Andreas Mikkelsen makes his debut as a Skoda UK driver in this week's Monte Carlo Rally. The Norwegian spoke with AUTOSPORT about his expectations for the event and the rest of the season.
Q. How do you feel about the criticism of Skoda UK's decision not to run a British driver?
Andreas Mikkelsen: It's very important for them this year to compete at the top in IRC and the problem there with the British driver is that no one has experience. There are some drivers who have done a few rounds, but none of them can be up there fighting for the title. The IRC is a big international series and Skoda is an international company, so I can't see a problem why Skoda UK can't employ a non-British driver.
Q. Do you look to try and win those critics over?
AM: Of course, I will try and do the best I can for Skoda UK. I am very fortunate that I am driving for them this year and I will do everything I can to make it up to them. I'll give it my hundred percent.
Q. As a Norwegian, does it feel a bit odd to drive a Skoda UK car?
AM: I'm not the first person to do that. John Haugland did it before with I think Skoda England on Rally GB many years ago. No, I've done a lot of rallies in Britain and I feel like it's my second home, so driving for Skoda UK doesn't feel strange at all.
Q. How important is it to you to continue the brand-building work which Guy Wilks started last year?
AM: Of course, Skoda is doing this program to help the Skoda brand and I will do everything in my power to help them do that and achieve the goals that they have set internally. I'll give it 100 percent.
Q. How's testing gone for the Monte?
AM: It's been good, we've had some really good days. We've been lucky that we've found all the different surfaces which you come across on the Monte Carlo rally and the testing has been good. I feel comfortable with the car and the tires as well. The general feeling is good. I know that it won't be easy as it's a very tricky event and the conditions are constantly changing. It is the most difficult rally in the world and I'm a first timer, so it won't be easy at all.
Q. Is this your first time driving a Fabia Facelift?
AM: I've done some rallies before with Skoda but this will be my first event for Skoda UK Motorsport in this spec car.
Q. What's possible for the Monte, result-wise?
AM: It's really difficult to say. The difference between me and the other regular drivers in the IRC is that we need to think about the whole championship. There are many drivers competing in the event as a one-off and they want to win, but we need to think about points for the year. We don't want to be really high up the leader board and then go off the road – we need to finish the event and get some points on the table which we can build on for the rest of the year. It's hard to say, maybe a top-12 finish, if we get a good finish without any mistakes and we have a good run I think we can be high placed.
Q. What did Marcus Gronholm tell you about the event?
AM: It's tricky, there's no magic formula you can say about it and there's no real big tip you can give. I am learning it now myself and am beginning to build up experience for myself. When it's tricky conditions and you're on the snow tires everyone thinks that they are going so slow and losing seconds but the main thing is everyone is thinking the same as you and actually you're going at an OK speed. So you've just got to try not to stress about it and just tackle the conditions in your own way and you'll be fine.
Q. Where do you think you will be strongest this season, which events are you looking forward to the most and why?
AM: I'm really looking forward to Barum Rally and also Scotland, of course, and Cyprus which I did last year which not all the other competitors have done. Cyprus is also a very important event as well since it's double points and I think that we have a good shot at it.
Q. Who will be your main rivals in IRC this season?
AM: Jan Kopecky will be very quick and Freddy Loix, especially on the tarmac and also Guy Wilks. There are so many other people as well. I'm sure there will be five or six strong competitors who will be up there fighting for wins for every rally so it will be really difficult. I think that we have a good shot on rallies that I've competed on before.
Q. Will you have exactly the same kit as Kopecky?
AM: I think so. Of course, he has the factory car but we have a really good car as well. It's supposed to be the same so yes, I think that I will have the same car as him.
Q. And as much testing as him?
AM: It's hard to say. We have our own test program with Skoda UK which includes a lot of testing and gives me enough mileage to compete with Kopecky I'm sure.
Q. Are you, essentially, a Skoda factory driver?
AM: If you look at the main Skoda team they have Hanninen and Kopecky, but besides that I see myself as one of them.
Q. Hanninen and Meeke have used IRC as a launchpad into the WRC, is that your intention?
AM: Yes, definitely. I think that the level of competition in the IRC, as long as you drive a Super 2000 car, is very high, you can also test as much as you want. If you want to get into the WRC I think that the IRC is definitely the way to go.
Q. Does it feel a bit strange to talk about launching yourself into the WRC when you were right there and on the verge of signing a Subaru deal at the end of 2008?
AM: It was unlucky because Subaru pulled out, but no, I'm still very young and I have many years ahead of me. What's happened to me since has been very good, going back to the Subaru Cup car in Norway some years ago, starting with the basics and building myself up again. Now, going into the Skoda UK drive, I feel like a more mature driver than I was in 2008 so, in one way, I'm really happy that it worked out the way that it did and that I have this drive with Skoda this year.
Q. What happened when you faded away at the end of 2008. Why was that?
AM: My father was very into my rallying and sponsored me a lot and helped me and then, of course, the economic crisis came so he didn't have the opportunity anymore. He also thought that it would be a good idea for me to stand on my own two feet. Of course, at the time it was very disappointing but, as I said before, looking back at that time now, I learned so much. At Christmas time in 2008 I thought that I'd have to give up rallying and do something else but then I met Eric Veiby, my new manager, and he helped me to build myself up again with the Subaru Cup in 2009 in Norway in a very basic car. I think I am now ready to compete with the big boys.
Q. How frustrating is it that you've had to take a few steps backward to try and get back to where you were three years ago?
AM: Of course it was frustrating at the time but, as of now, I'm very happy because I've learned a lot as a person, not to have everything given to me but that you really need to work for it. That has changed me as a driver and altered my driving skills. I'm much more hungry to do well. I train much harder with my own mind and am just much more mature basically.
Q. And finally, how does the Fabia compare with the Fiesta?
AM: It's very difficult to say. Driving the Fabia is fantastic but I've rallied it on BFGoodrich tires but before I was driving the Fiesta on Hankook tires and the feeling is very different. At the end, the Hankooks were starting to get really good. I like the Fabia, I enjoy it especially on tarmac. On gravel I think that they are both on the same level but on tarmac I think that the Fabia definitely has the upper hand.