KINGSCLIFF, NSW // Malcolm Wilson, the team director of BP Ford Abu Dhabi, thinks his title-chasing driver Mikko Hirvonen will thrive in the pressure cauldron of the Rally Australia. With just a trio of World Rally Championship rounds remaining - including this weekend's return to Australia - Hirvonen leads five-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, the most decorated rally driver in history, by a meagre three points.
However, with eight podium finishes in the season's nine rounds thus far, a fourth consecutive win would see the 29-year old Finn severely dent Loeb's own pursuit of a sixth world crown in a row. "Australia's crucial, no question," said Wilson. "We know what we want to achieve and that's getting Mikko ahead of Loeb. Mikko can't go crazy, if he's a non-finish we're out of the business." In truth, nothing will be decided this weekend. Final examinations, first on Spanish asphalt, the Citroen driver's domain, then on British mud remain.
If Hirvonen, a renowned non-sealed surface specialist, overcomes the dual burdens of expectation and pressure to score victories here, and in the season-ender in Wales, he would only need fifth or higher in Catalonia to wrap-up a maiden drivers' title. Rally Australia's new east coast base in Kingscliff follows almost two decades of racing on the west coast of the country, and Wilson is confident that Hirvonen's career record on new events will help serve his title aspirations.
"Historically, Mikko has been good in new rallies in Norway, Japan and Poland, so we're hoping that trend continues," said Wilson. "Anything can happen but if we beat Sebastien here and go to Spain five points clear, we can afford for Mikko to finish third in Spain [and still lead going into the season finale], although I think Mikko can possibly spring a surprise there," he added. Hirvonen's recent wins have coincided with Ford's second driver, Jari-Matti Latvala, returning to form.
The pair have out scored Citroen's Loeb and Dani Sordo in three of the last four rallies, and Wilson acknowledged Latvala may hold the key to BP Ford Abu Dhabi - who presently trail the French outfit by 14 points - securing manufacturers' glory. "We want Jari to keep ahead of Sordo so we can maintain our manufacturers' chances," he said. "Jari did a terrific job to come third in Finland. I can't remember a driver under as much pressure as he was under going into his home rally."
Wilson will be hoping for repeat performances from his Finnish duo when the rally starts tomorrow.