by Rob Wilkins.

Subaru have been somewhat off the boil of late and as such, after Sebastien Loeb's run of five successive wins, Petter Solberg has dropped well behind the Frenchman in the battle for the 2005 drivers' title.

The Norwegian now trials Loeb by 23 points but, with eight events still to go, the battle is by no means over.

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Here, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio in the week prior to the Rally Argentina, the event that will kick off the second half of the season, we caught up with Subaru team boss, David Lapworth, and asked him how Petter is coping following his recent run, how the team think they will do next weekend and what his thoughts are on the latest 'happenings' in the WRC, including plans to 'pair events' next year.

Q:
The new Impreza was introduced at the Rally Mexico and you got off to a good start, but you seem to have fallen behind Citroen and Sebastien Loeb recently.

David Lapworth:
Yeah. I suppose the biggest factor that we can put our finger on is that Michelin made a huge step forward on tyres, which they introduced in New Zealand. I guess that is the biggest element to it. Petter is still getting himself completely comfortable with the new car, but I think that is more because he is trying to do unreasonable things with it. He is trying to deal with that imbalance. Once Pirelli can narrow the gap - and now that we go to Argentina, the surfaces are different [to Greece, Turkey and Cyprus et al], hopefully it is a different situation.

Q:
Loeb's been seemingly unstoppable of late, winning five events on the trot. Have Subaru got any aces left to play or is it just the tyre factor?

DL:
I think, on the last few rallies, it has mainly been a tyre factor. I mean, there is no question Citroen are a very good professional team with huge resources and they have got a very good car. Sebastien is on top form and he has hit the sweet spot where, if you are very, very confident, you gain extra speed because you don't try too hard.

What you can see when drivers are in a position where they are just not quite on the pace, is that, the harder the try, the slower they go. Sebastien has broken out of that, he has got such confidence when he drives, he knows he has the confidence not to push too hard and it just comes easy. Petter has been in that situation in the past and we have seen periods where, if I think back a few years, to the late 90s/early 2000 period, Tommi [Makinen] just hit that sweet spot and everything was easy. That doesn't make life easy for us, but I think it will change.

The tyre situation, I hope, is specific to these recent events - these hot, dry rallies where you have a very hard base and precision in the tyre is very important. We now go to Argentina. where it is much cooler, a much softer surface - and, hopefully, a different story.

Q:
How's Petter Solberg been handling things - there is obviously quite a big gap between him and Loeb now?

DL:
It's difficult, a real test for him. For the last couple of years, we have been very, very strong on gravel. If you look back, Petter had a run of three consecutive gravel rallies, towards the end of season last year, where he won and won quite comfortably. We have been in this situation ourselves - I mean five is impressive - but we did three in a row only last season.

Petter is absolutely a winner, he is not interested in playing the sort of tactical 'let's go for points' game. He likes to go to win every rally. So it isn't easy for him to be in a situation where, on some surfaces, in some conditions, it is almost an impossible task.

But I think the championship is still winnable. We now go to a completely different set of circumstances, and Sebastien has only got to make a couple of mistakes. Petter is the best of the rest at the moment as I think, overall, we have got the measure of the Peugeots, the Fords and the Mitsubishis. Petter should be able to be consistently best of the rest and, if the tyre situation is reversed, if we end up in a situation where we have an advantage or are equal to Michelin, Petter is there ready to pounce. So the championship is still open.

Q:
How do you think you will do at the Rally Argentina next weekend?

DL:
I'm cautiously optimistic. I would say our primary target is to be the best of the rest. That is something we cannot afford not to be. We need to make sure we are consistently beating Marcus [Gronholm] and Markko [Martin], and the Mitsubishis. I think we can do that without stretching ourselves too much - I hope so - and, if the tyre balance is different, then it is winnable. That is what we have to see though, that is the one factor we can't really do anything about in the short term. But Pirelli are working like hell and, as I say, we are going to be running a completely different tyre in Argentina, a completely different range of tyre tread pattern and compounds.

And the temperatures are completely different. It is mid-winter in Argentina now, so we go into a completely different set of circumstances and so there is every reason to be optimistic. Normally, in those conditions, the Pirellis can be very good and, if that is the case, we can win.

Q:
Looking further ahead, with Peugeot and Citroen pulling out end of this year - and Skoda and Mitsubishi possibly only contesting 13 of the 16 rounds in 2006 - it looks like it is going to be a straight fight between yourselves and Ford, doesn't it?

DL:
Yeah, it kind of looks that way, but we are waiting to see a little bit what happens to the Citroens and Peugeots. I think stories of their death may be slightly exaggerated.

But, certainly, there are signs that Citroen are hoping to make a comeback in 2007. I think, if they are going to do that, there are enough resources, there are enough cars and parts and so on around, that they can put together a very, very competitive team run outside the factory for a year while they re-group and develop a new car and come back later. And they could well have Sebastien Loeb in very good car - and, while it might not be a traditional works team, it could still be a very, very strong contender.

I think something could happen to the Peugeots as well, they could end up running in quite a competitive situation. We may not quite have it all our own way and, hopefully, Mitsubishi and Skoda will actually compete in all the rounds as well.

Q:
Do Subaru intend to do all 16 rounds - assuming there are 16 again?

DL:
Yeah, absolutely, that is the plan. You know we are in the championship to win the championship. We have got to give Petter the best possible chance to win the drivers' title. We have been in this game long enough to be able to cut our cloth according to our means. So, on face value, it seems obvious that, if you do less rallies, it costs less money, but that's not way we think about it. We have got the discipline in place to say that, if we have got to do 16 rallies, we will spend this much and, if we have got to do 13 rallies, we will spend it a different way. We have got the discipline, although perhaps I'm not explaining that very well.

Let's put it another way. If we have to do 16 rather than 13, we will just have to do those 16 rallies for 13/16s of the budget. So, at the end of the day, it comes to same cost. I think that is way it works.

Some of teams, whilst developing cars and trying to catch up with everybody, might find that difficult, but for ourselves and Ford - and I think it would be true for the other established teams, like Citroen and Peugeot - you simply have to cut your cloth according to your means. If it means taking a few less people on events so you can do more, or if it means carrying a few less spare parts, or reducing freight costs and so on, then those are the things you can do.

Nobody says you have to spend x to compete on a rally. It is a decision each team has to make for itself, choosing where to spend its money within its budget. But I do sympathise with teams that are effectively new teams and struggling to catch up - those are difficult decisions to make and having less rallies might help them in the short term. Long term, though, I don't think it is solution. That's why the FIA choose to give those teams a waiver rather than a make commitment to reduce the number of rounds.

Q:
Do you think it will devalue the constructors' championship if only Ford and Subaru contest it in 2006?

DL:
I suppose we are slightly biased in that, at the moment, we are focused on the drivers' championship anyway. The manufacturers' championship is a secondary thing for us. If you look at our objectives for the team, it is event wins first, drivers' championship second and manufacturers' championship a definite third. What our research shows is that people like to watch the competition on every rally and winning on a regular basis is important to maintain the team's position.

Winning the drivers' championship is the long term goal - it's very important and you have to do that. But the manufacturers' championship is third in the priority order. I know that some of the research in France in 2003, when Petter won the championship and Citroen won the manufacturers' championship, showed a lot of people even in France thought that Subaru had won both championships. The manufacturers' adds a little bit of interest, but I think most people follow the drivers' and follow the event wins.

Q:
There is a lot of talk of pairing events in the future - can you tell us is that something we will see in 2006 or beyond that?

DL:
We are experimenting in Spain and Corsica this year running them as a pair. The plan at the moment, and we have got to decide how to do it and which events, is to pair as many of the events as possible next year. We already have to use the engines twice, but the plan is to extend that so we have to use the same chassis for the paired events and have to use the same restricted parts. We are already in a situation where we restrict the number of turbos, the number of gearboxes, and the number of dampers and so on, and the plan is to extend that to cover two rallies. Those are the kind of ways we believe it is possible to do 16 rallies for the budget we currently do 13.

Q:
You obviously have a pretty good driver line-up this year with Chris Atkinson and Stephane Sarrazin alongside Solberg. How do you rate these two now that we have passed the halfway point of the season, and what do you want to see them do in the latter half of the year?

DL:
Both of them have done very, very well. I'm not sure whether, from the outside, people are aware of just what those two are achieving. They are both extremely inexperienced.

Stephane had only done a dozen rallies in his life before this season, and had never driven on gravel. Chris had never driven a World Rally Car before he got in our car on the Swedish test the day before the rally. The learning curve is extremely steep, but they have already both done some impressive stuff.

What we can see on our side is the sort of professional approach, the way they apply themselves to the job and the rate at which they learn is very impressive. I can't help thinking that both of them have the potential to be top drivers, but people have to be patient and realise that, for both of them, the objectives this year are not about any particular results on events as much as getting as much experience and gaining as much from rallies that they do as they can. With the longer term focus on making sure they can fight for podiums and wins and so on as soon as possible, and not to set the goals too short term. We are very, very pleased with what they are doing.

Q:
With Peugeot and Citroen going, four top drivers are on the market. Are you interested in any of them?

DL:
Of course we are interested, but it is early days yet. We are actually happy with the line-up we have got at the moment. We are not in a desperate rush to go out there and get another top driver. That would be relatively easy for us to do, because I guess ourselves and Ford would probably be the first choices of those top drivers who are on the market next year.

But, as I said, the manufacturers' championship isn't our primary objective. Petter would be our first choice of driver if we were to have one to go for drivers' championship and he is already lined up for the team for next year. We are very happy with the sort of young driver development programme we have, and we have got two of the best candidates in there. So we are not in any rush, but you never know what is going to happen later on in the year. When it is all clear what Citroen and Peugeot are up to, and when it is clear what Ford's strategy is and what Mitsubishi and Skoda are up to and so on, when it all starts to fall into place, then maybe we can show our hand or decide what to do.

Q:
It has already been reported in the press that Ford are interested in Loeb.

DL:
Yeah, I am sure they are interested. But I think Sebastien will keep something back until he knows what Citroen are up to. I think that may be the first clue to what Citroen's long term plans are, when Sebastien shows his hand.

Q:
Thanks for your time David and good luck in Argentina.

DL:
Yeah, fingers crossed. We need to turn it round and a good win would be good timing. At the end of the day, the situation we are in now means we need to go for some event wins and make sure we are there, just in case Sebastien drops the ball. We need to pick up on those mistakes. It's going to be difficult to beat him to the championship if he drives perfectly but, if we keep the pressure on, you never know. At the least, we need to go out there and get some event wins.