While Pirelli's F1 motorsport boss is in the news a lot in 2013, he also has another passion, as GP Week's Kate Walker finds out
I'm not going to ask you about the rubber and the tyres, as I'm sure you're sick to death of defending what I actually think are excellent tyres. Instead I want to find out what makes you tick away from Formula One. You've got a massive passion for rallying, don't you? How on earth do you do F1 travel and keep up with what's happening in the world of rallying?
Fortunately there's a lot of good work done by people like yourself, who write about it. The internet has changed how you can follow sport generally, particularly motorsport - you can follow championships all around the world. That's the beauty of the internet.
That would be fantastic - if you could do for rally rubber what you've done for F1 rubber…
Rallying's got some different challenges at the moment. It's got to rebuild itself. It's got a different promoter, and they've got to try and get the impetus that they had in the early '00s when there were seven manufacturers present in the WRC. That's where they're at, and they've got to get a pyramid structure in place for young driver development. There are signs that the work we did with the Academy is carrying on with the juniors… Hopefully it's the beginning, but the road back is a long and slow process. If they don't start, they'll never get there, but hopefully they're on the right track.
It's different promoting it with the media, isn't it - moving from stage to stage. It's a complicated sport.
It's a complicated sport. It's a time trial as well. But we know from the past that rallying can be something that does appeal to the public. Unfortunately when it was appealing to the public it was probably too dangerous.
Not just Group B - there were other years as well, before Group B, where it had that fascination with the mass public, and we had huge attendance. The RAC was always well-known for having half a million people over the course of a weekend, but you barely get 50,000 today. It needs to get those attendance figures back again.
There used to be a sense of fun - I remember reading about Pat Moss and Bill Wisdom, and they used to do treasure hunt rallies in the middle of the night, finding birds' nests and the like. Have you ever done anything like that?
I've not done that. When I was younger I used to do some stuff with my mates where we'd close off a few roads around the Bristol area and do our own little rallies at night time. We had some fun. You can always look back with rose-tinted glasses on some of these things, and I remember back in the early '80s when I first saw the Quattros at the RAC Longleat stages. You had the Russell Brookses of the world going through at the time, flying around in their two-wheel drive, real-wheel drive cars. Very spectacular, and everybody was cheering. Then the Quattros went through and everyone was silent. They just went 'what was that?'. It was so quick - it was winning the stages by over a minute - and so dominating it just wasn't spectacular.
Perfection can be boring, can't it?
Compared to what people were watching - that Mantas were still around then… That was a defining moment for me in rallying. I saw that, and it did make people go 'meh'. Fans drifted away, and they didn't really come back till they started going crazy with the horsepower, the 650bhp Delta S4s which - fortunately or unfortunately - I went in last year. I went with Markku Alén on some stages, we launched a new product and Markku and Paolo Andreucci and Juha [Kankkunen] took me in various cars. We went in a Lancia Stratos, an S4 Delta, and had a whale of a time. They also had the ECV there, which was the car that got banned before it was launched. It was the ECV concept vehicle, which basically an F1 car in disguise - 850bhp. The S4 - the 650 - was absolutely frightening. It was exhilarating, but…
Did you keep your lunch?
Yes, but… Fortunately, because of the age of the cars the brakes went before my stomach did! In those days they must have done a lot to manage the brakes - we could feel the brakes were struggling a bit after some hard pounding. But my god, what power! It was absolutely phenomenal, a once-in-a lifetime experience.
Have you seen that this year the FIA have allowed some of the old Group B cars into the historic rally championship? I think they've got two Lancia 037s competing.
That's good, because they'll be running Pirelli tyres! We did the tyres for those; they were running on the wrong tyres, cut tyres, so we actually brought them back again for the 037s. If we've seen anything, we've seen a huge growth in historical rallying, and that's something that rallying needs to have a look at - why is there that interest? It's not just about the nostalgia, people have fun. When you talk to the drivers about the type of cars they enjoy driving, it won't shock you to know that there aren't many of the last generation of WRCs that appeal to them.
They want the power, the grunt…
They want the power and the grunt but also they want the cars to move around with a little bit more balance, so you can play around a bit on the throttle. But with the historics they have certainly created a great new interest and passion. Some of it, I guess, comes from the investment point of view - you can buy a vehicle that will be worth something afterwards. But it's not only that - they're attracting big fields. Look at the Roger Clark Rally, which has more than 100 entries with a waiting list hundreds long. Everywhere you go, the historics are attracting interest.
I think that's fantastic. Do you have a favourite historic rally car, or are you not allowed to pick favourites?
It's got to be an Italian one. The Stratos [right] has got to be the one for me as it's the first one I saw.
It's the classic, isn't it?
I was a young lad, 11 years old, at an RAC rally somewhere. I can't remember where, but it was in a forest, and my cousins had taken me out there in the freezing cold. I was moaning, because I was young, asking 'what the hell are we doing here?', then I heard this car coming, making one hell of a noise, flames coming out of the back as it went by.
It rips your lungs out, doesn't it?
I was amazed. 'Oh my god, what is that?' It was a Stratos, but - I found out much later in life when I saw some photographs - it was actually Markku Alén in the Pirelli Stratos! So it was my destiny - I was going to get into motorsport via Pirelli. It made it quite poignant when he drove me in the Stratos. I said to him 'it's been 30 years since I saw you drive this car in the RAC, and now here I am sitting next to you'.
Magic. It's funny how life comes full circle sometimes ...