with five short, sharp gears, we seemed to be pushing our estimated top speed in an instant. And while gliding lavishly over the filthy, pockmarked surface that nearly shook the door card of my Hyundai road car on the way to our rendezvous.
I can’t comment on the increased safety of the 2022 top rally car because David is a man and doesn’t crash. Is hybrid technology an occasional boost other than a gimmick for commenters to get their tongues twisted? That’s up for debate. In time, we might see the car spinning silently around the service area, or walking between stages using electric power just to crank up some positive local PR. As for performance, the extra power has made a fleeting but ballistic impression on my bobble-hatted head with pride. Seeing how many drivers choose to use the boost at every turn – and how many swerve on the brake pedal and just stick to last year’s speed record – will be a real determinant of how successful the WRC’s electrification will be.
“Some drivers may still be trying to drive their own way,” said M-Sport development boss Tim Jackson. “But in the end they won’t win. People who can adapt to challenges with an open mind, don’t get caught up in their ways, will be the ones to be rewarded at the end of the season.”