by Rob Wilkins.

Ford number one driver, Toni Gardemeister has already enjoyed much success this season, after leaving the struggling Skoda outfit at the end of 2004.

Having grabbed his first podium at the season opening Monte Carlo Rally, he followed that up with another top-three finish in Sweden before coming home sixth in Mexico. As a result he now lies third in the drivers' championship, just three points off leader, Petter Solberg.

What's he made of the year thus far? How does the Focus compare to the Fabia?

Read on to find out, as he talks exclusively to Crash.net Radio....

Q:
Toni. You've had a pretty solid start to the season - what with finishing in the points in all three events thus far, and twice being on the podium. Have you been pleased with you're performances?

Toni Gardemeister:
The results have been quite good. The last event wasn't so nice in Mexico. I was a bit sick there and you know, it was a new event for us and it wasn't brilliant. But the first two events were positive and overall it has been a quite good start to the year.

Q:
Mexico was your worst result this season and you dropped from fourth to sixth on the final day. How difficult was the event in light of the fact you were suffering from the flu?

TG:
Yeah, you know, there was a few things; new event, also first car on the road and we lost something there and then I was quite sick especially during the recce. During the rally itself I was also quite tired all the time and for sure all these things combined cost us some seconds. It wasn't so good an event for me.

Q:
Now you moved from Skoda to Ford this year. Having been with the Ford team now for a while, how do the two teams compare? What's the Focus like in comparison to the Fabia?

TG:
Both cars they are a bit different to drive. The Skoda was more quick to react on the changes to the road and things like this, where as the Ford is more stable. The Skoda was also quite quick sometimes, but the main problem we had there was that it wasn't so reliable. With Ford the car has been very reliable and we haven't had any problems really and that in turn helps you be quick.

Q:
Your old team, Skoda, seem to be struggling still this year. What do you think they need to do to step up and challenge the likes of Ford, Citroen and Subaru?

TG:
They need more engineers. There are some very good engineers - but they still need more. Then they need a more reliable car because I think they still have some problems with the car all the time and that costs them time during the rally. Even if you can do some stages well if you then have some problems in others, you have already lost the result for sure.

Q:
How are you getting on with your team-mate, Roman Kresta?

TG:
Roman is a very nice guy. I can work very well with him. He is a very easy guy and also he tells his opinion always for me and I tell for him. You know, he is a very, very good guy to work with.

Q:
Next up is New Zealand. What's the plan?

TG:
For sure I try to fight to be on a podium there.

Q:
Have you done any testing since Mexico to prepare for NZ?

TG:
No we don't have any tests at the moment. We have some tests before Sardinia but not [before] New Zealand.

Q:
You're currently third in the drivers' championship, three points behind leader, Petter Solberg. Are you aiming for the title this year?

TG:
It is still early days. We are at the start of the year and there are a lot of rallies to go. I am going to take each rally at a time and not think much about the title. However if we continue to get points at each event - and sometimes get very, very good results, then at the end of the year, if it looks good we will start to push for the title.

Q:
You only have a one-year deal with Ford and M-Sport, does that worry you in light of the fact both Citroen and Peugeot are pulling out, leaving four other drivers potentially fighting for drives at the remaining works teams?

TG:
I am not so worried. If we can continue to get good results during the year, I think we will then have a good chance to continue in 2006.

Q:
How big a blow is it that both Citroen and Peugeot are pulling out of the WRC?

TG:
It will be very bad for the sport, for sure, if they both go. Also I think their going is bad, because there won't be so many teams left and then it will be very difficult for the drivers to get seats for next year. I just hope their are some other teams coming [into the WRC to replace them].

Q:
Has team boss, Malcolm Wilson said what he expects from you this season?

TG:
Before the season we had some targets to get some podium places during the year and we have now got two and I'd like to get some more for sure or many more - but we will see. That was the target, that we get some podium places.

Q:
Toni, thanks for taking time out to talk to us prior to NZ. Good luck in the event.

TG:
Thank-you very much.