by Rob Wilkins

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

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will be gunning for its third manufacturers' title in succession this year, while Mikko Hirvonen will now be the #1 pilot and out to challenge for the honours in the race for the drivers' crown. Crash.net Radio caught up with team director Malcolm Wilson at the Autosport International Show to find out what we can expect from the M-Sport-run outfit in 2008...

Crash.net:
Malcolm, how have preparations been going for the season ahead?

Malcolm Wilson:
Very good, we have actually done two tests - one in Sweden and one in the south of France. We have got another one in the south of France just prior to Monte Carlo. There are a lot of changes, with the new Pirelli tyres, but the guys - Mikko [Hirvonen] and Jari-Matti [Latvala] - are certainly very encouraged and very happy with the performance, which is a little bit different to what they have been use to. They seem very confident with everything that has been happening and they are just eager to get back behind the wheel now and get started on Monte Carlo and get started with the new season.

Crash.net:
How happy are you with the team's driver line-up for 2008?

MW:
As you can imagine Marcus [Gronholm] will be a big miss to the team because of what he brought over the last couple of seasons. Twelve victories is a very difficult and very hard act to follow. But also Mikko did an incredible job in backing him up on many, many rallies and collecting manufacturers' points. We feel then he is ready to step up to the mark. He won three events last season and again Jari-Matti's pace has been there for everybody to see, especially mid-season in '07, along with a few accidents. But he also showed great maturity in the final part of the year, which resulted in his first podium. Overall then I think we have a very exciting and probably the youngest driver line-up in the world championship there has ever been. We are very confident we will be winning rallies again.

Crash.net:
How big a loss is it not to have Marcus?

MW:
We have to deal with it. There is no question it is probably twelve months sooner than we thought. We thought he might do another year and in an ideal world it would have been nice to give Jari-Matti another season without probably the same amount of pressure. But, as I mentioned earlier, if you look at the way he has developed in the final quarter of the season then I feel very confident that he can learn a lot from Mikko. Mikko learned a lot from Marcus and Mikko is now a very, very old head on young shoulders. As long as Jari-Matti is prepared to look, learn and listen, which I feel very confident he will do, then, we will have a very strong team.

Crash.net:
One of the big changes this year concerns the tyres with Pirelli coming in as the control tyre for the WRC. There is also no run-flat mousse. What effect will all of that have on the championship and the events?

MW:
We always say that a rally is never over until you cross the finish line and I think that will be even more so in the future. There is still a great unknown out there at the moment. All it needs is for a driver to throw up one rock and you come round a corner and you are on your line and you can't change it. It is inevitable then that you will probably burst a tyre. You could end up in a situation when you have got a very good lead and coming out of the final corner on the final stage something like that could happen. I think it is another dimension that we are going to have to get use to and there is still a lot of tactics to be sorted out. Do you take one spare? Do you take two spares? There are a lot of possibilities and while everyone will be looking for performance, I think we will see drivers' changing wheels on stages.

Crash.net:
There have been suggestions it could be dangerous with no run-flat mousse. Do you think that is scaremongering or is it a real concern?

MW:
I am not happy that from a safety point of view we don't have it on the asphalt events. On gravel it is different. We can cope and obviously you have always got a lot more forgiveness on gravel. But personally in terms of the asphalt stages - and the terrain and where we go for the tarmac events - I would be a lot happier if we could still have the puncture proof type resistance.

Crash.net:
We have had the calendars confirmed for 2009 and 2010 and this rotation system is coming in. Are you surprised that some of the classic events like Monte Carlo and GB will be left off one year? Would you have preferred some events to be 'fixed'?

MW:
The FIA was in a very difficult situation. Obviously the teams, the ISC, we have all been working with the FIA to try and come up with a solution. There is a lot of very, very exciting and emerging countries that are of great interest to manufacturers' and who are looking to hold a world championship round. Places like Russia, China and India - huge growth and obviously places of great interest to the teams. So really as much as we would like to see the old established rallies on an annual basis to be fair to everybody what the FIA has done is probably the only way it could have been achieved. OK we will miss kicking off the season in Monte Carlo but if you look at what happened this year on Rally Ireland - the new rallies did an absolutely brilliant job. They set the standard for a lot of the other events. Furthermore if you look at what Ireland did and the fact it is going to be the first event in 2009 then, I'm absolutely sure they will not let us down. They will put on a fantastic show for us and if it is anything like it was last year it will be a great place to kick off the [2009] championship.

Crash.net:
What can we expect from the Stobart Ford team this year? The outfit almost took third spot in the manufacturers' in 2007 - can they do that this season?

MW:
It is always going to be difficult to follow that up. But the Stobart team did have a great season last year and obviously once we moved Jari-Matti up it is always difficult to find a driver of that equivalent. We feel though that Gigi Galli is a very, very exciting driver and basically he fits in very well with the Stobart side from the promotional and marketing side. He is a very flamboyant character and not only that I think he can spring a few surprises. Maybe not in the early part of the season but once he gets use to the car he will do well. The Stobart team can be very, very strong again.

Crash.net:
What do you want to see the other two Stobart drivers' - Henning [Solberg] and your son, Matthew - achieve in '08?

MW:
We saw that Henning was gaining in confidence with the 06 Focus last year and he is always going to be very strong on the gravel events. Certainly Matthew was very, very strong on the last three events in 2007. It is a case of much of the same really for Matthew [this season] - namely try and still keep building on that experience as part of our five-year plan. He showed some great speed on GB and in Ireland.

We have a great line-up nominated for Monte Carlo too with Francois Duval - that is only a one-off event, but to have him and Galli for the event at the Principality is a very strong way to kick off the season.

Crash.net:
Is it possible Francois will do more than one event with the Stobart team this season?

MW:
At this moment in time the plan is definitely just for one event - but we will see how Monte Carlo goes. There are no plans currently, but you never know...

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