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Opinion

Why tough love has allowed Fourmaux to reach new WRC heights

OPINION: M-Sport has helped cultivate numerous World Rally Championship superstars and at times its methods can appear ruthless. But it seems a strategy that helped Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans unlock their potential is now working wonders for Adrien Fourmaux

Adrien Fourmaux, Alexandre Coria, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Three rounds into the 2024 World Rally Championship season, a compelling case could be made for Adrien Fourmaux to be classed as the driver of the season so far. The Frenchman has turned heads on his full-time Rally1 return, exceeding both his and the M-Sport Ford team's expectations to sit third in the championship standings.

Fifth in the Monte Carlo opener, he then took a first outright podium in the WRC in Sweden before repeating his third place in Kenya. That made Fourmaux the first driver since Dani Sordo in 2006 to follow up a maiden podium with a top-three in their next event.

Fourmaux's impressive start to 2024 has left him sitting 23 points adrift of championship leader Thierry Neuville. The former doctor in training-turned rally driver is 13 points ahead of Neuville's Hyundai team-mate Ott Tanak, the man he replaced at M-Sport this year. But the key statistic that outlines Fourmaux's stark turnaround in form is this: he has already eclipsed his entire 2022 tally by 31 points after three rounds.

This improvement can seemingly be attributed to a strategy of stepping backwards to go forward, employed by M-Sport, renowned cultivators of young rally talent. It's an approach that three-time WRC runner-up Elfyn Evans and 2019 world champion Tanak know all too well.

"In all honestly, I didn't expect us to be third in the drivers' championship," M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson tells Motorsport.com. "I probably didn't expect to get back-to-back podiums, but Adrien has got them by being smart.

"The thing about rally is it is a long process [to be successful]. Sadly, there is no quick route unless you are absolutely exceptional like a Sebastien Loeb or whatever. You have to look at how long it took with Ott and Elfyn and how long it has taken with Adrien. There is no short cut, unfortunately."

Fourmaux has shown superb form since returning to a Rally1 seat after a year out of the spotlight

Fourmaux has shown superb form since returning to a Rally1 seat after a year out of the spotlight

Photo by: McKlein / McMaster

Fourmaux burst onto the top-flight rally scene with M-Sport in 2021, finishing fifth in Croatia on his first outing in a full WRC car. He went on to score a maiden stage win in Kenya that season, finishing five of eight rallies inside the top seven. Such form created plenty of excitement and growing expectation that M-Sport had found the driver who could be France's next rallying hero after Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, as Motorsport.com discussed at the time here.

But the following season, the first of the hybrid Rally1 era, proved to be a nightmare campaign for Fourmaux, headlined by high-profile crashes and reliability issues. M-Sport kept the faith with its young driver, having seen his abundant potential, but made the difficult call to drop him back to the lower Rally2 tier for 2023. This was combined with an ultimately successful programme in the British Rally Championship that yielded the title that Wilson himself won in 1994 and Evans managed in 2016.

Taking young guns out of the top tier and placing them in Rally2 for a season or two is a tried-and-tested method the team has utilised on more than one occasion. It did so with Tanak and now Toyota star Evans when the pair were at the Cumbria stable, and it appears to be working again with Fourmaux.

"What we did last year has had a big influence on where he is now. He is a very clever boy, and he now understands what he needs to do"
Malcolm Wilson

"Pushing these drivers back into Rally2 seems to work," smiles Wilson. "It worked with Elfyn, it worked with Ott and now it seems to have worked with Adrien.

"In fairness, Adrien is not doing anything more [now] probably than what I always felt he was capable of. But what we did last year has had a big influence on where he is now. Obviously, as you can imagine I'm delighted, but he is a very clever boy, and he now understands what he needs to do and that is the bit I love to see when working with these guys.

"It is about maturing and understanding what makes the world go round. He is now starting to show the potential that I have always believed he had."

The similarities with Fourmaux's growth in ability and confidence to those of Tanak and Evans after their seasons in Rally2 are telling. Tanak's first top-tier WRC full-time campaign with M-Sport in 2012 was far from being disastrous. The Estonian picked up 52 points and scored a maiden podium in Sardinia. On his return to the WRC top class in 2015 after a spell in Rally2, he picked up 63 points and by 2017 was an established winner capable of pushing Ogier and Neuville in the championship.

Sending drivers back to the less-pressured environment of WRC2 is a tactic M-Sport has employed previously with great success for Tanak (pictured) and Evans

Sending drivers back to the less-pressured environment of WRC2 is a tactic M-Sport has employed previously with great success for Tanak (pictured) and Evans

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Likewise, Evans dropped back to Rally2 in 2016 after two seasons in the main class with M-Sport which had yielded two podiums. The 2015 campaign was his best, finishing seventh overall with 89 points. The Welshman then spent 2016 building confidence in WRC2, winning three rounds and only missing out on the title by 10 points to Esapekka Lappi alongside his BRC exploits.

When drafted back into M-Sport's WRC team for 2017, Evans scored a maiden win and two podiums while amassing 128 points to finish fifth in the standings. Since joining Toyota in 2020, he has become a regular title contender.

Demoting a driver from a seat in rallying's top tier to Rally2 can understandably be interpreted as a negative move. But even if they don't want to admit it, for some drivers it appears exactly the right call for their career. Wilson says the thinking behind the strategy is always centred around creating an environment to allow the driver to rediscover the confidence required to unlock their potential.

"I'm not going to give all my secrets away," Wilson jokes when asked to elaborate on the tactic. "There is no rocket science to it. Personally, what it does do and if you look at all of them, they all had a difficult season in Rally1 cars, so the confidence is not where it needs to be.

"For me, so much of this job is about confidence and being happy with driving. The opportunity to get back in the Rally1 car and the confidence and success from Rally2 helps. It is all about being in the right frame of mind."

Fourmaux himself has acknowledged that he learned a huge amount last season competing in Rally2 machinery, despite the initial frustrations of being dropped from the Rally1 line-up. A season away from the spotlight has not only helped Fourmaux find his confidence, but he's also improved his ability to manage WRC rallies. Learning when to push and back off has reaped rewards in each of 2024's opening rallies that present unique challenges. But above all of that, Fourmaux is enjoying his driving again, a commodity that shouldn't be forgotten.

"It was not a bad thing to do [to go back to Rally2]," a reflective Fourmaux tells Motorsport.com. "It was really frustrating at the beginning, but now looking at where I am and what we have done, it is really positive.

Wilson knows that rebuilding confidence can be crucial for allowing drivers to unlock their potential

Wilson knows that rebuilding confidence can be crucial for allowing drivers to unlock their potential

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

"I think it was the right decision to make because I could be myself and put a lot of things away and just focus on getting back to the feeling of driving and enjoying. In 2022, in the end, I wasn't enjoying it all because the pressure was there, and it was negative pressure at times.

"I prefer to have positive pressure, so in the end, it was just better to be in Rally2. There was much more focus on Ott and Pierre-Louis [Loubet] and I just had to drive and deliver the best result. Now I can accept pressure from the team to deliver because I know I am capable of doing it.

"I have been working on some details, we have gained some reliability [in the team] and also some comfort, but it is all about preparation and how to manage rallies. I think the experience was also a big part. In rallies, you could be leading or fighting for a position, and you still have to manage your tyres, car and you have to be smart. I have been working a lot on that last year and that has helped me transfer that to Rally1 now.

"We have given him the tools to do the job, and the fact that he has matured, we are both seeing the benefits"
Malcolm Wilson

"In 2022 it was not always my fault, the car was breaking down as well, so there were a few rallies where I didn't score points with a reliability issue. For sure the team has been making some progress, the car has been reliable, which is really positive. It is small details that make the difference."

Another key aspect in Fourmaux's arsenal is his ability to act as a team player and endear himself to his colleagues, which will bode well as he aims to continue his upward trajectory. This was perhaps best showcased in 2022 after his frightening Monte Carlo accident when Fourmaux arrived at M-Sport's Dovenby workshop spanner-in-hand to help his mechanics repair his Ford Puma.

Wilson believes this side of Fourmaux's character will only add to his growth as a driver and his ability to unlock the most from his M-Sport package.

"I have been saying to him that he has an incredible opportunity, and he can make this his team," Wilson adds. "He can have everybody working for him and that is what he is doing. This, combined with how he has got his head around finishing events, is the whole package that is coming together.

Following his maiden podium in Sweden, Fourmaux doubled up in Kenya to underline his maturity

Following his maiden podium in Sweden, Fourmaux doubled up in Kenya to underline his maturity

Photo by: M-Sport

"He learned a lot of things last year and we had some good discussions about how to tackle it. He was very clear about what he wanted from the engineers. We have given him the tools to do the job, and the fact that he has matured, we are both seeing the benefits."

This weekend's visit to Croatia offers up the next test for Fourmaux 2.0, who is eager to add a podium on asphalt to his gravel and snow successes on an event that after the high of 2021 featured one of the low points of his 2022 season. Caught out on a wet patch, his crash into the garden of a residential property inflicted chassis damage that prevented him from rejoining.

It is no secret that M-Sport and Fourmaux have taken a strategic approach to the first three rallies, which has been executed expertly, but now the WRC enters a series of performance rallies where the focus will turn more to outright speed.

"Let's not kid ourselves we are now moving into a part of the season where a lot more focus will be on performance," says Wilson. "But he has been doing a lot of work on that and he has been quick in Croatia before. The next few events are going to be another step for him.

"This will be another step on the ladder for Adrien and I'd be very happy if he can finish in the top five in Croatia."

Can Fourmaux continue his strong start to 2024 as the WRC returns to Tarmac?

Can Fourmaux continue his strong start to 2024 as the WRC returns to Tarmac?

Photo by: M-Sport

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