Rich Millener Interview – Autosport International 2024

Rich is the team principle of the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team and has been for around four years. I had the opportunity to speak to him on the second day of the Autosport Show when he and Adrien Fourmaux unveiled the Puma Rally1 with its 2024 livery.

I started by asking him about the new points system that has been introduced for this year and what he thought about it.

Rich

“I’m positive about it, because it gives a lot of opportunity, the sport needs to develop, and keep developing to be relevant. Last time we developed was when power stage points were introduced about five years ago if not more. We’re really done nothing since. I know this is a big change for the die-hard fans, but for me I think it’s an opportunity for a young driver team like us. We will probably have an advantageous road positions on some rallies, so for the first two days, we could have a great result could be top three, whatever, and we know when we get to Sunday, we’ve already bagged some points. Currently if you get to Saturday night, you’ve still got to push or be sensible. Now you can be sensible on Sunday knowing even if you have a bad Sunday, you’re still getting your points for Friday and Saturday. Also, more of a team involvement. Unfortunately, with rally at the moment the minute the car leaves the service the team does not do a lot. When people follow a sport, the characters they follow are not only the drivers, but the team as well, and yet maybe people know who I am, who Malcolm is and the drivers, they don’t know who the mechanics are, who the strategy people are, the engineers but you look at Formula One, Drive to Survive and the way Formula One do it, if you look at the social media accounts of the number one mechanics of various cars on the grid, they’ve all got huge followings, they’re all characters and they’re the kind of people that are followed by people who can get to their position. Not everyone can be a driver, but everyone can find a place in a team if they want to. I think the new points system, really the team it’s a massive thing and also changing up a bit developing, if you look at any other sport and think back to a few years ago it will be very different to where it is now. Because it changes and everyone is positive there’s no discussion you very quickly get used to it. Look at Formula One, how different it is in terms of qualifying, Q1, Q2 and Q3. Fastest lap time, fastest pitstop for the teams, they’re always doing something. Yes, it’s a big change, I get that, but might as well look at the positives.”

Warren

“Give me your thoughts on the lack of a WRC event in the British Isles, the lack of the rally in the United Kingdom? There’s a lot of fans that I’m connected to, Elfyn fans, you might remember the Elfyns Corner from a few years ago, who are really quite upset there’s no British round.”

Rich

“I think getting a Welsh round is probably in the short term not going to happen to be honest. However, I heard some very positive news out of Ireland a few days ago in the bid they put forward for a three-year programme in the WRC, 2025, ’26, ’27, in Southern Ireland, with rotating locations and is a very strong bid. I’m very hopeful that happens, and I think as British fans wanting the Welsh forests back of course we do. If we can’t have that, the next best thing is that. The atmosphere would be incredible, and the event would be fantastic, and this has come about from some fairly passionate rally people who we spoke to on a few rallies last year and floated the idea of a Northern Ireland event that didn’t manage to get going. It’s a different governing body. Motorsport UK have their own things to concentrate on, Ireland wants to concentrate on WRC, which is great for us, so really looking forward to that and if we can get that will become a massively popular event.”

Warren

“Have you spoke to Elfyn about this situation considering his success over recent years?”

Rich

“Yes, I still speak to Elfyn quite a bit, not necessarily in a lot of detail. I’m sure he’d love a rally in his hometown. I also think we have to take rallying to the people as well, tarmac rally, it shouldn’t be underestimated how many people you can reach, you know to go to the Welsh forests it’s quite an effort, there’s no decent roads to get there and even when you get there the roads get worse. It’s a fantastic experience, and environment, but to grow the sport we have to make it even more accessible”.

Warren

“Let’s have your thoughts for last season, two victories and a couple of podiums, fastest stage times as well for the drivers. Sum up your 2023 season, what do you see was good and bad.”

Rich

“There was a lot of pressure at the start of the year, and lot of expectation to win the championship. I think I was realistic from the start it would be difficult. We won as many rounds as Hyundai, so in that respect that we did pretty well. But it didn’t go as we hoped, but ultimately we were trying to win the championship with one driver, and then a young driver finding his feet as a junior driver, only two cars, didn’t have much opportunity to have strategy in that respect, so we had some difficult rallies, some reliability issues mid-year and Estonia was the real kicker and it becomes very difficult to keep the team motivated because you know that chance is gone. I think there were a lot of ups and downs last year, but certainly Sweden and Chile were highlights. It makes it even more special when you win, but I think looking forward to this year, the pressure has kind of changed, relieved a bit, we have good opportunities to upset people, Adrien is doing a full season, and we can take that opportunity to take some good results.”

Warren

“What’s the expectation for Adrien then from a management point of view?”

Rich

“Certainly, he’s got some points to prove, but it’s about tempering that enthusiasm and having that approach over the season, not just one round. We shall pick moments in rallies later in the year on ones we really want to push on. The first three are quite specialist, so the goal will be quite consistent throughout and then go from there.”

Warren

“I asked Rich about what happened with Ott and his co-driver Martin leaving the team and when he found out.”

Rich

“Relatively late in the season, we weren’t in a position to offer him another season. There were a lot of things to make it come together, and we were not able to do that at the time. Ott had an offer to go back to Hyundai, and he did not want to find himself without a seat. I fully appreciate that he came to us knowing fully the level we were at and what we could achieve. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, and there’s no hard feelings or negativity towards his approach and what he wanted to do. We wish him all the best this year and he wants to win a world championship and he’s going somewhere where he feels that he can do that. He’s going to have a tough fight with teammates, but he’s certainly capable of winning.”

Warren

“Did Ott ultimately want to stay?”

Rich

“Maybe if we’d had a better middle season, he may have stayed but sometimes this is just the way it goes. We can’t always stay at that level we did the best we could that year and it unfortunately didn’t quite come off. We’ll try a different strategy this year and see what happens.”

Warren

“There’s some rumours from Autosprint (Italian motorsport publication) about changes with the cars for next year (2025).”

Rich

“It won’t happen next year.”

Warren

“What would that mean for M-Sport to go to a higher spec Rally2 type car?”

Rich

“Obviously I’ve read them all, it’s difficult to explain all the things that go into this kind of thing. From the outside it looks like a very easy decision to make, just go Rally2 and you’ll have lots of cars. Doesn’t mean that you’ll have any manufacturers, the sport won’t exist without manufacturers, and all of them have invested huge amounts of money in these cars (Rally1), that have a lifecycle of five years. To split it in two, you’ll upset quite a lot of people. Not saying we can’t make changes, but going back to Rally2 in one years’ time, well we don’t have any regulations, no time to develop the cars, I don’t see how you expect to do that in what is basically eleven months. It’s impossible. Not saying that there won’t be changes in 2026 or 2027, but to make big changes like that for 2025 is not realistic. Due diligence must be done, we need to get the resource and understanding for current OEM’s and future OEM’s. If your guaranteed you’re going to bring two more manufacturers in with these changes, that’s a different situation. If it just means that we stay at three or maybe even, go down if one didn’t want to do that it would make it worse. We’ve got to be fast, do all the research quickly to know which direction we’re going, but I think 2025 is maybe too early.”

Warren

“Of course, need to talk about Craig, your 2022 driver. It was a big shock for the sport. How did the team react at the time to all of that?”

Rich

“It was a big shock to everyone, I’m sure that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. It’s something no-one expected that would happen and still something you don’t necessarily believe or think, we still expect to get a WhatsApp from Craig at some point like it always used to be, but that’s never going to be the case. I think it was a very unfortunate set of circumstances, it just goes to show how cruel and hard the sport can be at times. All I can do is look back on good memories with Craig, I’ve known him for a very long time when he first came to M-Sport to drive the Fiesta ST when I first met him. I’ve known him effectively from the start of his rally career and we were good friends, we had a hard time in 2022 when things didn’t go as planned or hoped for him. I think it’s so sad, he was just finding his feet again at Hyundai, he would have been challenging for the championship again and we’ll never get to see that. For me it’s all about the good memories, and it’s a lot for the team, he was a proper rally fan, just one of the lads and a great guy to work with, but it’s really sad for everyone around him but I’ll always remember him for the positives.

Warren

“Thinking about the safety in pre-event tests, have there been any changes that you’ve made during tests, looking at the roads you’re using?”

Rich

“If you tried to take away everything dangerous in a stage, you wouldn’t have a stage. The FIA have done a lot of research into what happened, and there is a huge manual for test organisers, but unfortunately a certain set of circumstances comes around that you cannot plan for and all we have to do is keep constantly developing and doing the best we can to make it as safe. These cars are incredibly safe. I think all the stakeholders are doing the best that they can to make sure we’re as safe as possible.

Warren

“Finally, what led to picking your drivers for this season and when did they sign?”

Rich

“The plan was for Adrien was always to come back to Rally1, after a difficult 2022. We gave him an opportunity to show what he can do, he became a completely different driver last year and winning the British championship really helped as well, so it was a natural decision to put him into the car. Mid-season we were discussing this idea. Gregoire was a bit of a later decision, we were speaking with a lot of different drivers, and a lot of different options but we were looking for the best package for the team going forward, but it was clear from the beginning was to develop young drivers. Gregoire fitted very well into this set of criteria. We don’t expect results from the start, but we just want to see progression over the course of the year. As I said earlier, Adrien can pick and choose from events to try and score on. Gregoire is more of a case of slowing going forward and seeing what’s possible. No real pressure on the guys, just go out there and show what they can do.

 

Finally, a big thank you to Rich for his time and  also to Emily for assisting me.

 

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