by Russell Atkins

TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE

Reigning triple World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx is facing an uphill struggle in 2008 as he bids to preserve his mantle as the modern-day tin-top king, with SEAT's turbocharged diesel brigade proving to be out of reach of pretty much everyone so far.

The Guernseyman did not clinch his three crowns, however - in addition to lifting the laurels in the WTCC's precursor, the European Touring Car Championship, back in 2004 - for nothing, and he has been displaying all of his legendary grit, talent, pace and determination to secure three rostrum finishes from the opening eight races of the current campaign to keep himself firmly in the title fight. The 33-year-old gave Crash.net Radio his version of events so far...

Q:
Andy, the last time we spoke was prior to the Valencia meeting on the World Touring Car Championship calendar. Ahead of that, your previous best qualifying had been twelfth this season, and you had come away from a disastrous weekend for BMW in Mexico where you scored just one point. What was your mindset going into Valencia?

Andy Priaulx:
Mexico wasn't such a disaster for me personally, because I scored BMW's only point. I took a positive from that, because quite clearly the SEAT package is much stronger at the moment than any other car. That meant I went to Valencia just wanting to drive my very, very best, and to qualify P6 there was pretty rewarding really.

Q:
Valencia also gave all the drivers the first opportunity to try out the new wet tyres this year - how did that go?

AP:
It was an interesting session really, because we had tested in the dry and the car was pretty competitive, and then of course just before qualifying it rained. None of us had really had a lot of experience on the wet tyres; it took a little bit of getting used to, but I've driven many years now in this car, so I knew what to expect from the wet set-up and managed to put a good lap together.

Q:
Like you say, it was a third row grid slot, which was a considerable improvement on both Curitiba and Puebla. Was that more down to progress with the car or the nature of the circuit, or maybe a bit of both..?

AP:
It was just an unusual session - being so wet - and obviously changeable track conditions always do throw up a few unexpected things. I think at that stage BMW knew that it was going to be tough to qualify really high up in the dry; the wet session probably just brought a bit more uncertainty to the situation. We made the best of those changeable conditions, and I was pretty pleased with the performance really.

Q:
The first race produced a solid showing, leaving you on the front row of the grid for race two with the top eight reverse grid format in the WTCC. You then went on to lead off the start-line - did you think at that point that you could win it?

AP:
At first I did; I felt pretty strong over the first two laps, and as [Alain] Menu had dropped away slightly I thought 'this is looking great'. Then as soon as he got clear of the traffic he just reeled me in at about a second a lap, and I knew at that stage that there was absolutely no chance of holding him off and that I was basically going to end up slipping back into the clutches of the midfield. I defended, but he got past and just drove away; it was really difficult for me to defend, and for J?rg [M?ller] as well because they [the Chevrolets] were so much faster.

Q:
Were you surprised to see the Chevys so far up in Valencia?

AP:
Not really, no, because over the last year they've been very competitive, and obviously they were a lot lighter than us with no success ballast. They are performing really well right now along with SEAT, so nothing really surprises me at this moment in time.

Q:
Nevertheless, though, a podium position obviously - were you pleased with that at the end of the weekend?

AP:
I was; I think if I can have an eight-point weekend on a bad day I will be very happy. At the moment it's still pretty tough for us. We are having to rely on the reverse grid; we're always on the bubble in both qualifying and race one, and we need to see some alignment with the regulations to be able to then perform consistently over the whole season.

Q:
You then headed to Pau in southern France for the latest round; you're a bit of a fan of street circuits, aren't you?

AP:
I am; I love street circuits. They're something I think that every driver really enjoys, because you're running really close to the barriers and it feels so quick. Street circuits are unique - they've got bumps, they've got character, they've got kerbs. I just find it a really interesting challenge, and Pau is a beautiful place as well. I've always got a really positive feeling about street tracks.

Q:
Like Valencia, the weather was again a bit of a challenge over the Pau weekend, wasn't it, as you found out to your cost during practice..?

AP:
Yeah; seasons go like that, don't they? Sometimes you just end up with a wet season. Free practice was a shame. I was competitive in the first session, and was going well in the second session too. At the end of the day, though, if you're not touching walls and spinning off occasionally you're not trying hard enough. I had a pretty big hit in free practice two and damaged the car, but luckily there was no chassis damage and overall it wasn't too severe, and my team managed to get it together again in time for qualifying which was good.

Q:
Taking that into account, and with the fact that qualifying was disrupted too with traffic and yellow flags, were you fairly pleased with your grid position in the end?

AP:
The qualifying session on a short street track is always going to be a challenge for everybody. I was quick in the first sector, then in the second sector came across Augusto [Farfus], who had gone off. That meant I had to back off with the yellow flags, and then had another go and found traffic. I was a little bit disappointed after being on my fourth set of new tyres, but still happy to be seventh. We've gone from being twelfth in Mexico to sixth in Valencia in the wet, and seventh in the dry at Pau was pretty pleasing actually. We're going in the right direction.

Q:
You also had a suspended grid penalty hanging over you that weekend; did that play on your mind at all, or make you alter your driving style in any way?

AP:
Not really; I think if you're not committed to the risk, then you're more dangerous actually in many ways. I basically drove a clean, fast race. I've still got the suspended sentence for Brno next weekend, but I've just got to drive as I normally drive. I'm a clean driver and, no matter how thinly you slice a piece of toast, there's always two sides. I didn't feel that I deserved a suspension, but I've got it and I've got to deal with it now.

Q:
In the first race at Pau you were battling hard with fellow BMW ace J?rg M?ller over eighth place. In the WTCC, there's a big difference between eighth place and ninth place in race one, isn't there?

AP:
There is, yeah. Ninth is just nobody - it's so annoying to finish ninth. I felt for J?rg - he's a good team-mate and a good driver, but he was carrying the weight over that weekend. He didn't get up there into the top eight and I did, and that made my weekend really. Nobody likes to rely on the reverse grid to win races, but at this moment in time an eighth position is like a win for me because we're just not as competitive as SEAT in these conditions. I've got to be very happy with that, and to get eleven points from the weekend was sensational really.

Q:
How important was it to you to have that pole position for the second race, especially somewhere like Pau..?

AP:
When I saw the weather, I thought to myself 'I'm so pleased that I'm not down in the middle of the grid now', because you just couldn't see anything. Especially around a street track, it was absolutely awful; it is actually really dangerous to have conditions like that. I was really pleased that I was up there at the front, and at least I could take control a little bit of my race. The worst thing is, though, when you're leading in the wet and don't know the conditions, it's easy to make a mistake because you've got nobody to follow. It's quite tough to lead in those circumstances.

Q:
Although you managed to eke out a significant gap by the end of the race, you had quite a lot of pressure early on from Chevrolet's Nicola Larini, didn't you?

AP:
Yeah, that's right; Nicola was quick at the beginning, and so was Rickard [Rydell]. I could see that they were only two to three tenths off me the whole race until the end, so I just drove as fast as I could without making any mistakes. I can't say I controlled the race, because I had to drive really hard throughout, but towards the end I think Nicola must have used his tyres and also he had his mirrors full of Rickard. I think that gave me a little bit of a chance to pull away which was, I must say, very, very pleasing.

Q:
Though you'd had a couple of podiums this season before Pau, it was still obviously your first victory of 2008 and first since Macau last year. That must have been very satisfying?

AP:
It's always nice to get that under your belt, because you feel then that at least you've got a win. Because this championship is so tough and the rules are changing all the time, you can easily go through a season without a win and still potentially win the title. Nobody likes to win championships without winning races, so I think it's nice to get that one out of the way and it allows me to concentrate on other things. I'm more concerned about trying to improve the package that we have at the moment, though, because Gabriele Tarquini - who's leading the championship right now, twelve points ahead of us - out-scored us over the Pau weekend whilst carrying more weight. That's a worry.

Q:
Talking about the weight issue, one of the recent changes to the WTCC means the BMWs are now carrying a bit less weight than they did before, and also the SEATs have had their engine speed limited. Have those changes made it more of a level playing field than it was previously?

AP:
I think SEAT hasn't had its engine limited; I think that limit of 4,050rpm was actually above the limit of the car anyway, so I don't think the engine rev limiter has made any difference at all to SEAT. As far as the weight goes, it is a help but it's not enough. I think the FIA aren't going to be able to control this problem with weight alone; it will require some serious engine restrictions to bring the diesel into line with all the other cars on the grid.

Q:
You've now got Brno in the Czech Republic coming up next on the calendar. It wasn't a great weekend for you last year results-wise; do you feel you've got some scores to settle this time around?

AP:
Well, it was actually a fantastic weekend [in terms of performance], and I left the circuit feeling really positive. I know I didn't finish race one, but that wasn't my fault. I'd qualified on the front row with the heaviest car, literally just off pole position. I had the speed to win that weekend, and I think what happened in the race made my championship a lot harder than it needed to have been, because I then spent the second half of the season just trying to close the gap. I was taken out of race one, and then came back from the last on the grid to take a couple of points in race two, but potentially it could have been a 15 or 16-point weekend, and I went into Macau with only one point to spare.

Q:
So heading back to Brno now, you're the first driver to have broken the SEAT stranglehold at the top of the title standings, sitting in fourth position. Is it game on again, do you feel?

AP:
Not at the moment, no. I think SEAT is going to come into its own in Brno with the hills and its diesel engine. Unless something changes, I don't see anything more than a yellow wash to be honest. I'm not being negative; I'm just being realistic about it. BMW are doing everything possible to bring the package into a competitive situation, but I think if we become competitive the FIA will just restrict us anyway. We've just got to keep scoring points at the moment and bagging as many of them as we can, hoping that when the rules re-align themselves a bit more that we'll be able to really be competitive for the second half of the season.

TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE

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