by Rob Wilkins.

Subaru's Phil Mills is one of the top co-drivers in the FIA World Rally Championship, having sat alongside Petter Solberg now since 1999. The Welshman played a critical part in guiding him to the title in 2003 and yet despite that, his role and that of the co-driver in general, is often neglected by the media and the fans. While the drivers' get all the attention and most of the glory, the co-driver is all too often a foot-note at the bottom of a story, at best.

Here Mills speaks exclusively to Crash.net Radio about that - and the news a week or so ago, that he and Petter Solberg will remain at the Subaru WRT for at least another three seasons. He also talks about their year to date and their hopes for the second half of the season...

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Q:
Phil, the season thus far hasn't been an easy one for you or Petter Solberg, however there was some good news a few weeks ago, with confirmation that Petter has signed a new deal that will see you both remain at Subaru for at least another three seasons. How important is that for you, Petter and the SWRT?

Phil Mills:
It is very important. We have been with the team a very long time now and to keep the continuation of that process and the stability and everything within the team and ourselves, it is very important indeed. We are in the middle of a lot of hard work at the moment and it is a matter of continuing that now and getting some good results.

Q:
Phil, as Petter's right-hand man 'sort of speak', how much input do you or did you have in his decision to stick with Subaru?

PM:
Well obviously there is a lot of discussion when contact time comes around - or six months before contract time comes around. It is obviously a very talked about subject and we get a lot of time in the car on the recce and so on to talk about this. And yeah, I mean, it is continual process of talking about it I suppose for many months.

Q:
There was some speculation that Petter might have left the SWRT. Can you tell us if that was something you discussed?

PM:
When it is contract time everybody has a look at what is going around. But as I said it would have been easy to walk away from the team. You know we are not having the best of results at the minute. But no, we are here and we are committed and we will be here for another three seasons now. We really want to get this job sorted and get the world championship under our belt once more.

Q:
As I mentioned and you said, it's been a tough year to date for Subaru, but there have been some highs for you and Petter, most noticeably the two runners-up spots in Mexico and Argentina. Does that give you hope for the second half of the season and beyond that?

PM:
Sure yes - we have had some rotten luck, even in Greece we were lying in second and quite comfortably so, and we had a road accident. Australia and Japan last year, both of those events we were leading and something stupid happened - a kangaroo jumped out in front and we get the biggest rock in the world in front of us in Japan. We have had some rotten luck and I think it is about time that rotten luck changed and it is about time someone else had that rotten luck. We are competitive. We are there or there-abouts on gravel, tarmac is a little harder, but on gravel we are there and we just need to pull it all together. We have some improvements coming now, especially for Turkey and Cyprus, some modifications for the car for that and we really are looking forward to it. We go to every event with the attitude to win it - otherwise I wouldn't be there unless we were capable of winning. So I am really looking forward to the next few events.

Q:
What do you think has been the main problem for Subaru or is it a combination of things?

PM:
Oh it is a combination of lots of small things. It is difficult to pinpoint any one particular area. I hate using Formula One as a comparison because there are very little comparisons, but if you look at Ferrari for instance, they dominated the thing for five years and then all of sudden last year they were tenth or whatever on the grid and couldn't do much about it. That gives you an idea of what can happen in motorsport. Even if you have the best team, with the best resources, sometimes it turns on its head and you don't get what you think you are going to get. So if we use that as a comparison, which we shouldn't do, but if we do, it gives you an idea of what can happen in motorsport and that is where we are at the minute - lots and lots of small things, but we are in the middle of putting them right.

Q:
We spoke to Subaru sporting director, Luis Moya a week ago. He reckons potentially you and Petter will be able to go for wins at all the remaining events, with the exception of Germany. Would you agree with that?

PM:
Yeah I agree. As I said, we know on tarmac it is hard work. Germany is very difficult and we just want to get through that event with a decent finish. But after that - in Finland, we have been very competitive there in the past; Japan we were leading last year when the rock came out; Cyprus and Turkey we have won those rallies before; even in Australia we were leading last year when the kangaroo came out; we have won in New Zealand in the past as well and obviously we have won Rally GB four times - so all the events coming we have won before and so we are very confident. We have some small changes to the car, new tyres, lots and lots of things to look forward to and yes, certainly we are going to those events to win them - and win them with quite some conviction.

Q:
From what you have said there then you obviously expect a complete reversal to the first half of the season?

PM:
Yes as I say, as I keep saying, we have got lots of small changes and hopefully that will turn the car around and put us into a winning position. I'm really looking forward to those events.

Q:
Have you been enjoying the summer break?

PM:
Well it hasn't been so much of break yet because we had all sorts of commitments and we have been up and down to the factory and doing other bits and pieces. But I am looking forward to the next couple of weeks and especially now the sun is shining so nicely here in Wales. It was 27 degrees C here yesterday [Sunday] and it is just what you need when you are sitting out in your own garden.

Q:
Are you going to be at the Rallyday at Castle Combe again this year, I re-call you were there last year?

PM:
I was there last year, but it actually coincides with our tarmac test this year, which is a great shame because the Rallyday was such a pleasant day out and I was really looking forward to that. In Germany though there are some fairly strict rules with testing and you can only test on nominated days so it impossible to change the day so I will have to go with that. Unfortunately it is the same day and so I will have to miss the Rallyday this year I'm afraid.

Q:
Looking ahead to 2007, Ford and Citroen will obviously be your main rivals again. Do you think the new Citroen C4 will be competitive straight away?

PM:
Well I mean, you know, of course - they have been testing that car for nearly two years now. I am sure they will deny that fact, but it has been two years since it was first built. They do an awful lot of testing compared to the other teams' and they never seem to stand still. I would be very surprised if they didn't turn up and it wasn't in a winning position. They have got there existing car, which they can do back-to-back tests with. They know exactly where they are. They have an event winning car now and all they have to do is back-to-back tests with that. So they will know exactly where they are and they will know when to launch the car, whether it is at the end of this season or the start of next year. So as I said, I think everybody would be very, very surprised if it is not a car capable of winning - so yeah they are a major threat.

Ford is a major threat too. They are doing a superb job and they have a very competitive car now. Mikko [Hirvonen] and Marcus [Gronholm] are two exceptional drivers' and you know they are doing an exceptionally good job. It's a tough job to beat them all.

Q:
Are you looking forward to what will be a mini-championship at the start of 2007, before the WRC switches to running over two calendar years?

PM:
Yeah we will find out this week exactly which events are in it and what type of events they are, whether it is tarmac or gravel or snow. It will seem a bit strange doing nine events, or eight or nine events, whatever they decide on this week. It will be a very important year, because as it is such a short season, with eight or nine events, if you non-finish in one it becomes quite a big problem. Where as in a 16-event championship you have a little bit of security there, but on an eight or nine event championship you have to finish every event and if you can't win it, then you have to be on the podium to be able to take the championship in that short season. So yeah, it will be quite exciting and actually it will be nice to do a short season like that. It will be short and sharp with every result being so, so critical. I am really looking forward to it and maybe all of us in championship, including the FIA and ourselves, might learn something from doing a short championship. Maybe it is the way to go and not have these huge 16-round championships. So everybody is looking at that and going into that with their eyes wide open. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works.

Q:
What do you think of plans to operate a rotation system with the WRC calendar in the future?

PM
That's a difficult one because as a competitor it is always nice to go to a brand new event with clean maps and clean pace-note books - it is quite an exciting challenge. It is very difficult, looking through the eyes of the organisers' though I don't really see how you could operate under that system. If you've got a big sponsor, like Greece or Finland or one of those events that have long, long term big sponsors, I am not sure how you could satisfy them and those sponsors by saying well: 'Excuse me but next year we are not actually in the championship but we are back the following year'. So it is a little bit confusing. The idea in principle as a competitor is fine, but from the spectators and especially the organisers' point of view, it must be a small nightmare. I would have thought, as an organiser, to balance all your commitments - with the hotels and the rally HQ and all that type of thing, which is something as a competitor we don't fully understand - must be very difficult. From the organisers' point of view it must be a problem. But it is something that they are working on and so it will be interesting to see what comes out this week in that new rotation system [when the World Motorsport Council meets on Wednesday].

Q:
Final question: you have no doubt been asked this many times before, but do you think the role of the co-driver in the WRC is still being overlooked by the media and the fans?

PM: [laughs] ...Well that's an interesting one! It is true to say that you couldn't enter a rally and you certainly couldn't win a rally without a co-driver. It is one of those jobs - I like to be quietly efficient and melt into background, so it suits a lot of people like myself, just to keep out of the way. But, yeah, it is true to say, it would be impossible to do the job without a co-driver. [pause - laughs again]. It is quite an interesting question...

Q:
Co-drivers are a bit like goal-keepers in football aren't they? Unless there is a penalty shoot-out or something, which is obviously quite topical at the moment with all the media attention on the World Cup, they are the unsung heroes?

PM:
Yeah, that is right - you can only lose a penalty shoot-out can't you? Yeah, that is true the unsung hero. Just remember a driver always says two things, he says: 'I won the rally' and 'We went off'.

Q:
Thanks Phil. Good luck in the second half of the season and thanks for your time - much appreciated.