It was a stopgap, pure and simple. The result of a hastily struck deal between the FIA, Ford and M-Sport, the latter having been given the contract to run Ford’s official WRC team some months earlier. It was never a consistent WRC winner and often lagged behind its rivals in terms of pace of development, with its Group A origins never truly banished nor overcome. 

Yet the Escort WRC became one of the most beloved rally cars of the early Word Rally Car era and an undisputed ‘90s rally icon despite its shortcomings, something doubtless aided by it being piloted by some of the era’s most talented drivers. It also had that somewhat broken looking rear wing, comically aggressive anti-lag…and perhaps the finest Repsol livery motorsport has yet seen. 

Sainz gets to grips with the Escort WRC during pre ’97 season testing

Ford’s relationship with top-tier rallying was one of compromise for much of the latter quarter of the 20th century. Cars like the RS1700T, the RS200 and even the Sierra Sapphire all showed pace and potential yet all three were undone, either by timing, circumstance, or in the case of the latter, size and mass. The Sapphire Cosworth-based Escort was supposed to set the record straight of course, but while its Monte-bagging performances did enable its maker to save face and regain a modicum of rallying respect, a mix of poor luck and lack of pace (not to mention Delecour’s F40 incident) meant that the be-winged Ford was never a regular Impreza or a Celica-beater. 

All of which brings us to 1996, the year in which the FIA rubber stamped the regulations that become the World Rally Car formula we now know. The passage of time has served cloud what was an incredibly turbulent time for the sport or rallying, with Toyota’s enforced sabbatical having turned the squabble for honours into a two horse race; Subaru pitched against Mitsubishi. For all its undoubted early promise and presence, by 1996 the Escort Cosworth was looking a little old hat.  Carlos Sainz’s metronomic point scoring ability enabled him to clinch 3rd in the drivers’ championship that year but it couldn’t hide the awkward truth, namely that the Cosworth was no longer a match for its Japanese rivals. 

Promo shot of from the Escort WRC’s launch

It’s true that they say though, the more things change, the more they stay the same: just as the present World Rally Championship is in a state of near panic as to its continued viability for OEM car makers, so it was just over twenty years ago. Toyota would of course return to the fold in time for 1997 of course, but the powers that be were painfully aware that they were one lost car maker away from a real crisis of competitiveness.

The desire to keep Ford in the WRC, at the time the only European car maker committed, was a deciding factor in the FIA’s decision to allow M-Sport to homologate the Escort WRC in time for the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally. The Escort itself was living on borrowed time of course, what with the much vaunted Focus due to make its forecourt bow in just over a year’s time. No car maker, not even one as large as Ford, was going to countenance the idea of designing, testing and building a World Rally Car from scratch, not if its Works career (and mass market relevance) was going to be measured in months rather than years. 

Sainz drove the wheels off the Escort throughout 1997, and Rally Finland was no different

So Ford went to the FIA, not quite cap in hand but certainly with a timid, all or nothing request. The Escort, the backbone of FoMoCo’s rallying exploits for well over 20 years, required a stay of execution, some bending of the rules and the consent of Ford’s rivals. In return, the FIA would get another manufacture entrant for the first season run under the WRC regs. The deal was duly done, albeit with a rumble of dissent from some of the blue oval’s rivals, all of whom had to (eventually) consent to the move.

Rubber stamping the paperwork was, if anything, the easy bit – it was now down to M-Sport and Ford to carry out the revisions required to make the Escort a competitive rally car once more, and with mere months in which to do it. A good idea of just how frenetic the pace of development was can be gleaned from the fact that just 6 months separated the FIA’s approval of the Escort and its initial homologation. Tall orders don’t come much steeper.

Sainz inspects the damage to team mate Schwarz’s Escort on the ’97 Tour de Corse

Much of the re-engineering work was focussed on one of the Escort’s biggest weak points and a link with its late ‘80s, Sierra underpinnings, its semi-trailing rear suspension setup. As is the case today, rally engineers at the tail end of the 20th century were constantly striving to improve the suspension performance, and more specifically, the suspension travel, of their cars, and the development of the new Escort gave M-Sport’s finest greater freedom to make improvements in this regard. 

The Escort WRC’s revised rear suspension system was nominally based on that of the Mondeo road car, although it was heavily revised in readiness for a life spent hammering special stages. The ‘strut independent’ layout was nevertheless a quantum leap over the semi-trailing system the Escort had inherited from its Sierra-based forebearer, and far more conducive to maximising road-tyre contact.

Sainz decamped to Toyota and took Repsol backing with him, so the Escorts sported a different livery for 1998

While the venerable Cosworth YB was a fundamentally reliable engine and well suited to continued use, it had been hampered by the addition of Ford’s seven-speed gearbox in the later portion of the Escort Cosworth’s career, the MS95. This unit didn’t survive the move from Group A to WRC rules and was replaced by a far more capable X-Trac sequential system before the conclusion of the year.

The performance of Group A rally cars had been soaring for a full decade by the time the Escort WRC took its competitive bow and the FIA, with the tragedies associated Group B no doubt at the forefront of their mind, had taken steps to peg back performance via the introduction of mandated turbo restrictors, a 34mm one for the ’97 season. This had hampered the YB to a disproportionate degree and as such Ford took steps to rectify things as far as possible with the Escort WRC.

Note the national flags used to denote the nationality of the crew. No prizes for guessing whereabouts Thiry originates from…

The most obvious engine change was its forced induction system, with an IHI turbo replacing the mammoth Garret found on the ‘Big Turbo’ Cosworth. This being the ’90s, the revised YB with its smaller ‘snail’ had to be homologated with a supporting run off production cars, hence the deviation between ‘big’ and ‘small’ turbo road-going ‘Cossies.’ The new car also gained a new exhaust manifold, and revised injection system and Pectel management.

Of course the most obvious under bonnet difference between the Escort and its ‘proper’ World Rally Car rivals was the position of its engine, the YB’s rear-wheel drive, Sierra-based origins all too apparent in its longitudinal location. The likes of Mitsubishi and, in time, Toyota, Peugeot, Seat and Skoda, all used transverse engine layouts. Subaru’s flat four ‘boxer’ was located longitudinally, though its unique configuration ensured it was a very different beast to the old-school Escort.

Which looked better, Repsol or Ford was paint?

The biggest differences between the Cosworth and the WRC were visual, Ford having spent hours in its German wind tunnel to devise an aerodynamic package that both met the new rules and was more effective than found on its predecessor. The Cosworth’s signature rear wing was too large and was replaced, the new car gaining its somewhat divisive (yet wind tunnel proven) spoiler, while the front end was revised to aid airflow and therefore cooling.

Four Works drivers piloted the Escort WRC over the course of its short, two year career – Carlos Sainz, Bruno Thiry, Armin Schwarz and, when the latter’s sponsorship funds failed to materialise by the midpoint of the 1997 season, Juha Kankkunen.

Sideways, snow-bound heroics for Kankkunen

It’s fair to say that Ford were somewhat fortunate to secure the services of Sainz for the Escort’s debut season. The two-time champ had found himself on enforced gardening leave by Toyota’s year long ban, and while his would-be team mate Kankkunen opted to spend his years off playing golf and tending to his moustache, Sainz signed a 2year long deal with Ford. 

1997 would prove to be the Escort WRC’s best season, which perhaps isn’t that surprising when you consider the rapidly evolving nature of the ‘pure’ World Rally Cars it was facing off against. Sainz won twice, in Greece and Indonesia, while a rash of podiums kept him (and Ford) in the hunt until the end. He fell someway short of Makinen and Mitsubishi, but it was a positive season all the same.

Thiry flying high and making a mockery of that rear wing

The following year was tougher. Increased, World Rally Car competition from rivals like Subaru and Toyota, now with its Corolla WRC with Sainz at the wheel, ultimately told, and there were no more Escort victories. Kankkunen contributed further podiums, including incredible drives to 2nd on the Monte, the Safari and the RAC, but it was clear that the tide had finally (and permanently) turned against the Escort.

The history books don’t do the Escort WRC any favours, not if you define success by bare stats alone. It collected a handful of wins over the course of its short, two year career, and effectively kept the wolf from the door as far as Ford’s world rallying aspirations were concerned. Not great, not a world beater, certainly a less successful car than the Focus which replaced it. 

Lights ablaze for Kankkunen on the ’98 Monte Carlo Rally

Yet as is so often the case when talk turns to truly iconic rally cars, the ones which remains stubbornly rooted within your mind’s eye the instant you catch sight of them, the Escort WRC endures. Whether it’s down to its role in cementing the relationship between Ford and M-Sport, because it was the last in a line of models forever associated with rallying or merely because it looked simply brilliant in either Repsol or Ford Motorsport getup, the Escort WRC endures. 

Still need some convincing of the WRC’s worth as a Retropower Hero? Well, take a good, long watch of this period video of Sainz and Schwarz in action on the ’97 Tour de Corse; seldom have a part of ‘modern’ rally cars looked or sounded as aggressive.

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