by Rob Wilkins

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

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has had a good start to the year and following the first half of the season the 'Blue Oval' leads the way in both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships.

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Indeed following Mikko Hirvonen's tactical win in Turkey - the last event prior to the summer break - the Finn re-took the initiative in the race for the drivers' crown, 3 points up on Sebastien Loeb. Ford also leads the manufacturers' championship - 9 points ahead of Citroen. Crash.net Radio spoke to team director Malcolm Wilson recently and got him to turn his thoughts ahead to the rest of the season and more...

Crash.net:
Malcolm, I guess at the half-way point of the season, you must be really happy with Ford's position in both championships?

Malcolm Wilson:
I have to say, it was a position we thought we would be challenging for - but to actually be at the top of the pile in both championships is probably a bonus in all honesty. We always felt that Mikko could carry on and do the great job that he was doing when Marcus [Gronholm] was with us. But of course it was a big step up for him to take on that lead role and the way that he has adapted to it has been quite special.

Crash.net:
Are you at all worried though, especially as Ford has only won three events this season to Citroen's five?

MW:
No. Okay there is no question there were events that we felt we should have won. But inexperience and probably the odd mistake from our side meant that events we had a really good track record on, we didn't do as good on them as we felt we should have. But I always said right from the outset, with two young drivers, they would always perform better in the second half of the season than in the first half. I still believe that. Okay, I know there is three asphalt rallies to come and nobody other than Sebastien has won these rallies in the last four or five years. It is a big challenge ahead of us. But also there are some very good gravel rallies too and we won them all last year with either Mikko or Marcus. The way that the two boys are starting to improve, work together and the fact Jari-Matti is now getting a lot more time in the car testing, means they should be stronger in the second half with what they have learnt so far this year.

Crash.net:
Are you optimistic that the team will be able to stay in front during the second part of the year?

MW:
It is going to be a really big battle - that there is no question. We are absolutely confident it is going to go right down to the wire. It is certainly not going to be as easy as last year and the year before [when we won the manufacturers' championship]. I am just so happy though and just so delighted with the way the team and our two drivers have been performing. To be in this position with the two youngest guys in the championship and to be actually up there and leading, I feel, is very special.

Crash.net:
How pleased have you been with the performances of Mikko and 'graduate' Jari-Matti Latvala?

MW:
I think I have covered most of it. As I said, in a way they have both done terrific jobs. I didn't expect anything less of Mikko. There have been moments when we have seen the odd little hiccup. But if you think about what he has got on his shoulders it is more than acceptable considering his age and his level of experience.

With Jari-Matti we all know that the speed is there and it always has been there. He got that win in Sweden, which was a great confidence boost for him. After that he has had a few set backs but if you look at Turkey he played a very good supporting role to Mikko. I think the combination works and now that they have got the break and can do a bit more testing between now and the second half of the season it should get better. I just hope they can start the second half of the season in the right frame of mind and look at the mistakes and what they have learned in the first half and use it. I am sure we will then be in a great position at the end of the season.

Crash.net:
The win in Turkey came after Ford adopted some clever tactics. Are such manoeuvrings good for the sport?

MW:
From a team point of view we don't mind what it is. But basically the FIA made the decision to re-introduce the order of classification [and not reserve the order for days 2 and 3]. They felt the sport needed some tactics brought into it. We did have some rallies before this year, when whoever got into the lead you knew that was it, because they were going to have a favourable road position. If you look if it has ticked that box, it has certainly done that. It keeps the rallies alive right through until the final day. We were having rallies and it was halfway through day 1 and the top five positions were what they were and it didn't change for the whole duration of the rest of the rally. We have got a situation now where you have definitely not won that rally until you cross that ramp on Sunday. I can't remember the last time we had three drivers who could actually win a WRC event on the final stage - and that is what we had in Turkey. At 11 kilometres Sebastien Loeb was on course to win that rally after our guys had been leading for two days. It has brought a real amount of excitement back into the sport that it didn't have. I understand a lot of people don't like to see drivers' slowing down but they are only slowing down for 100 metres at the very most and just getting themselves in the right position. There is a lot of pressure on those guys too when they implement those sorts of tactics. It can very easily go wrong. You can go out the next morning and if you hit a rock or get a puncture, you have then thrown it all away. There was still two days of the rally to go. It is not all over. The rules are there. There is no cheating involved. Rallying was always like that until about six or seven years ago. It is not something new.

Crash.net:
The next event is Finland, what will be possible there?

MW:
I certainly believe if you look at the way Mikko was going last year he was less than a handful of seconds behind Marcus for the three-days and he really pushed him all the way. I know it is his favourite rally and it is one he wants to win. I think Mikko is certainly going to start as a favourite for it. He has got the disadvantage that he is now leading the championship and will have to run first car again. If the weather conditions are dry that will not be in his favour.

Last year we also the tremendous speed that Jari-Matti had. The important thing for Jari now is that he has got to get that experience and get round the rally for future years.

Crash.net:
What do you expect from the Stobart Ford team in Finland and beyond?

MW:
It would be nice to continue and nibble a few points back out of Subaru, like we did on the last one. We are obviously trying to strengthen the team for the tarmac rallies and Francois Duval will now join the Stobart team for the remaining asphalt events. That will give them a bit more strength on those events. Again we are just looking for the likes of Gigi [Galli] and Henning [Solberg] to continue getting solid results and the odd events where Matthew [Wilson - my son] is nominated, we are looking for him to still build up his experience. He did his best performance in Turkey. It wasn't his best result, but it was certainly his best performance. If we can keep building that up throughout the year, that is what we are after.

Crash.net:
Francois Duval did very well in Germany last year and finished second. Do you think he can do something similar this time out?

MW:
I don't see any reason why not. He has got the chance. He did a very good rally in Monte Carlo in the Stobart Focus. He has got a days testing planned with the team. I don't see any reason why he can't be challenging for victory even.

Crash.net:
There have been reports recently that Ford might quit the WRC if the FIA doesn't sort out the future regulations and appoint a central promoter for the sport. How big a threat is that?

MW:
I think it is a threat for everybody. The one thing that the sport needs at this moment in time is a global promoter. The WRC is the only FIA registered championship that doesn't have a global promoter. It is something that the manufacturers have been working with the FIA on to try and find a solution - and sort the new technical regulations. But the most important thing is to get this global promoter in place. The sport does need driving forward. We have got this incredible sport and it is touching quite a big audience. But I think the sport has got so much more to offer and of course it is a business too. Everybody is in this business to deliver value and that is what we are looking for at Ford. The sport does need to deliver value.

Crash.net:
Were you happy with the outcome of the latest World Motor Sport Council meeting?

MW:
It was a very positive meeting. It is not often the case that you can get 100 per cent of what you propose sorted. But in principle we have got that. Now Ford, Citroen and the manufacturers are now working with the FIA to make sure that we all get exactly what we need to take this sport forward. It is a fantastic sport and if people could really capture the excitement that we had in Turkey on that final day, I don't think there is any other sport that can come close to it. We have got to find a way to capture that and let the rest of the world see how exciting the sport is.

Crash.net:
The WRC won't include the Rally Monte Carlo next season, how big a blow is this and could Ford still enter the event in light of the fact it is probably the most famous rally in the world?

MW:
We certainly have no plans to enter Monte Carlo if it is not in the world championship. Our priority is the WRC. Okay Monte Carlo is a great place to kick off the season. But as we have seen in Formula 1 there is a lot of emerging markets and different people are organising very, very good grand's prix. We have got the same thing in rallying too. If you look at some of the new rallies that have been brought into the championship, then they are really the ones that have set the standard, whether it is Ireland, Jordan or Portugal. They have really taken it to another level. I know how desperate Ireland were to get the kick-off event for the 2009 season. I am very confident that they will do something that is very worthy of the start of the WRC.

Crash.net:
It is quite a coup though isn't it for the IRC to get the Rallye Monte Carlo?

MW: [pause] I hope it works for them. But the IRC is one thing and the WRC is another. The World Rally Championship is the one that we are concerned about and we feel that Ireland will do a very good job for us.

Crash.net:
What do you think of the IRC?

MW:
There is obviously no real manufacturer in it. But it is a good formula and that is obviously the basis of our next future World Rally Car, which is great from a Ford point of view because it does open up the possibilities. It is a market that we have not been in before. It opens up another sales avenue.

Crash.net:
Could you ever see the IRC rivalling the WRC?

MW:
No I don't think so. It is a totally different category with different types of events. Also the way that the FIA is going now with the World Rally Championship and the fact there is going to be a global promoter hopefully announced in the not too distant future, that carries the weight of what the manufacturers and everybody are looking for.

Crash.net:
Have Ford set a time scale for when they want a global promoter appointed?

MW:
We are working with the FIA now. We need to make sure something is in place as soon as possible - the sooner the better really, because to make the decision to continue for the longer term, then, it's late now. But the important thing is we can work with the FIA now and get exactly what the sport needs, what Ford needs and what the other manufacturers' need, to take this sport to where it should rightfully be.

Crash.net:
How much longer can Ford and the other manufacturers' wait for it?

MW:
We have been given the green light that they are going to appoint a promoter and I know they are having meetings with promoters at the moment. You have got to get the right promoter. You have got to get the right people. It is not something that is going to happen overnight. As I said, we are working with them, because it is so important for everybody, that when it is announced, we want it to be right. At least we are having some input with the FIA and that is the important thing.

Crash.net:
Final question, sum up what you want to see Ford achieve in the second half of the season?

MW:
We want to try and win both championships. We are in a great position. We know it is going to be harder than it was last year to win the manufacturers' because of the asphalt rallies. But we also feel that we have got two great drivers' emerging, who are going to take a very strong challenge to Sebastien.

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