The announcement from Ford that they would definitely be contesting the World Rally Championship in 2004 means that Ford's highly rated Focus WRC, as developed by M-Sport in Cumbria, will be further developed and in competitive action for another season. Here we have a look back at Ford's radical 2003 WRC challenger.

2003 represented a change in approach for Ford's rally effort, as managed by M-Sport under Malcolm Wilson. Where 2002 had seen a tried and tested driver and car combination, 2003 was to represent all change, and the approach from the team was to be technically led, with a radical new challenger in the form of the 2003 Ford Focus WRC.

It's a fair old effort to go rallying these days. Once upon a time seemingly you'd pick a car off the production line, chuck in a roll cage and a racy engine, and then you were set to tackle the world's most arduous rallies in the forerunner of the World Rally Championship.

Things never stay that simple for long however, and if you look at Ford's latest challenger you'll see a highly sophisticated machine pretty far removed from the car you'll see on the high street.

Whilst the days of the mid 1980s Group B super machines - where any relationship to the car on the street was left far, far behind - the sheer amount of technological expertise that goes into the WRC cars of today is pretty extraordinary. And for 2003 Ford made the decision to make sure it was at the head of this technological battle.

Just looking at the 2003 WRC Focus one thing you won't see, initially at least, is a driver. Ford's Focus WRC is so advanced that it actually drives itself. Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that, especially when you see the amount of computer kit that goes into it. The reality is that the driver, and even more so the co-driver, are mounted as low as possible to aid weight distribution.

Once you realise that Markko Martin and Francois Duval aren't actually dwarves, and that co-drivers, Michael Park and Stephane Pr?vot , can actually perform their co-driving duties from the floor using a periscope to see the road, it becomes clear how far evolved the 2003 car is from its previous incarnation.

The money saved by not using McRae and Sainz in 2003 was well spent. Mounting the drivers lower in the car was just one part of the car development such that 80% of the 2003 car could be considered new from the 2002 WRC Focus.

The actual outside shape of the car is even different. Where Peugeot sold a special GT version of the 206 in order to homologate the shape for the 206 WRC, Ford looked to the American version of the Focus, as the external measurements for this, with its US spec bumpers, allowed a better shape to be evolved in the wind tunnel.

Actual weight, as well as how it was distributed, was looked at. Everything was pared to the bone, except for the area of roll cage design, where a beefier construction was preferred in the name of safety. On the subject of weight distribution; where the 2002 Focus radiator sits upright, just as in a road car, the 2003 car's lies flat. A lot of coolant goes through that rad, so getting it as low and flat as possible delivers tangible benefits.

In order to tackle the variety of different surfaces that present themselves during the course of the year, suspension travel great enough to require crossing a time zone as it moves from fully compressed to fully extended was specified. When looking at the car close up this is very apparent, with kit that looks as if it should be attached to a rather large motocross bike being order of the day.

One risk, surmised old and wizen observers, was that if you were going to have a new car, you needed a driver with a vast history of experience to help develop it. Not so, apparently, and Ford and Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport team went on to show exactly why.

Computers, that's what was needed, computers. Somehow laptops and data-links aren't the first thing you picture when you consider rallying, but that's exactly what happens. Rallying, in the UK at least, should entail mud, cold and lump hammers being applied liberally to battered cars. It always seems a little strange to see the mud splattered and rock damaged vehicles at the end of a stage being descended upon by mechanics with fix it quick hammers accompanied by equally frantic activity from boffins with computers.

There's enough telemetry from the Ford Focus WRC to shame a Formula One car. If a rock hits the underside of the skid pan then computers can tell exactly the weight, size and density of it. Well they can't actually, but they do mighty impressive, technical stuff, stuff that no mere motorsport journalist could comprehend without donning half-moon glasses and much head scratching; but it's as impressive as if they could measure the rocks.

Pi Research, Ford's electronic technical partner, gets the credit for the level of electronic sophistication on the Focus, and there's clever touches you can see as well. Rather than a bank of switches many of the switching operations are controlled by a durable touch panel. Not only is this lighter, but there's less to go wrong as it's solid state electronic computer based switching. Lighter, more reliable and also rather cool, what more could you want?

Engine-wise further gains were made by Cosworth Engineering such that the 2003 motor was the lightest rally engine the company had ever produced. Since 2000, Cosworth has managed an 8% increase in power from the engine fitted to the WRC Focus, but at the same time has cut the weight by a massive 25%.

At the beginning of the season designer Christian Loriaux explained M-Sport's approach to the Focus. "We began with a clean sheet of paper and we've ended with a radical, revolutionary rally car which retains all that was good from the previous model."

It all seemed to work. Markko Martin, the man from Estonia, is a very impressive peddler and though his Wales Rally GB ended early, his season was one in which he and the WRC Focus continually showed great speed and potential. Come the season end he had lost his WRC win cherry with a sterling performance in Greece and went on to cement that with another in Finland.

"At the beginning of this project we started with a clean sheet of paper and open minds," commented Loriaux at the beginning of the year. "What we've ended up with is a car that is quite revolutionary in terms of mechanics and electronics." And one that won rallies. 2004 should see Ford's good form continue as the Focus develops further, though the competition is always hot, with Mitsubishi returning from its sabbatical, a in-form Citroen and an all-new 307-based car from Peugeot. It's set to be a fascinating season as all these different cars do battle.

In the next instalment we have a look at the man sitting low in the Focus, Estonian, Markko Martin.