by Rob Wilkins.

Ford team director, Malcolm Wilson looks back on their season to date, which started brilliantly for the M-Sport ran squad with back-to-back victories in Monte Carlo and Sweden. Although things have not been as easy since then, the speed of the Focus is all too evident, it is just the reliability, which at times has cost them.

Here speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio, Wilson Sr. talks about the reliability issues, their main rivals - Kronos Citroen and Subaru and the performance of his son, Matthew, with Ford's 'B' team...

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Q:
Malcolm, we are six events into the 2006 championship now, with 10 still to go. BP Ford have taken two wins with the new Focus and following the Rally Argentina lie 12 points behind Kronos Citroen. How pleased are you with the season to date?

Malcolm Wilson:
Well like you said we had a fantastic start to the season but we were disappointed in Argentina because again and I think it is now five rallies out of six, we were actually leading the event [until we had mechanical issues]. But I suppose at the end of day there are a lot of positives to come out of it, like the fact we are so competitive and we still seem to have a very quick package. We always knew there would be some things on these events that would be unique to particular rounds and would catch us out and obviously that is what caught us out in Argentina. All in all though we are still in very strong position and we are really pleased that we are the only manufacturer to really take the challenge to Sebastien.

Q:
Reliability seems to have been an issue at times and was again in Argentina. What are you doing now to address that ahead of the event in Sardinia and the following one in Greece?

MW:
Well we have had two issues. One was in Spain, which was the turbo related problem and which we got to bottom of very quickly and in fairness that won't happen again. Also the problem that happened with Marcus in Argentina we have actually got to the root cause of that and we are very confident we can address that issue as well. So the one issue we have at the moment is the engine problem Mikko had. That engine is still on its way back at the moment to the supplier from Argentina, so we don't have an answer on that one yet. Basically with what has happened with Marcus in Spain and Argentina we very confident and we will just have to see what the diagnosis is of the problem with the engine.

Q:
You have a new driver line-up this season with Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen. How pleased have you been with this combination?

MW:
Really pleased, I mean you have got the experience of a double world champion in Marcus and obviously the speed. And you have got Mikko, who basically is learning off one of the quickest drivers in the championship and some of his performances have been very good - particularly his performance in Argentina before he retired. He was driving exactly as I requested him to drive and in Mexico he showed his real speed. He was really the true leader at the end of leg one in Mexico. So OK there are lots of rallies we still want him to finish and get the experience on, but I think, certainly by the end of the year, he won't be far off being on the top step of the podium, that is for sure.

Q:
Marcus of course has slipped quite a way behind Sebastien Loeb in the battle for the drivers', with 21 points separating them, can he claw back the gap? Is that possible?

MW:
I think it is possible, but it is not going to be easy. Literally if Marcus won every rally left and Sebastien finished second, then Sebastien would still win because that is the way the points scoring is at the moment in the championship. But you never know. I have been in this job a long time and there is no question Sebastien is a very difficult chap to beat. He has just got such a good package with him and the reliability that he has means it is going to be tough. We feel we are probably in a stronger position to go for the manufacturers' championship than drivers', but put it this way, we will not be giving up right until the end of the season.

Q:
Citroen have been your main opposition this year. Have you noticed any differences now the Xsara's are being run by Kronos?

MW:
No not really, because at the end of the day the cars are still prepared within Citroen Sport. Kronos look after the cars on the events and obviously there are a lot of people from Citroen still there. So you don't really see any change in that sense really.

Q:
Do you think financially it has helped Citroen and that it might be something that they will consider in 2007?

MW:
In fairness that is question I can't answer and obviously you would have to ask them. I think if they do the numbers then there is no question it is a much more cost effective way to do it. Basically they are doing now what Ford and Subaru have been doing for years and they are still having the success and obviously as you pointed out for a much reduced budget. I am sure they will be monitoring it. I think maybe the only difference is they are designing and developing a completely brand new car and to put that to team who doesn't know the car, then that is where difference lies. Whereas the likes of ourselves, we have actually, we have been the same people who have been designing and building it right from the outset. So there are differences in that way.

Q:
Subaru have had a difficult season to date, although it looks like the Impreza will be better on gravel. Have you been surprised by their failure to match the likes of yourself and Kronos Citroen?

MW:
I think as you said they have found it very difficult on the asphalt, but I mean they are certainly closing the gap on the gravel now and in fairness that is what we really want. We want them to be very competitive because we want them to be taking points off Sebastien as well and so we are actually hoping they can build on there successes in Argentina.

Q:
Ford are running what is effectively a 'B' team this season, under the Stobart VK banner. Your son, Matthew is with them and not only scored his first WRC drivers' point on the last event, but also did in style by snatching back eighth in the final two tests, winning the last Superspecial. How proud were you?

MW:
Yeah considering the event we had it was nice to have something. Obviously we had a very difficult event in Argentina with Marcus and Mikko and really for Matthew to do that right at the end, was quite a little fill up for me after we had three very difficult days trying to find a way to get back into the points with Marcus and trying to address the problems we had. For him to go and do that, I think on only his seventh WRC event, I was very pleased for him, especially as it was just over 12 months since he had his huge accident [on the Rally of Wales in the BRC] and to able to come back in that sort of time scale and to go and do what he did there is a remarkable achievement really.

Q:
It bodes well for the future doesn't it?

MW:
It does as long as people realise we have a five-year plan that we are going to stick to. There is no substitute for experience and time in the car - and learning the rallies. He has a long, long way to go. But at least it does show there is potential there when he knows where he is going and overall then there is a lot of good things to build on from that event.

Q:
Staying with the finish in Argentina; there was a bit of controversy there with the FIA less than impressed with the finish donuts performed by Sebastien Loeb, Gigi Galli, Dani Sordo and Manfred Stohl, your reaction?

MW:
Well it is quite clear. I mean it is in the drivers' hand book and it is something that is there in black and white that the drivers are not allowed to do it. I would certainly have been very disappointed if our guys had done it, even if they had been probably told to do it, because it is in regulations. It is in there in black and white and it is totally not permitted. So I think it was a mistake on the drivers' part.

Q:
Is that something that the teams should have communicated to them a bit more?

MW:
I don't think at the end of the day they were probably put in position [to do a lot about it] and I can imagine, you have just won a rally and it is probably the last thing you think of. But we do point it out to our people - and they didn't all do it, so some of them must have known it was a bit [marginal]...

Q:
Final question: Sardinia and Greece are coming up before the summer break. You have got to be looking for two victories on those events haven't you?

MW:
It is certainly in our target [laughs]. Yeah, I mean those are two events which should suit our car. We don't see any reason why not looking at how competitive we have been on the other gravel rallies. Plus we are in Sardinia at the moment doing a six day test. So we should build up a lot of data and everything from that and should end up with a very good set-up. Also we have got a test in Greece prior to the Acropolis so we should in effect really be quite well prepared.

Q:
Thank-you for your time Malcolm - and fingers crossed for you that Ford can come back at Citroen a bit more on the next events and keep the battle for both championships alive.