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By David Fallon in Ireland

At the Autosport International Motorsport show held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham (UK), Ford and Suburu launched new cars for 2008. In Ford's case, it was the new Ford Focus WRC for their defence of the constructors’ championship. Ford boss Malcolm Wilson was in a relaxed mood, making time for fans and journalists.

Having conducted four TV interviews, I then spoke to him and asked about the first rally for this year, Monte Carlo.

“Not long to go, there was no break and it's quite difficult for the drivers and the team. We've had a good test before Christmas and a good one just now in France, so the guys are buoyed up now and feel we are going to have a good season,” Wilson said.

With Marcus Gronholm having departed the scene with two World Rally titles under his belt, Wilson has brought in Jari-Matti Latvala to replace him.

“Everybody is very sad that Marcus has decided to hang up his helmet, but Mikko has learned an awful lot from him in the last couple of years and he has proved himself to be very reliable and very consistent, and I hope now he can step up his pace. But we have also got a very young exciting driver in Jari-Matti, 22 years of age, 50-odd world rallies behind him, first podium in Rally Ireland. He showed tremendous pace and in the final part of the season, some really good maturity.”

Wilson is determined to win the WRC Constructors title again. “We want to win it three years in a row and the drivers' championship has eluded us in the last couple of seasons, coming very close in both years. It's a big challenge for Mikko because we all know how good Sebastian is! But with a few changes in the regulations and a one make tyre - maybe these sorts of things might play in our favour. We'll just have to wait and see, the drivers are very confident and the new car is very good.”

Standing beside his new Ford WRC car was a delighted Jari-Matti Latvala.

“It is my first year with a manufacturer team and I have achieved something that I have dreamed of since I was four years old. But now the work starts and I’m looking forward to the first rallies of the year.”

With Latvala having replaced Marcus Gronholm, had they been in contact with each other?

“I saw Marcus in Finland when we had a TV programme but I haven't spoken to him too much over the winter.”

And with the shadow of the departed Gronholm from Ford looming large over the team, the young Finn is not phased by the huge responsibility on his shoulders.

“I will try to fight for podium places at the rallies and I have a small dream that I could win the World Rally Championship this year, but we will see. The new car is quick and it should be the fastest in the championship, so everything will depend on myself.”

On the Prodrive stand, company boss David Richards launched their 2008 Aston Martin entry for the Le Mans 24 hours and will be very much in charge of the Suburu World Rally team this year. Richards is keen to get his drivers into the new car mid-season.

“We are still with the old car, slightly modified; a car that has served us very well over the last five years and won Petter a World Rally Championship in its early years. But it's getting clearly too long in the tooth and everyone is waiting for the introduction of our new car later in the year.”

Suburu had announced back in December that Markko Martin would be the new test driver and Richards confirmed that testing was already underway.

“Markko is out testing at the moment and it’s all going to plan. When pushed about his two drivers, Chris Atkinson and Petter Solberg, he said he wants solid performances from both.

“I hope they can get the best out of the cars and I would hope for a few podiums out of that as well. Later in the year when we have the new car, there will be no excuses!”

Richards knows that the task of collecting the drivers’ championship is even harder with Sebastian Loeb in such dominant form.

“Every generation turns up an extraordinary driver. I have seen it in my time and could highlight three or four of them. Sebastian is the current ‘best of the batch’ and is extremely difficult to beat.”

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