by Rob Wilkins

Subaru's rally operations director, Paul Howarth talks exclusively to Crash.net Radio about the recent events in Germany, Finland and Japan, which in the end were pretty disappointing for the Banbury-based squad. He also discusses what the team can do during the rest of the season and what they are doing to make sure they are more competitive in 2007...

Q:
Paul, Subaru had a tough time in the first half of the season. There seemed to be a lot of optimism after the summer break that the team's fortunes would change in the second half of the year. Thus far though, following the events in Germany, Finland and Japan, that doesn't really seem to have been the case does it?

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Paul Howarth:
No not at all. We were fairly optimistic through the mid-season period. We had time to do some testing and get ready for the second half with some target events, because Japan and places like Cyprus and GB, have been very good to us in the past and we have performed to a level which has been good there. But it hasn't started to unfold like that. Germany was still a great team effort getting Petter [Solberg] back into the event [after his crash in the shakedown] and showing what we could do. We didn't expect much on the tarmac there. In Finland we started off with the front pack and then we slipped back again. Then Japan, we experienced some technical issues and problems, which didn't allow our drivers to really perform. Although from the mid-day on Saturday, when the fight was really on at the front, we did manage to hold on to Marcus [Gronholm] and Sebastien [Loeb]. So there is some encouragement but as you know, you have got to be totally consistent from the start to the finish.
Q:
So, do you think Subaru can still turn things around this year, beginning in Cyprus this coming weekend - or is it a case of focusing more on 2007 now?

PH:
We are pushing, but we have to be totally realistic, and get our house completely in order for 2007. Cyprus is one of the most demanding events in the championship. It is very hot down there at the moment and it has very low average speeds. We have won there in the past, but being realistic we have just got to work on 2007 and try and keep our heads up as much as we can through the remainder of this year's championship.

Q:
What are Subaru doing to ensure that the Impreza is more competitive in 2007?

PH:
We have had a good look at the package itself and have identified quite a few areas of improvement. For the long term Christophe Chapelin has just joined the team as chief designer. Christophe has considerable experience in rallying and has been involved in the sport for a long time - for Peugeot, Nissan and previously at Prodrive, he was part of the team that developed the S9 car, which was one of the most successful cars we have run. Christophe is now working in the engineering team as chief designer but like all these things, unfortunately, it is going to take some time for it to filter through onto the car, because obviously we are restricted with homologation and what we have got for this year.

Q:
Staying with 2007, Prodrive boss, David Richards told Crash.net Radio at the Rallyday event in the summer that he will be taking a more hands on role at the Subaru WRT towards the end of this year and definitely in 2007. Is that still proceeding?

PH:
Yeah, David is obviously chairman of Prodrive and is a very good influence on all the teams which operate throughout the world under the Prodrive banner. He has a phenomenal amount of experience, so David will challenge us and push us along to deliver the best. His involvement is welcome, so is David's experience and it just helps the team to focus. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can help you focus in a different direction, so that is ideal.

Q:
Subaru have already re-signed Petter Solberg, what's happening with regard to the second driver?

PH:
We need to secure that in the near future. Chris [Atkinson - our current number two driver] is doing an excellent job at the moment, even with the issues we are having with the performance. He is keeping his head above water and is showing some great consistency and maturity for a young driver. He is still relatively fresh into world rally cars. This is only his second season driving a WRC car and also driving in the World Rally Championship. He came from the Australian rally championship but he had done quite a few recce's around the world. He has worked quite well and he's a good team player. We will just have to see though. He has got targets to meet - just like we have all got targets to meet. So we will know in the near future what we will do long term.

Q:
Staying with drivers, there is some talk, speculation, that Valentino Rossi might drive an Impreza on the Rally New Zealand, can you reveal anything on that?

PH:
Valentino has worked with the team in the past and we did two very good events with him last year. He is an unbelievable talent, obviously on a motor bike but also in a car he is a very good guy. At the moment we are still discussing with his management what's possible and what's not possible, but sometime in the near future we would love to work with Valentino again. I am sure he is focused very much on winning the MotoGP world championship at the moment though, so we will see.

Q:
Any idea when we might hear something on that?

PH:
Not in the short term no - at the minute there are not many rallies to go, so just keep an eye on the entries. That is all I can say at the moment.

Q:
Also, rumours suggest that Gigi Galli might drive an Impreza on the Rally GB, again, can you tell us anything about that?

PH:
We have got quite a lot of customers worldwide and one of the customer teams we are working with is Aimont Racing in Italy. They are an Italian team obviously and they are quite keen to develop a team into the championship next year and work with an Italian driver. They already have some cars from us, so I am sure if they secure a budget, for Subaru and the team, as well it is always good to see highly competitive drivers in our cars worldwide. So again that is just one of those things you are just going to have to wait and see what happens.
Q:
That pre-empts my next question really. But Ford effectively operate a 'B' team in the WRC with the Stobart team, Citroen may well do through Kronos in 2007, are Subaru then looking to do that through Aimont?

PH:
We are looking at that through several teams and if they are taking cars from us and services, then it is good to have as many teams out there as possible. You may remember here at Prodrive we operated the All-Stars team and we were the real front runners in the customer team, 'B' team set-up idea, a long time ago. The problem with it now is there is only so much financial support available for the manufacturer teams as well as the 'B' teams. So you have got to have a very consistent and effective car, which is totally reliable and can deliver good results for a 'B' team and can be cost effective. These teams are looking in detail at it and we are helping them as much as we can. The more Subaru's that are out there the better it is for the championship as well - the more cars competing, it just develops it, so we are working with them. Market forces will decide how many cars you see in the championship though and how many 'B' teams there are.

Q:
What is the final date when they have to decide if they will do that?

PH:
The nomination for Manufacturer 2 is the end of December. So that is when you have got to put your money where your month is and say if you are in for ten rallies or not. A Manufacturer 1 team is obviously in for all 16 rallies with two cars, where as a M2 can register for ten events. We are working, like all the manufacturers, with all these teams to make sure we see more cars in the championship, because that is the ultimate goal to be honest.

Q:
The more cars that are in it - the healthier the championship looks, isn't it?

PH:
For sure - and then, there are more drives that are available. That is what rallying has got to be really. It is why a lot of manufacturers' are looking at different ways to get more teams out there.

Q:
Generally speaking have you been pleased with the championship this year, I mean not just for Subaru, but the whole series?

PH:
I think as a championship now it is developing at a faster rate than it has ever developed before. We are getting a lot of consistency with operational issues and stewards decisions. It is becoming more professional. Morrie Chandler is heading up the FIA side and organising everything and that will put some structure into the championship. For far too long it has maybe been a bit too negative instead of being positive and trying to move the championship forward through a long term goal and that is what everyone wants to see. There are a lot people involved in this sport and employed in this sport - and it is a great sport, so we need to keep developing it.