M Sport, the company that runs Ford's world rally programme, has signed 22 year old Finn Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen to contest all 14 rounds of the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship.
Director Malcolm Wilson said Hirvonen would begin his full season at Rallye Monte Carlo in January behind the wheel of the same specification Focus RS WRC as official Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Francois Duval.
"Essentially this is a commercial deal between M Sport and Finland's Promo Racing. We see it as very important to keep a link between this agreement and the Ford Rallye Sport programme as Mikko has the potential to become a fully fledged factory driver in the future," said Malcolm Wilson.
The young Finn will also be in a position to assist Ford Rallye Sport's points scoring potential, as he could be nominated as the team's third driver for the season.
"Mikko is very determined, and put in many good performances during 2002. Recently he tested a Ford Focus RS WRC in Cumbria and our engineers were astounded by his ability behind the wheel," added Wilson.
"After just a couple of runs he was setting consistently fast times on one of our forest test tracks, matching those of more experienced drivers who are familiar with the Focus and how it drives. He has a natural talent and his enthusiasm knows no bounds. I know he will benefit enormously from running alongside Markko and Francois - as I hope in turn they will from him.
"This is a very exciting time for rallying, with a number of young talented drivers coming through the ranks. To be able to identify and work with these youngsters at this level has enormous benefits, not only for the drivers themselves, but for the future development of the car and the team," concluded Malcolm Wilson.
Mikko Hirvonen - Biography
Mikko Hirvonen began rallying in an Opel Kadett in 1998, and with the help and support of his family contested a number of Finnish events over the following two years. With a dream of competing at the top level of motorsport, the young Finn set himself challenging goals in order to develop a full rallying career.
In 2000 he entered the first ever Junior Finnish Championship in an Opel Astra and finished a creditable sixth overall. The following year Mikko set his sights on the 2001 Finnish Championship, and totally rebuilt his Astra in anticipation. The young Finn faced his first full year with pace notes for the first time and enlisted the help of his good friend Sirpa Jokinen, whose husband is well-known as one of the most experienced Finnish co-drivers at national level. The invaluable experience that Sirpa bought to the partnership saw Mikko's true talent show through, and he led the championship until the last day of the last round when he hit a rock, relegating him to second overall.
Buoyed by his success, a determined Mikko set himself a 12 month training and development programme, with the aim of competing in the full 2003 FIA World Championship. With the help of his manager, the young trained mechanic planned and competed in over 24 rallies in 2002 in order to gain the necessary experience that would help him achieve this goal.
Assisted by two co-drivers, Mikko set out on his daunting personal challenge. He competed again in the Finnish Championship partnered by Miikka Anttila and won the F2 category in a Golf Kit Car. The pair also competed in some Italian asphalt rallies in a Saxo Kit Car as Mikko, becoming more confident with each rally on gravel, was determined to gain as much experience as possible on the sealed surface.
Mikko also contested part of the Italian Subaru Trophy Championship partnered by Jarmo Lehtinen, as well as a round of the French Championship in a Ford Puma and two rounds of the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship in a Renault Clio, the first in Finland and the second in Sanremo. His final WRC outing in 2002 was on the Rally of Great Britain in a Subaru Impreza where he was setting comparable times with many of the manufacturers' teams before a mechanical problem saw him retire on the first day.
Mikko's hard work has paid off, with the young Finn impressing many manufacturers with his skill and determination. However, even faced with the daunting prospect of a full WRC programme this year, Mikko is still considering trying to fit in a few extra asphalt rallies in order to increase his experience on that surface.