Showdown time as Hirvonen world title bid enters final phase After 11 rounds, 219 speed tests and 3774.37km of competition, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen's challenge for the FIA World Rally Championship drivers' title will be decided at the...
Showdown time as Hirvonen world title bid enters final phase
After 11 rounds, 219 speed tests and 3774.37km of competition, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen's challenge for the FIA World Rally Championship drivers' title will be decided at the final fixture in Wales next weekend. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo start Rally of Great Britain (22 - 25 October) with a single point advantage in their Focus RS World Rally Car, as the series readies itself for its most exciting finale for several years.
The Finns face a head-to-head showdown with season-long rival Sebastien Loeb. Irrespective of where they finish, whichever driver is the highest on the leaderboard when the rally returns to Cardiff after three days of flat-out driving on gravel tracks in mid- and south Wales will lift the crown.
Team-mates and fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will provide crucial support in another Focus RS WRC and both pairings have a good record over the Welsh forest roads. Hirvonen won in 2007 while Latvala secured second last season.
All 16 special stages are held on narrow but fast privately-owned gravel tracks, more commonly used by lorries transporting timber. The rally is six weeks earlier than last year and a continuation of the dry and warm autumn in Britain could remove the event's traditionally most difficult challenge -- unpredictable weather.
Tree-lined sections high in the hilly forests contrast with wide-open stretches and while ice and snow is highly unlikely in October, fog could be present if the weather worsens. In gloomy conditions it hangs between the trees, while also throwing a white blanket across exposed areas on higher ground.
Hirvonen, who has four wins to his credit this season, remains calm about the challenge ahead. "I feel really excited about the situation and can't wait for the rally to start, but I don't feel any pressure. It will be a hard fight and I don't underestimate the job I need to do. But I have no expectations and because of that I've taken the pressure off myself and put it to one side," he said.
"Although I've won there before, this rally hasn't always been kind to me, but I do enjoy the roads in Wales and know them well. They're fast and flowing, even quicker than my home event in Finland in places. If I had to choose a rally on which to fight for the title then Finland would be my first choice. But Britain would be second on the list. I love driving there and the roads really suit me. At this time of year they won't be covered in ice or snow, so they should be perfect," added 29-year-old Hirvonen.
Latvala has more experience of this rally than his home event in Finland. He began his career in Britain, aged just 17, in 2002 with support from the late Pentti Airikkala and this will be his eighth Rally of Great Britain. "In 2002 and 2003 I drove a lot of rallies in the UK so I'm familiar with the nature of the roads. I've driven all the rally's stages before so that gives me confidence. They're generally fast, especially on Saturday," said the 24-year-old.
"There are straights of up to 2km, but they often end with a hairpin bend and that's difficult if it's foggy. In those situations a driver must have perfect pace notes, because it's impossible to see into the distance and you rely on the notes to pinpoint corners and braking points. A good set of pace notes in the fog can earn a lot of time, but poor notes can be very costly. I will have yellow tinted glasses with me that I also use in the snow. They provide extra definition, so if the weather is bad then they will help me pick out the bends through the fog.
"Up to six drivers can fight for victory on this rally, I really think it could be that wide open. I hope I have the pace to be among them, but a win here for me is less important than helping Mikko to take the title. My main target is to help him achieve that," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's third Focus RS WRC. Al Qassimi finished 16th last year on his British debut and also gave his full support to Hirvonen's title bid. "The conditions are suited to his driving. A one point lead is small and this is going to be a true test of resilience and consistency for Mikko, but he has a great team behind him and we will all be doing everything possible to make it happen for him," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in soft compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Six other Focus RS WRCs will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad, which has also entered Steve Perez / Paul Spooner. Private entries have been submitted by Dutch duo Dennis Kuipers / Kees Hagman and Rene Kuipers / Erwin Mombaerts in 2006-specification cars, and Britain's Peter Stephenson and Jim Burns. The rally is also the final round of the Fiesta SportTrophy International series and eight contenders will be in action.
* The team will today (Friday) complete a comprehensive test in northern England in preparation for the rally. Latvala drove on Monday and Tuesday morning in Greystoke Forest, notching up 340km on the first day. Hirvonen took over on Tuesday afternoon at the same location before moving to Kershope Forest for Thursday and a half-day today. The team's preparations will be completed tomorrow (Saturday) when Hirvonen and Lehtinen will pilot a Focus RS WRC in a non-competitive safety car role in the Cambrian Rally in Wales.