After two seasons acting as 'super-sub' for Team Halfords, Gareth Howell is off to pastures new for 2007 after agreeing a deal to lead Motorbase Performance into its second season in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship.

Howell will drive one of the two ex-works SEAT Toledos purchased by Dave Bartrums team towards the end of 2006 as he embarks on a full season in the BTCC and will aim to use the proven S2000 machine to try and fight for the title currently held by his now former team-mate Matt Neal.

Crash.net took the chance to speak to Gareth at last weekends Autosport International show ahead of the official confirmation of the deal, and can now reveal exactly what he had to say...

Q:
Gareth, exciting news for the season ahead, just bring us up to speed with the plans...

Gareth Howell:
Basically a deal has been done with Motorbase Performance and Dave Bartrum to drive one of the SEAT Toledos that ran in 2005 and were sat in Spain last year. They have very little mileage on them and haven't had any big accidents or anything - I won't be using the one that James Pickford had a big off in at Knockhill! It's a done deal and is amazing to be standing here so early in the year and know at the Autosport show what I'm going to be doing. I've been coming here for 15 years and I'd have to go back to my Karting days to remember a time when I knew what I was doing in January.

Q:
It must be really nice as for the last few years with Halfords you've been ready and raring to go and had to wait until the end of the year to get a drive, so just how good does it feel to know you have a full season ahead of you?

Gareth Howell:
It's unbelievable, it's every drivers dream to be able to get properly focused. The fact I'm not a budgeted driver left me in the arms of the gods really with the guys at Dynamics. I wouldn't have been asked by Dave to take this drive if they hadn't put me where I am so I owe a hell of a lot to Steve Neal and the guys there. But it was a case of waiting until the budget was there to run a third car and nine times out of ten, that wouldn't be at the start of the year - it's always going to be when they see how the year goes, how much damage they picked up etcetera, and they claw a bit in to run at the end of the year.

I was just looking at doing that again really and it's horrible as I've said to you to before. It's a horrible, horrible feeling just knowing that the first round is getting closer and you have nothing sorted. Now I can focus, we are raring to get the car on the tarmac and it should happen before February - hopefully we will have done a shakedown by the end of the month. Its just brilliant for me, I'm so happy that I can focus in the gym and focus mentally and know that I will be out there for the full year.

Q:
So after a few years with Halfords, how did the deal with Motorbase come about?

Gareth Howell:
Dave approached me at the Autosport Awards after a few jars of ale - and I think that applies to both him and me! I obviously knew he had the cars and I asked how it was looking for next year, all perfectly innocently as at that point I was punting for the Dynamics seat, and he said 'Actually mate, you're top of my list'. I thought it was the beer talking more than anything and took it with a pinch of salt. But he was on the phone to me that week and told me that he was serious and wanted to put a deal together where he could have enough team budget to select as least the lead driver. He confirmed deals between then and now so there is the team funding in place to run the lead car.

Q:
Its almost a case of mission accomplished really because in the last few years, while you've wanted to get in with Team Halfords, the limited programme has given you the chance to show other teams in the paddock what you can achieve..

Gareth Howell:
Yeah and its nice that as a result of what Dynamics have been able to put me in, which was a fantastic car, that I've gone out there and proved myself against the British champion and have been able to as good as match him. That has been a great stepping stone because now, rather than chasing everybody, people are starting to come to me which feels fantastic.

Q:
The Toledo is a proven car and we've seen what it can do in the BTCC, mainly from the time that SEAT used it for a few seasons. What are you hoping to achieve with the car this year?

Gareth Howell:
Well I think it's been run really well by Northern South but we're not just sitting on the car as it is, we are moving it forward.

It's obviously been stripped back to the bare bones the shell and is being repainted and then built up by the mechanics who are learning the car as they go. They are very clued up guys, a lot of them used to work for VLR and a lot of guys that are helping out are engineers who worked on the car when it was a works car - and the guys from Northern South have been a great help.

Luke [Hines] has been telling me a bit and will give me a little bit of his data and I'll see if I can tap Jason up a little bit although that might be harder given that he still races! It's a good team and a good car, we have a good deal for the engine tuning that is virtually done so it has all the bones of a good venture.

Q:
And we've already seen the potential for the car in Motorbase hands at Silverstone last year with Tom Ferrier mixing it near the front, and that came with the team having only had it for a matter of days...

Gareth Howell:
Yeah, it was proof of what the team can do and what the car can do. They had that car for four days before the round and were missing countless bits like roll bars, dampers and springs and Tom did a great job just getting it round, never mind being as quick as he was. His quickest time in the third race, I was looking the other day, was half a second off my lap which was the fastest of the race. For a car that you've almost thrown together, it was really competitive and to go out there with so little experience of the car and be vying for the lead showed how strong Motorbase are.
Q:
It looks like being a strong season ahead and SEAT start as the favourites with the Leon but Vauxhall won't rest on their laurels, Halfords will want to reclaim the titles again and we have the RAC BMWs.

From a championship point of view, what do you think you can achieve? Do you feel that a proven S2000 package means you could be an outside bet to finish in the top three in the standings?

Gareth Howell:
I wouldn't bet against that. As a driver, you are there to win all the races and win the championship. I think we are capable of doing that, not winning all the races, but I am going for a championship win and I know that Dave is.

We are the dark horses I think. There are a lot of new cars out there that won't have data for the circuits. The continuity of the Leon with SEAT will be the one to beat and they are out testing, Vauxhall I understand are out testing in a few weeks but won't have any back-up data at the circuits they are racing on, Dynamics are going to be late starters as are WSR as their kit form BMWs don't arrive until mid-February so they will be a mid-March starter and it won't give them much time and they don't have the back-up data.

We will have the jump on a few teams and will be shaking down in two weeks and hopefully going out to do some warm weather testing rather than going round in the damp at Donington. Normally I'm lucky to get a single test day before I go out for my first race of the year, never mind three months of it, but this year I'm going for race wins, I'm going for podiums and I'm going for the championship.

Q:
With all you've said about the problems other teams may face, how important do you believe the early rounds of the year in particular will be when you might have an advantage over some of the other front-runners?

Gareth Howell:
The late starters I'm sure will get the package together eventually, but it is how quickly they can do that. Dynamics proved it in 2005 where they started the year a lot better than anyone else. Vauxhall had their new car then but Dynamics got the package sorted quickly and if you can start the season well and you can be in control in mid-season, then it is down to everyone else to try and catch you up.

I'm not going to start saying we will set the world alight but I'm quietly confident that if we can hit the ground running, get out there before other people and get a healthy points tally in those opening rounds, other teams that are developing cars might not start coming through until a couple of rounds in as they learn their cars and we can get a jump on them.

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