by Rob Wilkins

Ford will use a new Focus in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship and will also have a completely new driver line-up - in the shape of double world champion, Marcus Gronholm and fellow Finn, Mikko Hirvonen.

Speaking following the official unveiling of the new Focus in its 2006 livery at the Bologna Motor Show last week, Crash.net Radio caught up with M-Sport boss, Malcolm Wilson to ask him about the coming season...

Q:
Malcolm, how are preparations going ahead of the new season - and the Monte Carlo Rally?

Malcolm Wilson:
Well in Australia, the main issue there obviously was to test, which ended up being fantastic from that point of view for learning what we need to do. I am glad to say we had no major issues.

Since Australia until now, we have been trying to order large quantities of parts. A lot of the time has been spent trying to source all the parts and build the Monte Carlo cars. But really it is next week when the real testing starts in anger, so we are in Sweden all of next week and then we have got a few days off. Then we are in France right up until Christmas. So really now it is extensive testing right up to Monte Carlo to try and define the final specification set-up on the car. It is also a good chance to get both of our new drivers - Marcus [Gronholm] and Mikko [Hirvonen] in the car, so we can get there feedback and there comments.

Q:
As you said, the Focus made a positive debut in Australia. Lots has been said about that already, but was there more you wanted to achieve there or was it pretty much mission accomplished?

MW:
In fairness it was 'mission accomplished'. I mean we were obviously delighted with the performance and ok the results maybe don't reflect it. But at the end of day if you look at the individual performances of the guys we were more than pleased with it and we learned things. What happened to Toni [Gardemeister]'s car for instant on the penultimate stage, ok it maybe looks bad he retired, but in one sense I was really pleased because there was an issue there that we needed to address and we can address it. If that hadn't had happened, we would certainly have gone to Monte Carlo, Sweden and Mexico in the spec that we had in that area that failed. In fairness, in Sweden and Monte Carlo that would not have caused a problem, because there are no rocks, no things like that that can get into the engine compartment - they are just not there. But we would have gone to Mexico and could have been faced with the same problem. That was the great thing about Australia. We found something that could be a problem on the gravel events. The good thing is because of the window we've got between now and the next gravel rally we can address that issue, which is being done.

Q:
Obviously then that will lead to some modifications on the car. Are there any others planned between now and Monte Carlo - or will the car stay pretty much the same as it was in Australia?

MW:
I think it is a case that [M-Sport technical director] Christian [Loriaux] was obviously flat out designing a gravel car for nine and a half months and now we have got to do a tarmac car for Monte Carlo. Also with the calendar changing - Corsica and Catalunya [both asphalt events] have been brought forward, so really since Australia his team of engineers and designers have been looking at ways to optimise the car for asphalt. So that is really where the big push is because we have got three tarmac events in the first four months of the year.

Q:
The regulations next year, dictate that active differentials will be banned and we will see a return to mechanical differentials. How much of a difference will this make?

MW:
It is very difficult to put what it means in seconds per kilometre because it is a completely new car. There are no carry over parts from the existing car. So we don't really know and we haven't done a new car with active diffs. So it is very hard to measure what the difference is. The old car always ran active diffs so we haven't got mechanical diffs for that. Obviously we will see a direct comparison [in 2006] with some of the other teams because there cars are not changing and they are going to mechanical diffs. For us though it is a little bit of a different situation. We are pretty confident however - and we saw in Australia it didn't have a huge affect on our performance.

Q:
You have a completely new driver line-up next season, with Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen, what do you expect from them?

MW:
I think we have invested in the short term and the long term. Marcus is a proven winner and one of fastest drivers in the world. I am totally confident we will win rallies next year with him. In Mikko we have got a driver we feel will deliver in the future and in some rallies, shall we say, we will be taking the brakes off and on other events we will say: 'we need you to get the experience and finish this rally'. Being realistic it is too much to expect us to go for the championship next year - with the car being so new and developed in record time, it is going to be difficult. But still I am very confident we can win events.

Q:
Obviously there is no place for either Toni Gardemeister or Roman Kresta at Ford in 2006. What did they need to do or what didn't they do to actually keep hold of their seats?

MW:
That's a really good question, because in fairness they both did a very good job. We have had a good year. Toni finished fourth in the drivers' championship and we finished third in the manufacturers', which was above what we set our target at [prior to the start of 2005]. But having said that, this was the first year we haven't won rallies in the history of the Ford Focus. It was a very difficult decision because they both did very well and did exactly what we expected. But we have got a long term commitment from Ford and it is very clear we have to deliver. Sad as it is we decided to go this route. I was really genuinely hoping one of those two drivers could have come up to the mark and be in contention for the seat.

Q:
Do you have any plans to run a third Focus next year, say for Markko Martin or anything like that?

MW:
What we are working on at the moment is because of the changes with the FIA and with the regulations for the 'manufacturer two' team, we are looking at trying to find ways to establish a second team, which will be using the current car. But I am not in a position to confirm that yet. It is looking quite promising however, that we might be able to do that

Q:
Is that effectively a 'B' team or a junior team like we have seen in F1?

MW:
Yeah... it is basically like a teams' championship. The FIA have relaxed the rules and the registration fee and the restrictions on the drivers have gone. It is a great opportunity I think. We have seen this year that because the technology is now capped, we have seen private drivers come and get on the podium and get strong results. I really think it is a positive thing for the future of the World Rally Championship.

Q:
Who do you see as your principal competition for next year - Subaru or Citroen?

MW:
I think no question the biggest threat is still going to come from Citroen and Sebastien [Loeb]. You just have to look at his performance this year - ten wins and he totally dominated the championship. For all intense and purposes he is still a factory driver. He has signed a new, I don't know, three or four year contract. The cars are still prepared in the factory. That is where the main opposition, as far as we are concerned, is going to come from.

Q:
So you don't consider then that Sebastien will effectively be with a privateer team next season?

MW:
No, definitely not.

Q:
Does it worry you that there has still been no news on what Mitsubishi and Skoda plan to do in 2006?

MW:
Yeah. I mean obviously, we have all genuinely been trying to find ways and really pushing, trying to keep Skoda in the championship. We are all hoping that can be achieved.

But as I say, I think also it is encouraging from the 'second manufacturer' team point of view as well, that is also essential to the future of the sport.

Q:
What the about FIA's plans to run the 2007 championship from January to May [and for it to be made up of just eight or nine rallies], before the WRC switches to a format where the season will be split over two calendar years? Is that something that is backed by Ford?

MW:
Certainly, from a Ford point of view, we are definitely in favour of that. There are a lot of plus points from our side. It means in one sense you are not competing as much with Formula One and MotoGP. Ford views the TV coverage as a vital part for the business case for the WRC. So the more opportunities we have in that direction then the better it is for everyone and I think it will help raise the profile even further of the World Rally Championship.

Q:
Any news on your son's - Matthew's, plans for next season? Will he still be in the BRC in an Eddie-Stobart backed car?

MW:
I don't know if you are aware or not, but basically World Rally Cars are not allowed to competed in the British Championship anymore. So really that has closed the door on Matthew being able to do that. So really what we are looking to do with the 'manufacturer two' team is obviously, we would like to try and involve Eddie Stobart and people like VK, people who could play a part in Matthew's future. Hopefully that will happen and with a bit of luck they will be part of our second team.

Q:
I was going to say does that connect back to the 'B' team idea?

MW:
Yeah that is the sort of thing we are looking at. As I said before we are not there yet, but certainly the Eddie Stobart team are very keen - and we trying to find ways so everyone gets some real value out of it.

Q:
Any ideas when there will be an announcement on that front?

MW:
Hopefully within the next fortnight - something like that.