by Rob Wilkins.

Subaru team leader, Petter Solberg currently leads the WRC drivers' championship, following two convincing back-to-back wins in Sweden and Mexico - the latter marking the debut of the new 2005 spec Impreza.

Crash.net Radio caught up with Petter ahead of next month's Rally New Zealand to get his thoughts on the season thus far, and on the exit of Citroen and Peugeot. Is he worried?

Read on to find out...

Q:
Petter, first up, congratulations on winning in Mexico and, of course, in Sweden, you must have been very pleased, especially in light of your DNF in Monte Carlo?

Petter Solberg:
Yeah, of course - especially winning with the old car in Sweden and the new one now in Mexico. It takes a lot of work behind the scenes to get the results on every single rally - a big, big team effort before we can go out and win on different types of surfaces. But, obviously I'm very, very delighted.

Q:
You now lead the drivers' championship, one point ahead of Markko Martin. Who do you see as your main rival/rivals for the title this year?

PS:
That's going to be Sebastien Loeb - definitely.

Q:
Will his chances be affected by the fact that Citroen are pulling out at the end of the year?

PS:
No, no, no - not at all. They have to be there. If they are there now, they have to actually do the best they can, although I know the personal objective is maybe bigger than the team effort.

Q:
You and Chris Atkinson gave the new Impreza its debut in Mexico. What was the verdict?

PS:
It's better than the old one - but I was not happy enough before the rally, and not even after the rally. So they are improving the car before New Zealand and that will mean it's much better I think. It's the small details to get absolutely the maximum performance out of the car. But there's still more work to come and I think, with the performance they have done now before New Zealand, it should help my driving style, for going for the 'crazy attack of driving' that I am calling it.

Q:
How much of an improvement was the new car over the old one?

PS:
It's difficult to get big steps these days, so it is always small improvements and, in percentage terms, I am not sure. But, obviously, if I can win with a car that I am not happy with in terms of driveability, it must be okay!

Q:
How are you getting on with your new team-mates, Chris and Stephane Sarrazin?

PS:
Both of them are very good guys - although they have very different types of personality. I think Chris is a young talent that will be very good for the future, while, with Stephane, I think he may need more rally experience, although obviously he's proved in F1 that he was quick and a very good tarmac driver. I think he just needs more experience.

Q:
Chris seems to have made a fantastic start - despite the fact the end results haven't really been there yet. Have you been giving him any pointers?

PS:
I am doing the best I can, because it is a team thing. I just want him to do well and also do well for the manufacturers' championship. But I must say I was very impressed with his driving in Mexico and his speed there. But there is still more to come and I think, when he gets more experienced, he will be very good.

Q:
Does having someone like Chris as team-mate make you push harder, after Mikko Hirvonen, your team-mate in 2004, struggled?

PS:
It doesn't matter actually. I am pushing as much as I can all the time without the teams and the other drivers. It doesn't matter, even if Sebastien Loeb was in my team - you know I would have been pushing myself to the limit all the time anyway. It's a sport where, if you try to relax, you are finished. You can stay at home and sleep, but my point of view is to go out there and do absolutely the best I can and use the car for its maximum performance.

Q:
What are you aims for New Zealand next month?

PS:
Of course, [my aim] every rally is to win - definitely. It's no doubt that being first on the road will be a little bit difficult on the first day, but my plan is to take it back on Saturday and Sunday. I will just have to be realistic on the first day and then take it from there.

Q:
Any tests planned prior to that?

PS:
I am going to talk to the team later today and we will see if they are finished with some developments, and if there is something I can come over and test before New Zealand. But I think I have full control with what I have done anyway, so I can sort it on the shakedown.

Q:
As you know, Citroen and Peugeot are both planning to pull out of the WRC at the end of the season. Does that worry you?

PS:
No - not at all. It's like every other business, [there is always someone] coming and going. But I don't think it is a problem. I know that Suzuki is on its way back into the WRC, and Hyundai too. So that's how it is. There is going to be enough fighting.

Q:
Correct me if I am wrong, but you are committed to Subaru for 2006. Do you reckon that Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm or Markko Martin could end up at the team alongside you?

PS:
Yeah, why not - it doesn't matter. The team has to do the best for the team if they want the manufacturers' or whatever else they want. But it doesn't matter for me. I have to beat everybody anyway if I am going to be the best, so I will follow the team's lead and take it from there.

Q:
Would you be open to having a team-mate of that calibre? Would you encourage it?

PS:
Yeah, it doesn't matter at all. I think Chris' performance in Mexico is not bad for a young guy like that, so I think, maybe, Chris is more of a 'future guy'. But, if they want short-term, they might go for someone else.

Q:
Have you been impressed or surprised by the form of Mitsubishi and Toni Gardemeister?

PS:
I am impressed with the Lancer's performance, and how quick they are coming up now with small details of changes - they are definitely on the right way. But, with Toni's performance - obviously, he got points in every rally - I am not surprised at his performance, but it was the lack of performance in Mexico.

Q:
Breaking news is that the Rally Australia has lost the support of the Perth state government and is now under threat - your reaction?

PS:
Obviously, the main thing is it is going to be in a different place, with the same people that have been organising most of it in Perth. But, for me, it doesn't matter, as long as it is getting as professional as it was last year, and so well organised. It's difficult to give opinion as there are maybe some politics or something, different things, in it. But let's hope everything will be as good as last year - and hopefully better.