by Rob Wilkins

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL WITH MALCOLM WILSON: CLICK HERE

BP Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson has a lot to smile about at the moment as his team not only seems to have the edge over Citroen, but they have also recently landed a sponsorship deal with Abu Dhabi. Crash.Net Radio's Rob Wilkins caught up with him last week and got the low-down on that - and on how preparations are going for the second half of the season, which gets underway with the Rally Finland early next month...

Crash.net:
Malcolm - let's begin with the Abu Dhabi announcement that was made Monday, July 2. How much of a boost is that for Ford and the WRC in general?

Malcolm Wilson:
It is a great boost for Ford and M-Sport. It is also, I think, a tremendous boost actually for the World Rally Championship to have somebody like Abu Dhabi involved in a long term arrangement. It can only send out positive news for the World Rally Championship to think that someone as global as Abu Dhabi wants to be involved in it.

Crash.net:
Related to that announcement was news that you are going to have a third driver on selected events now as well with Khalid Al Qassimi in a number three car. What can you tell us about that?

MW:
That is part of there plan. Obviously the big initiative is too ultimately to try and find as well a Middle East driver, who can regularly compete in the WRC and hopefully at some point challenge for honours. Part of the programme is we will look at a youth development programme to try and find the next budding star. We will be looking at probably using our Fiesta ST series' car, which is obviously very successful in various championships in different parts of the world and so the idea is we will go and take a team of cars out there and do a few evaluation days. We will then look towards putting a programme together, a step-by-step process to get a driver in the WRC in a World Rally Car. But obviously the third car for this year is Khalid. He is a very keen ambassador to try and get this initiative off the ground, as well as competing in the world championship himself.

Crash.net:
Looking to the second half of the season, is the team still on schedule to use the new 2007 spec Focus in Finland?

MW:
Well as we speak [on Wednesday, July 4] we are testing in Finland at the moment. Yesterday [Tuesday, July 3] was the first day with Mikko [Hirvonen] driving and we certainly had some very positive results. That is still the plan to debut in Finland.

Crash.net:
What were Mikko's first impressions of the new car?

MW:
Feedback was very good. I think the conditions of the roads means it is difficult to compare like with like from last year. There has been quite a lot of rain, so the roads are a lot softer. But he certainly proclaimed himself to be very happy with the car last night.

Crash.net:
With four tarmac events in the second half of the year, a lot of people are predicting that these rounds will play a crucial role in deciding the drivers' and possibly the manufacturers' championship too. How confident are you that Ford will be on form on asphalt?

MW:
We are not under estimating the task. We realise for Dani [Sordo] and Sebastien [Loeb] it is their favoured surface. But if you look back to last year, Marcus [Gronholm] was actually leading in Catalunya until we had a technical issue and hopefully the improvements we have made to the car will keep us up at the sharp end. There are some very good gravel events coming as well for us of course too, starting with Finland, which is the first event in the second half of the season. So, we are looking forward to the prospect and obviously Mikko is still improving as each event goes by. I think it is going to be a very interesting second half of the season.

Crash.net:
Ford obviously enjoys a good cushion in the manufacturers' - 28 points up on Citroen, while Marcus Gronholm is 9 points up on Sebastien Loeb in the drivers' championship. How much of a boost has it been taking that kind of lead into the summer break?

MW:
I think it was very important. In this job though, you can never rest on your laurels at all. We have been absolutely flat-out trying to make sure the new car is going to live up to our usual expectations. But it was a great way to end the second half of the season, especially, from a psychological point of view, for Marcus to be able to dominate the Acropolis Rally ahead of Sebastien. It has put him in a great frame of mind for the second half of the year.

Crash.net:
Are you confident you can stay ahead in the second half of the year?

MW:
As I said, we are not underestimating the task. We want to be greedy. We won the manufacturers' championship last year and this year we want to try and win both titles. OK we are in a good position, but everybody knows Sebastien doesn't give up. But neither does Marcus.

Crash.net:
The FIA announced recently that from 2009, only 12 events will make up the WRC schedule - four less than has become the norm in recent years. How do you feel about that?

MW:
We feel it is a very positive step for the championship and again if we can look at condensing that calendar so it is over a shorter period of time that would be good too.

For the future as well we need to bring in new events, which are of real interest to the manufacturers and include all the emerging markets. Places like China, I think it is the third largest manufacturing place in the world for cars, it has actually overtaken Germany. So, a lot of these places are obviously of huge interest to the manufacturers, to display their products. So really it is quite an exciting time for the WRC.

Crash.net:
Will it be difficult to incorporate new events though, especially now that there are four less slots?

MW:
No, I don't see any difficulty at all. Obviously the events are going to alternate as well. Without that it would have been difficult to fit in, in the 16 event calendar that we had, because obviously there are about 20 events that are looking to try and be in the WRC - and that is without a lot of the other new emerging markets. I think it [rotation] is a solution to actually incorporate all of these events.

Crash.net:
Following the same World Motor Sport Council meeting, it was also revealed that from 2012, future WRC cars will be based on Group N and Super 2000 machines. Again and I appreciate 2012 is some way off, what's your reaction?

MW:
Basically the regulations in real terms, they are not going to change much from where we are now. It is still going to be four-wheel drive and turbo-charged engines. So it is going to be a very, very similar situation to where we are. I think it is probably not the change people were probably envisaging. If you look at what we are doing now, for instant, next year we are doing four events with one engine. So I think by the time we get to 2012, we will be in the same situation.

Crash.net:
Subaru seems to be on the up. Will that help or hinder the BP Ford team in the second half of the year?

MW:
I just think it is great news for the sport to have them back challenging for victory. There is no question in the early part of the season it could have probably helped us, but probably in the second half of the year it might end up making it difficult for us. But, the great thing for me was, the Acropolis Rally at the end of day one, you had six cars separated by 10 seconds. That is exactly what is going to take the sport back to the forefront.

Crash.net:
Citroen has been busy lately - Sebastien Loeb did the Donegal International Rally in Ireland and Dani Sordo is going to do the O.K. Auto Ralli in Finland [over the weekend of July 7-8]. They seem to be pulling out all the stops to come back at you?

MW:
We wouldn't expect anything less to be honest. We know that they are difficult opposition and hence the reason we are obviously doing an evolution of our car. We felt they would comeback strong and that is why we have been doing a lot of testing too.

Crash.net:
Final question, what do you expect from the Stobart team in the second half of the year - and the drivers' there, Henning Solberg, Jari Matti Latvala and of course, your son, Matthew?

MW:
It would be nice if the Stobart team could get third in the manufacturers' championship and finish ahead of Subaru. But being realistic that is going to be quite difficult.

As you mentioned earlier, there are four asphalt events coming up and Henning is not a big fan of asphalt and he has only really done Monte Carlo, so it is going to be quite difficult for him in the second half of the season.

Jari-Matti again, he is doing a fantastic job this season - he is gaining experience event by event and also he has quite a lot of pace there. But it is important for the future, that the likes of Jari-Matti - and Matthew, get the experience for the years ahead.

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL WITH MALCOLM WILSON: CLICK HERE