by Rob Wilkins

Mark Higgins was at the 2006 Rallyday on Saturday with Mitsubishi. Here he speaks exclusively to Crash.net Radio about that event and the current state of the WRC, including the new calendar for 2007 and the new rules and regulations. He also talks about his season thus far in the BRC and his hopes for the next round - the Rally Isle of Man, which runs from August 3-5...

Q:
Mark, how are you enjoying things so far at the Rallyday?

Mark Higgins:
It's good - it is a great atmosphere, I was here last year for the first time driving some of Richard [Burns]'s cars and the weather was atrocious, but it is a very different day today - very hot [at least it was until around 1pm when the rain arrived - ed] and a good turn-out and plenty of good cars here.

Q:
Last year it was very wet wasn't it, at the moment it is a complete contrast?

MH:
Yeah from one extreme to the other, we were on wet tyres all the time last year, but now we can get the speed up as it is dry. The main thing on days like today is that the spectators get to see everything and when the weather is good they can do that.

Q:
Like you say, it is a fantastic turn-out so far.

MH:
Yeah, it is only early too. We came in here at half nine and already there is a very good crowd and lots of car are queuing to get in. It should be a very good day I hope.

Q:
Last year in addition to doing the BRC, which you are again doing this year and which we will come to in a moment, you competed in the FIA Production Car WRC. I know it didn't exactly go to plan, but are you missing competing in the WRC?

MH:
Yeah very much so. I am working on all the rounds this year with Pirelli, so I have been to every rally so far this year although it is frustrating to be working on the sidelines and not doing it. But we have been very, very busy and I think it is like everybody, a budget is very hard to find nowadays and the cars are getting more and more expensive to run. However we are working on things for the future and hopefully we will be able to do some rallies again. We will just see what happens.

Q:
The FIA has announced some changes for the WRC recently, on the regulation front and with regard to the schedule. What are you thoughts on those alterations? Let's begin with the three new events on the calendar...

MH:
I think it is good to bring in new events, especially for the younger drivers'. The problem we have got at the moment is the rallies are staying the same every year, so if you have been doing these events for ten years it is very, very hard to be competitive first time out. So it gives the young stars a chance to shine, which is great. The new events coming in, Rally Ireland, I think, will be fantastic - it is a shame about the time of year it will be run, but it will make it a real challenge with the shiny tarmac which we all know about. Also I think they have got rid of a couple of events, which I not sure should have been there, so it has worked quite well and I think it should make it an exciting championship.

Q:
Obviously the big loss was probably Australia. Wasn't it?

MH:
Well they were talking about moving from Perth anyway, so I think there was a bit of that involved. Australia has always been a fantastic rally from the point of view of the atmosphere and the organisation, but to lose rallies like Cyprus, which has been very hard on cars and I don't think the roads have been re-graded for five or six years, is maybe, not a massive loss. But you need to change things around a bit - it is a shame to lose Australia, but I am sure they will come back, if they get a good venue in the future.

Q:
What about on the regulation front - where the SupeRally format has been tweaked and with regard to tyres, mousse is not going to be allowed and the WRC will adopt a single supplier?

MH:
Well with regard to the mousse I am not quite sure about that, because there is nothing worse, you put all that money in to having a rally car and you pick up a strange puncture, which is (a) going to cost you the rally and (b) it is going to rip the bumpers and everything off, so it is not really cost saving. That is something I don't totally agree with. The one-make tyre will be good and we won't have people complaining that their tyre wasn't right for the stage or whatever. It will be down to the driver and the car and that should make it exciting.

Q:
What about the SupeRally?

MH:
Well that in a way with the bonus points' is probably quite a good idea. I think the SupeRally, as it is now and how it will be, is very important, again looking at the young drivers', as it gives them a chance to get back in and get the knowledge of the event for the future if they happen to have made a mistake and gone off or if they have had a mechanical problem. A couple of years ago we did a rally in Mexico and we had a gearbox failure after 4 kilometres - it is a long way to go just to do that, so from that point of view it is very good. The SupeRally however, is always going to be a controversial area.

Q:
What have you made of the WRC overall this year?

MH:
A little bit dull. Sebastien Loeb is doing a great job. We have really got three cars, probably two cars actually, in there fighting for the overall win and Sebastien unless he does something silly is looking pretty strong at the moment. I don't know what they need to do - I think it would be nice to get a bit more spectacle back into the sport, we have talked about it before, but I think it would be fantastic to see some rear-wheel drive cars, with normal aspirated engines - get the noise back and get the spectacle. I mean you only have to look how popular some of these historic events are, I know that is a backward step, but there must be a way of getting the spectacle back. From a driving point of view, the WRC cars are great, but when you look at them on tarmac, every time you go sideways, it is taking a tenth of a second off. So unfortunately then, they don't go sideways anymore.

Q:
Why do you think Subaru have struggled so much?

MH:
I don't know it is very hard to put a finger on it with all the advances and these modern cars. It is a bit like Formula One - Ferrari can be winning one race one day and the next day they can be at the back of the grid. So it is very small things. It is getting the combination of the whole package to work together. I am sure there are some changes being made and I think you may find they are a bit more competitive towards the end of the year.

Q:
Shifting to the BRC - this year there has been some big changes, WRC cars have been banned. It was quite a controversial decision - but now two events in, it seems to have worked well, doesn't it?

MH:
Yeah, they had to do something it was getting out of hand - definitely with the financial side of it. The Group N has worked, we have had two rallies already where there have been five cars fighting and setting fastest times - and that is what it is all about. I don't think it matters from a competitors' point of view what car you are actually driving as long as you are having a good battle. From the spectators' point of view, OK they are not quite as exciting unfortunately, but they had to do something. They did the right thing and it is working - lets hope it progresses from here.

Q:
To date this season in the BRC, you have had a second place finish on the Pirelli and you won the more recent event, the Jim Clark. It was a very tight finish wasn't it?

MH:
Yeah it doesn't get much tighter than that. The Pirelli was going very well and we had a 40 second lead and unfortunately we got a couple of punctures on the last day. Then the Jim Clark was a great race with Rory Galligan, I think the biggest the gap all rally between us was seven seconds and we clinched it on the last stage and finished on a dead-heat to a tenth of a second, which I don't think has ever happened before. So a bit of history was made there and at least it worked the right way for us, we have had too many second place finishes lately.

Q:
The Rally Isle of Man is coming up, how do you expect to do there?

MH:
It is obviously my home rally. We have had some good results there before. I think it will be good for the car and it will suit the Subaru more than the Jim Clark did. We have got a very good package at the moment. If we can extend our lead in the BRC that will be fantastic - and that is what we have got to plan to do on our home event.

Q:
Final question, the BRC season will conclude by running in tandem with the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship - on the Wales Rally GB. That is a great way to finish off the battle for the BRC isn't it?

MH:
Yeah it is - it would be fantastic to have the championship sown up by then, if it is possible, but the way it is going, I don't think that is going to happen. Rally GB is a very tough event and it is always nice to go and have a go there in a WRC car. But we will see what happens and I am sure it will go down to the wire and there will be a big race. The big thing about Rally GB is it is a lot about endurance and durability of the cars as well, so it is not as much a sprint event as the other rounds have been so far. So we will see what happens.