by Rob Wilkins

Astra team boss, Luca Pregliasco has every reason to be proud this season, as ex-Ford works driver Toni Gardemeister has been sensational in the events he has contested with the privately-run outfit. Indeed despite having to switch cars mid-season, Gardemeister has managed to notch up 20 points and currently lies ninth in the standings - even though he has only contested four events.

Crash.net Radio spoke exclusively to Pregliasco recently and asked him about Astra's year in the FIA World Rally Championship and his plans for 2007...

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Q:
Luca, first up, Astra Racing did four events this season with Toni Gardemeister in the WRC - and on all of them you got some very solid points results. Were you pleased with how the events in Monte Carlo, Greece, Germany and Cyprus went?

Luca Pregliasco:
We have been very, very pleased. To do four events and to get a podium in Monte Carlo, a fourth place in Greece, a fourth place in Germany and a fifth in Cyprus - it was absolutely perfect. It is unbelievable that Toni can be ninth in the rankings of the drivers' championship with only four events. It is fantastic. I could not imagine any better.

Q:
As you said there, you're team's best result was at the season opening, Rallye Monte Carlo, when Gardemeister finished third. I assume that was probably the highlight, especially as it was done at the Principality?

LP:
The Rallye of Monte Carlo is of course a very important event - it is very famous and therefore the podium there was very, very important for us, Toni and everybody. It was also the start of the season and it wasn't possible to do a better start. Of course without the SupeRally regulations we would have finished second because just in the last stage [Sebastien] Loeb overtook Toni - and Seb had retired in the first leg. At the end we got third but it was like we finished second and without small mistakes in our tyres choices, I think we could have done, maybe not P1, but we could have been fighting for the victory [with Ford's Marcus Gronholm].

Q:
After that you were going to do the events in Spain and France, but you actually had to miss those two, before returning for Greece having swapped from a Peugeot 307 to a Citroen Xsara. How difficult was that to change cars mid-season?

LP:
It was very difficult at the beginning of the season, because after the podium in Monte Carlo, I had a scheduled programme for the rest of the season for Catalunya and Corsica, so everything was planned. Then I had to re-schedule everything when I was informed the Peugeot was no longer available. So then, under the new regulations Toni could not drive a 2005 spec car, therefore we had to wait until Greece and this was a big pity. We could have done more events, but at the end to have done four events with those results, it is very good. Of course I regret that we could not do Spain and Corsica but when I understood the Peugeot was not available I had to plan something else and the only possibility was the Xsara from Greece onwards. The Xsara is a fantastic car - it is really, really good and very reliable and we have all enjoyed working with the Xsara.

Q:
Despite having to changes car though, you still did well in Greece, Germany and Cyprus - taking two fourth places and a fifth. Were those results a disappointment however, after the podium in January?

LP:
As I said, Monte Carlo was a dream really. So, I am very pleased with the podium but when you finish third, you always want to finish second and when you finish second, you always think you could have won. So at the end of the story you always think you could have done better. The Monte result was outstanding, mainly because Toni was not driving a few months before it and he was not use to the car and everything was new for Monte Carlo.

If we look at everything together though I would say the results have been really good.

Q:
After Sebastien Loeb was injured, were you surprised Kronos didn't use Gardemeister in Turkey, especially in light of his results this season - and last with Ford?

LP:
Honestly since I have heard the news about Loeb not driving in Turkey, I was really thinking Toni would have had his best chance to drive a Kronos car. But then I have seen the choice of Colin McRae - and what can I say? Of course that shocked me, because it was not expected and I thought Toni deserved that works car for the time that Loeb was not available. At the end of it, though, that was only my thoughts. I totally respect the fact that Colin McRae drove there, because Colin is a champion. He is a great name and even though I really, really think Toni would have had a good chance to do a very, very good result, I still respect the idea of having Colin there and he could have done a good job there.

Q:
Looking to 2007, can you tell us anything about your plans for next year?

LP:
Our plans are to do something again with Toni - a few events, I would say four or five events, but today it is difficult to say. Budgets are difficult to secure and everything is very, very expensive and for a private team to do something at world level it is always very difficult. I am fighting a lot with my sponsors and we are really trying hard to do something with Toni. Nothing has been decided yet, but I can promise I am on the case everyday and we will all do our best in order to be at the start of Monte Carlo next year.

Q:
Will the Manufacturer 2 category be a possibility then or is it, as it sounds, a step too far?

LP:
It is already difficult to do a few events - four, five, six events. Therefore in order to enter the M2 category you have to do two drivers and two cars for ten events and it is even more difficult. Already one car for ten events is difficult and two cars it is doubly difficult. So even if we are looking at that I think it is really difficult to get to the point of participating in the Manufacturer 2 championship and I think it is easier, even though the budgets are big, to do some events like we have done this year.

Q:
You mentioned Astra will probably stick with Toni Gardemeister is that looking more and more certain?

LP:
Nothing is certain in this world until you enter the car and the driver for the rally. I am positive though, right now we will be running Toni in the motor show of Bolognia on December 15-17 with the Xsara - it is a big motor show in Italy and that is our next event with him. In the meantime, yes, Toni is my first priority and I would love to do something with him again and we are working for that. But as I said, it is not decided yet.

Q:
You mentioned Astra might do four, five or six events in the WRC - any idea which ones they might be?

LP:
The first one must be Monte Carlo - about the remaining events I cannot say today, because it is a question of budget and it is a question of doing the events where Toni is good and luckily he is good in almost all the events of the WRC. Therefore it is a difficult choice - but sooner or later we will know it.

Q:
Would that be with the Xsara again?

LP:
Most probably with the Xsara, but we are evaluating other offers.

Q:
Can you reveal anything more there or is that top secret?

LP:
No it is not a question of secrets - you know the cars available on the market and therefore there are no secrets. But the Xsara is a strong possibility. First, because we have had very good treatment from Citroen Sport and the co-operation with PH-Sport was fantastic, so everything has been going well. So I don't see why we would have to change.

But of course, as in all other business, there are offers from other teams also and therefore it is something that is still under evaluation, even though the Xsara is a strong possibility.

Q:
Final question, how do you think you can do in 2007? Can you again achieve such good results?

LP:
I think with a driver the level of Toni, you can try to be in the top five [on most rallies] if you do ten events. Of course, we will try to target the top three but that is difficult because the drivers' are strong in the WRC and fast. It is not only a question of the car either, it is a question of being use to driving it and Toni with a few events, even though he has been doing a very well this year with just a few events, we cannot assure him of the same level of kilometres of testing that the other drivers' are doing. So if Toni has the possibility of doing ten events, I think we have a strong possibility of doing top three or top five [results]. If it is just a few events it is harder of course because driving sometimes is not the same as driving almost every week.

Q:
Any idea when we might hear get confirmation of your plans for 2007?

LP:
As soon as I hear I will let you know.

Q:
Thanks for your time, Luca and good luck with sorting things for 2007.