The story behind Martin Wilkinson and CA1 Sport. By Jack Benyon LATEST POWERHOUSE ?
Not many national rally operations can boast a man who managed a car for one of the most legendary names in the sport for a number of years, but CA1 Sport certainly has that nailed down.
The Cumbrian outfit was started by Martin Wilkinson, who at one stage was responsible – engineering and everything in between – for Colin Mcrae at his time with M-sport.
The rallying bug bit early in Wilkinson’s case. A nearby family friend was Gavin Waugh, notorious in 1970s rally circles for being one of the first fully-sponsored drivers in the sport backed by White Horse Scotch Whisky in Chrysler and Hillman Avengers. It wasn’t long before Wilkinson was immersed in the sport he loved. After a brief spell campaigning Ford Escort Mk2s, Wilkinson moved to the mechanical side of the sport with the famous Mike Little Preparations outfit. It was here that Wilkinson first came across M-sport boss Malcolm Wilson.
“After I’d served my time as a mechanic I got offered a full time job at Mike Little Preparations,” says Wilkinson. “We did the world championship with various people including Mohammed Bin Sulayem, Stig Blomqvist and many good drivers of that era.
“I was rallying myself at that time in a Mk2. I bought a lot of parts for that car from Malcolm Wilson Motorsport, which had a shop next door to where we were based. Malcolm offered me a job on lots of occasions but I didn’t bother as it was pretty much the same as I was doing where I was anyway.”
By 1996, Malcolm Wilson Motorsport was a serious player in the World Rally Championship and results like Jarmo Kytolehto’s 1000 Lakes Rally podium in that season were enough to convince Ford to give the WRC contract to a soon-tobe re-named M-sport.
“When Malcolm got the Ford contract at the end of 1996 he asked me again to go and work for him as he had a very small team at the time,” adds Wilkinson. “When I started there were a dozen of us, when I left in 2006 there were over 300 people working there.”
By 1999, Mcrae was on M-sport’s books along with Carlos Sainz, and the nature of Wilkinson’s relations with the Scot’s Focus WRC were intimate.
Wilkinson says: “I was in control of everything on Colin’s car, whether it was engineering, parts, whatever. We were overseeing everything at the time.”
It’s not only the cars Wilkinson has looked after. He was quickly on the scene to help save the Scot’s life when he was trapped in the Focus after crashing out of the 2000 Tour de Corse event.
One man who remembers the period well is Nicky Grist, Mcrae’s co-driver. According to the Welshman, what Wilkinson couldn’t fix wasn’t fixable.
“Martin was a very important part in our success,” explains Grist. “If we came back with a car that needed a lot of TLC, you could guarantee that Martin and the guys we had around us would do the business, more often than not we would leave service with a car we could drive. He was a bit of a miracle-worker.
“The job he did was very important but, when our backs were against the wall, it was his planning and thinking that he would make the impossible, possible. He could turn his hand to the car and come up with something to pull us out of the situation we were in.”
By 2006, Wilkinson had decided enough was enough and that he’d been there and done it all. It was time for a new challenge and to set up his own team with a gap in the market in his mind.
“When I started CA1 Sport there were only a few teams doing the world championship. There weren’t really any bigger teams like there had been before. When I started doing the job at the end of the 1980s there was RED, Mike Taylor Developments, Mike Little Preparations, Gordon Spooner Engineering, Malcolm Wilson Motorsport. There were a vast amount of big teams [in the UK] who all had big contracts and were doing the world championship, but that tailed off over time.
“I could see there weren’t that many UK teams doing things properly in the world or European championships in 2006. I thought if we can do a good job, we could go and get some good customers and do an international championship. With the knowledge I had and the mechanics I knew – I’ve worked for most of the manufacturer teams at one point or another – I thought there was scope for it. When I started CA1 sport that was the intention: to run people properly with the full package.”
And provide a package it has. CA1 has had success with Ott Tanak, Robert Barrable and most recently Fredrik Ahlin, who will form part of this year’s BRC attack.
Despite running relatively successfully in WRC2, Wilkinson believes that the new-look BRC is somewhere he wants to place his focus. “I’m passionate about having a British championship,” he says. “It needs to be a place where people from all over the world will look at, certainly as a stepping stone into the WRC if not even a step into a factory drive. It’s died off over the past few years and it’s been terrible for British rallying.”
CA1 Sport has put together a crack squad this year, starting with 2011 BRC champion David Bogie, who has been confirmed for the BRC in a Skoda Fabia R5 ( see Rally News).
The second CA1 driver, who is also expected to run at the front of the series, is Fredrik Ahlin, a young Swede who has shown a lot of pace but hasn’t quite delivered the results.
“For Fredrik, there are a lot of people don’t know him,” says Wilkinson. “His times are fantastic. Most people have heard of Jari Ketomaa and if you look at the times he was doing two years ago in Sweden, Fredrik was matching and beating his times. He has the raw pace.”
Wilkinson does admit that Ahlin will struggle through lack of experience on asphalt – and it isn’t Bogie’s favourite surface either – but the third driver in the team is Alex Laffey, multiple MSA Asphalt Junior champion.
The direction of the CA1 squad will always favour young drivers thanks to Wilkinson’s ethos of favouring junior talent.
“I did the world championship for over 20 years,” adds Wilkinson. “I’ve seen the transition from it being manic with things like chase cars, helicopters and 10 to 12 service vehicles to it now being a single-point service area where the cars get one service a day.
“I’ve seen the whole spectrum. From Group B, through Group A and into WRC cars, I have a lot of experience there.
“I like working with younger drivers and bring them on. As a direction for the company, I don’t have any aspirations to definitely go and do the whole WRC again or the whole European championship.
“I’m happy to do a championship with a young driver where I can watch him improve through that time. If that means a full programme in the world championship then fantastic, that’s great for us. That’s not the point though: I’m enjoying helping the guys and doing the job properly.”
Talking about doing the job properly, Wilkinson has put his faith in the BRC this year by running three cars in the series, but he believes end result will be worth it.
“I’m looking forward to the BRC this year,” concludes Wilkinson. “Probably more so than we have done any year before the world championship.”
Can CA1 Sport deliver the first BRC champion of the new era?
That’s a question we’ll only have an answer for at the end of the 2016 BRC season on the Isle of Man, but if the answer is no, it won’t be for a lack of talent and management from the small outfit on the edge of the Lake District. ■