Thursday, September 29, 2011

Interview translated to English !

Hello !

I have had some requests to post a translation of my 27/09/11 post into English.  Here it is:

In November it will be 6 years from your last start in the World Rally Championship. Why has your career at Ford come to end after Rally Australia 2005?
Our deal with Malcolm Wilson came to an end after Rally Australia 2005.  After that, I spoke to Malcolm Wilson and wrote to Jost Capito about continuing with Ford, but not as a customer.  I was thinking that since I was German and my country is an important market, perhaps they could try to find funding from dealers to let me continue with them and progress more.  
Unfortunately, they both made it clear that the choice was to go with Finnish drivers for the next years. Mr Capito wrote me that Malcolm Wilson was in charge of choosing drivers.  I got the impression at that time, that Ford Europe did not have any plan to develop drivers who would have a strong marketing value in relevance to important markets, as for example Peugeot and Citroën have done in the past by hiring drivers who came from countries where the markets were important (ie. France, Spain, Great Britain)  For me it was clear that the doors at Ford were closed, unless I paid for a drive in a customer car.  

Was it the most difficult moment in your career?
It was unpleasant feeling but nothing too dramatic. I had other hopes elsewhere. 

How much money did Ford want for a customer car?
As far as I know the prices started around 150.000Euros per event but the final costs depended on many things.

In 2006 you spoke with Red Bull Skoda about WRC. Why did it not succeed?
At the time I received information that Raimund Baumschlager was in charge of that project so I called him.  We talked many times and it was very positive.  He made it clear to me, over the phone, that he was seriously considering me to drive the car.  I found out later that Raimund Baumschlager was also dependent of Armin Schwarz and Thomas Uberall (Red Bull sponsoring boss).  I spoke to all of them on the phone, to see how things were.  At the time, I had just been voted best German rally driver of the year by the German press. Considering my results at the top level of Rallying and my experience in a private car, I felt that I was in a rather strong position.  I had also been invited to test the Skoda Fabia WRC of First Motorsport, so I also had an idea of what the car was capable of.  
When I spoke to Raimund Baumschager again, he said to me that I was too old (28).  It turned out that, later, among drivers like Ekström and Aigner, they hired Panizzi and Rovanperä, two of the oldest WRC drivers around.  Today I still don't understand what happened really. 

You drove th Mini WRC in UK. What do you think about this car?
The Mini WRC has an impressive chassis.  Prodrive have developed a car which has good balance between suspension, differentials and weight distribution. I was immediately thinking that the car gives confidence.  For me, confidence is among the top things to worry about when you develop a car.  I don't see the sense in developing a car which is perfect on paper if the drivers are not able to push it to the limit with safety.  In WRC, drivers have to push so hard with only 2 recce passes that the confidence you get from the car is absolutely crucial

How do you compare the Mini with "old WRC"?
It is difficult to compare the cars because I drove the Mini in special conditions, on tarmac with gravel tires.  Perhaps if I could drive it on a gravel road I could tell you much more! 

You saw the Mini in Finland. Have you noticed anything interesting?
From my point of view the car looks like it has very good balance when it is driving on the stages.  With that in mind and considering how early the car is in its phase of development I think there is big potential to come.

Do you want to come-back to WRC?
Obviously I would like to come back as I have a strong passion for the sport.  I don't know if I will come back but I know for sure that it would be only with people who believe in me and who are doing the sport because they love it.

VW is planning starts in WRC. Do you think there will be room in the team for drivers from Germany? Have you any chances?
I have read from their press releases that they are looking for the next young Walter Röhrl.  I think that they are serious about putting a German in a car.  From their press releases, it looks like VW is focused on an established superstar driver, and up and coming young drivers of around 20 years of age. As I am neither an established superstar, nor a 20 year old driver, I do not see how I could fit in VW's vision of the future. 

You come from Germany, but for a time lived in Belgium. Why?
My dad was the team manager of MAZDA RALLY TEAM EUROPE and the Japanese firm wanted the team to be based in Brussels.   

Did you decide exactly in Brussels that you would be a rally driver?
Yes I did.  In those days Timo Salonen was my rally hero because he took me on a test road in Finland.  I was maybe 10 yrs old and the belts were too big…So I was floating when the car jumped and holding myself in the bucket seat!  I will never forget that.  It was really awesome.

In 1973 year your father won Rally of Poland. In 2000 year you were his co-driver in Network Q Rally. How do you remeber your debut in WRC?  
It was very exciting to co-drive with my dad on the Network Q Rally.  I remember that the stages were impressive and we worked well together.  At the time I was learning everything and reading the notes on time was taking all my attention.  I did not see much of the outside because I was looking down at my note pad a lot! It was fantastic to read notes and feel the road under you as the car accelerates, turns.  It takes real trust for a co-driver to keep his eyes down and read.  On this rally I learned the high importance of having a good co-driver and good notes. 

Is a father-son crew a good idea?
I don't see any problem with a father-son crew if they are able to work well together.   

What do you do now?
I am now managing a construction project in France.  The project has been ongoing for almost 10 years and I am hoping it will come to end very soon.

Why did you decide to write a blog "WRC behind the stages"?
After I stopped driving the Ford, it took a while to grasp the big picture of what exactly happened over 3 years of driving with them.  At that time, my mentality was: if things happen to you, you just keep it for yourself and deal with it.  Over the years my attitude changed. With my work of dealing with the construction business, lawyers and notaries everyday, my view of how things work in the world evolved.  I realized one day that, what happened with Ford was something special and I felt that I had to share it with others.  
One day, I decided to write a blog.  My intention was to put my story out there.  This was my way to do it.  I did not want to have any regret later in my life and think "why did you keep quiet ?".  
I had absolutely no idea that people would be so interested in what I had to say.  I was really surprised to see all the views and touched by all the support I was getting.  I was also surprised when I started receiving emails from others who had lived similar stories

Do you think that for example M. Wilson or R. Baumschlager are reading your blog?
I think it is possible that they read it. I got emails and blog comments from various people who are involved in rallysport, but no actual WRC drivers.

One of the posts on your blog begins "I love Poland". Why do you like Poland? You started in Poland only in 2002 year, when were very difficult conditions (heavy rain etc).
The Polish people are very nice and welcoming.  The country is beautiful.  I also love the fact that Rally sport is so popular over there.  Oh, and the food was good!  

Which polish food do you like the most?
I don’t remember food names from 9 years ago but there was a dish which I think was a gulasz and I liked it very much.

You fought with Polish drivers not only in Poland. What do you think about their skills?
They are very, very fast on tarmac.  At the time Kuzaj and Kulig were the main drivers that I was dealing with on the stages.  I was a beginner and I learned a lot from that time.   

In 2003 year Tomasz Kuchar drove in WRC with Focus WRC.
I remember the name Kuchar, yes. I checked his times when he did the same rallies as I did.

What would you change in your career, if you could turn back time?
I think I wrote about that in the blog.  I would have done the same but asked Peugeot for a car instead of Ford. I would have fit much better in Peugeot.   As a German driver showing potential, I am confident they would have seen me as an asset for their marketing.  At the time, Jean-Pierre Nicolas told me in person that I was interesting for the Peugeot brand.  It was just very unfortunate that they pulled out of rally in the end of 2005.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 18: Swedish wheel of fortune

If I remember correctly the first WRC cars appeared in 1997.  I remember the first ever pic I saw of one was that of the SUBARU WRC in tarmac spec.  The cars had suddenly become much wider!
Then for a number of years I noticed that cars were running wheels with this sort of offset on the Swedish Rally: 

These wheels reduced the car's track width! Why would you want to do that?

I ran with these wheels on the 2003 and 2004 Swedish Rally as well. 

I noticed that the works cars had flat wheels (no offset) from 2003 onwards.  I wondered why.


As I understood it back then, there was an issue as far as driving was concerned, which had to do with how wide your track was and its relation to the width of the ruts dug by the other cars that ran in front of you.  The issue only took place on the second run over stages where dozens of narrower tracked cars had gone through (hours ago on the first pass). 

In the Swedish Rally, it's slippery, yes.  That is clear I think we can all agree.  The thing is that, depending on the thickness of snow and ice (which for some climatic bizarreness is seldom thick in the Swedish Rally area), all the braking points in the stages get dug up, exposing the gravel, in the ruts mainly.  Therefore the level of grip under braking gets dramatically improved. 

So the word out was: it could be a problem to run a wider track car.  The car could jump out of the ruts because it doesn't fit!  Since it was absolutely crucial to hang in the ruts under braking, it made sense to me.
Funnily enough I did not experience anything of such.  Not even in 2005 when I ran the no-offset wheels for the first time.

   2004 spec Focus

That year, I learned something else, what might have been the major advantage of those wheels:

Their strength.

The feeling with the 2004 Focus was better than with any car I had ever driven.  For the first time, I felt comfortable pushing hard, so I punched it up step by step.  I remember specifically one stage:

The rhythm was fast.  While in a high speed left hander, I was just following the line, looking far ahead for the next corner when suddenly "BANG".  Big impact in the front left wheel.  I thought for sure this will have consequences.  Only a puncture if I'm lucky.  But no, nothing.  I kept going, stressed out.  Then another impact!  I thought "OMG what is this?" 

The impacts were due to small but very sharp bumps and pot holes.  Invisible due to the fact that it was cloudy and as you may know it's very hard to see shapes and details on a white background.  Our shocks were extremely soft, the car was running very low and the speed was high.  All these factors mean that the slightest sharp impact on a wheel will bump it through to the shocker's bump stop and "BANG".

I thought I had been extremely lucky because my front left wheel was fine. 

Mikko Hirvonen was not so lucky.  We rode in the same bus to the hotel that day and he told me that his wheel exploded on one of those bumps.  He was running the offset wheels. 


On that day I understood from first hand experience that there was a huge difference between the two types of wheels as far as impacts were concerned.  Not mentioning the handling improvement, this in my sense is obvious.

As I started writing this post I got interested to find out who ran the flat wheels first.  The earliest shot I could find was this one from 2002: 

Good idea.

Just a thought that came through my mind about sharp impacts.  If ever you are driving and for whatever reason you are about to have a wheel go over a nasty bump, stone, pot-hole or whatever, make sure you have the steering wheel straight at the moment of impact.  Straight wheels will greatly enhance your chances of not suffering damage.  This goes for tires as well as suspension parts.  It may seem like a trivial thing but this reflex may well be the difference between walking home or driving home.