The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has seen things turn around in the last three events, and while Jari-Matti Latvala's final stage error in Poland was a big blow, the 'Blue Oval' still looks very strong off the back of three victories in succession. Radio's Rob Wilkins caught up with team director Malcolm Wilson recently and spoke to him about Mikko Hirvonen's chances of taking the Drivers' title this season, the next event in Finland and more...
Malcolm, first, congratulations on being awarded an OBE in The Queen's Birthday Honours List...

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Malcolm Wilson:
Thank you very much. I have to say it was a big surprise to me. Very nice - but it came as quite a shock.
We are two thirds of the way through the 2009 World Rally Championship season now, only four events remain. How confident are you feeling going into the final part?

I think if you look where we were six weeks ago we were basically written off as not having much of a chance in either championship - the drivers' or manufacturers'. Prior to Jari-Matti's mistake in Poland of course both championships were looking very, very good. But I really feel Mikko is full of confidence at the moment. He has had two fantastic rallies. I have always felt if we could get both drivers' performing at their best then we could pressurise Sebastien and that is what we have done on the last few events. We have just got to hope now that Mikko can get his revenge in Finland from last year and then of course, going to Australia, with it being another new rally, it tends to favour our drivers again. Hopefully we can mount a challenge. The manufacturers' is going to be difficult in view of what happened in Poland but the drivers' championship looks very promising.
Mikko has a one-point lead in the drivers' championship. Do you think we could see a new world champion this year?

As I said, in Finland, Mikko wants to get revenge. With Sebastien there is a bit of a pattern to his mistakes. They tend to be on new rallies and on new stages. 30 per cent of the tests are new in Finland and Australia is a completely new rally. Obviously Spain should be a Sebastien benefit but then it is back to Rally GB. I think it is going to go right down to the wire and both of our guys have got a good track record in Wales - although admittedly so too has Sebastien. I feel that with the way Mikko is driving at the moment - and the confidence he is getting - he has got to be in a very strong position.
You mentioned what happened in Poland with Jari-Matti. Obviously the team was gutted by what occurred on that final super special and so too was Jari-Matti - how is he now and what advice are you going to give him for Finland?

It has been a difficult year for Jari, as everybody can see. What happened in Poland was probably one of the biggest mistakes I have seen in world rallying. But we have invested heavily in him and we have got to work with him, which is obviously what we are doing. He is getting a lot of specialist advice outside the car. The driving is not in question. But it is just taking a little bit longer to get him to where we wanted him to be than what we had hoped. However the performance up to that final silly mistake was fantastic. The last three rallies have been really good for him. He just made a very, very costly error late on, which we have got to get to the bottom of before Finland.
Will Jari-Matti still be with the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT in 2010?

There is no question. Hopefully Ford is going to be in the world championship in the future and he will definitely form part of our plans going forward if that is the case.
Staying with 2010, a lot was announced before Rally Poland following the latest World Motor Sport Council meeting. Are you happy with the direction the sport is going?

Yeah, a lot of positives have come out of it. The most important thing from our point of view is that the ISC is now the global promoter for the WRC. We have seen the benefits of that already and that is only going to improve. They have had a good influence on the calendar for next year. Okay it is not perfect. I think it will be 2011 before we see a calendar that we feel is really the way to go and take the sport forward. But it is great to get pillar events back in the championship, which weren't going to be in - like Finland, GB and Spain. That is a big positive step. Technical regulations, okay, 1.6 turbos - there is no question that is the way to go in the longer term. Whether we can actually achieve that for 2011, we will have to wait and see. But overall everything is positive. I think there were more decisions made than ever I have known in a World Council meeting about World Rally. It bodes well for the future.
Looking at the calendar for 2010, you said it is not perfect, what are the main problems?

The main issue from our point of view, obviously at this point in time everybody is looking at cost, and there is no question that next year's calendar is expensive with almost five flyaway events there. Unfortunately we will have to live with that because it is part of the rotational system.

But as I said I am more thinking positive for the future and for 2011 onwards we will have a really good calendar. There are a lot of good events now. Poland is one such example. They did a fantastic job recently. The amount of spectators was probably the most we have seen in Europe for many, many years. There are a lot of new events that are going to be vying for places on what will hopefully be the perfect calendar for 2011.
Do you think we will see more manufacturers in the WRC in the future as a result of the announcements made?

I think so. There is certainly a lot of interest, although there is still a lot of work to do and there has never been a more difficult time in the motor industry to encourage new manufacturers' in. But with the way things are going and the way they are looking to reduce the costs, it is all looking positive.
One major change announced by the WMSC concerns the SupeRally and it is going to get a big overhaul. What are you thoughts on that and how easy will it be for the public to follow?

I must admit there is still a lot of detail to be ironed out between now and the end of the season. Obviously SupeRally is a big plus factor for any young aspiring drivers and I think the one thing we can't afford to lose is the desire or will to continue. There has to be something or some reward at the end of it. Even if the guy finishes 33rd in his whatever car, it is still an important thing to take back to his sponsors that he has actually completed the rally. There is still a bit of fine tuning and it is still open for discussion - the 'i's' haven't been dotted and the 't's' haven't been crossed. Hopefully we can find a solution that suits everybody.
Are you happy that the events will have a lot more freedom in the future, with an increase in the overall event distance and no minimum or maximum stage distances?

There will be a maximum stage distance because obviously you have to think about tyre wear and everything. We are very happy with the current format. We have worked very closely with the FIA on the technical side and - for example, we are now doing three events with the same engine. We certainly can't end up then having three events at 500 kilometres long, because then we probably won't be in a position where we can make the engines last. I think as long as the calendar is carefully planned, if some events want to run two days and 300 kilometres and one wants to run 500 kilometres that is fine. But again all those sorts of things need to be balanced with the current technical regulations in place.
Returning to this year, have you been pleased with the performances put in by Stobart's Henning Solberg and your son, Matthew, with Ford's 'B' team?

If you look at the points' tally of both drivers, they have both done very good solid jobs. It is great to see Matthew putting in solid performances. But the important thing for me is that he is now actually getting under the sub-one second a kilometre on most the stages. Compared to twelve months ago that is a big, big step. If he can continue on like that hopefully in a couple of years he will be knocking on the door.
Final question: What are you hopes and targets for that next event in Finland?

Being realistic to stand any chance of going for either of the championships it is important we do well. We do have to win in Finland - and we do have to win in Australia too. Then as I said it will be a Sebastien benefit in Spain and so the next two events are crucial to our championship aspirations.
Thank you for your time Malcolm - much appreciated.

Pleasure, no problem.