In the past two years the title tussles between Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen have answered a supposedly unanswerable conundrum: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? With six consecutive world rally championships, Loeb's breathtaking force has delivered repeated ripostes to Hirvonen's dogged challenges. For all his resolve and determination, the stubborn Finn has always been shunted aside by the Frenchman.
As the rivals prepare to collide again in today's opening leg of Rally Jordan, the third round of both the World and Middle East Rally Championships, another battle is shaping up. This time, however, there is no clear favourite. With one win apiece, the series' championship-chasing rivals are separated by six points. Having won in Jordan two years ago, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Hirvonen, whose engine wilted in Ford's annual show of high-altitude timidity in Mexico last time out, is eager to make amends in the Dead Sea valley - some 420metres below sea level.
"We've analysed the reasons why we weren't as competitive as we had hoped in Mexico and tried a few options during our test in Sardinia this week," said Hirvonen. "I'm confident we'll be fully competitive in Jordan." Loeb, the Citroen driver, agreed. "We dominated in Mexico but we can't relax as I know that our rivals will be back at their very best," he said. "Another victory would be a big boost for us but it's not going to be an easy rally."
In the lunar surroundings of the Dead Sea valley, where both drivers have raced only once, a degree of unknown awaits. Minimal vegetation and markers - roadside objects drivers and co-drivers use for pace notes - compound the difficulties. "It's the most difficult rally of the year on which to make pace notes," Hirvonen said. "There are no trees or bushes in the desert to use as sight lines so the notes must be pin-point accurate."
The rocky desert stages - several of which are man-made - throw up plenty of problems, according to Hirvonen's Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latvala. "There is no natural flow to the roads so they are difficult to follow," he said. "The roads were built with rocks as a base and they are visible on the side of the track. "In corners where it's possible to take a cut, these stones are dragged out by the cars and it's easy to damage the suspension by hitting a rock while trying to save a second or two."
The starting order could prove crucial to who stands on top of the podium on Saturday. Loeb's win in Mexico sees him tackle today's stages first, while Hirvonen, running fourth, will benefit from a trio of Citroens sweeping clear the road debris. Despite this possible advantage Hirvonen remained cautious. "It's fast and high-speed sections are punctuated by small crests," he said. "The rhythm can suddenly change and you come over a crest to find a series of hairpin bends." The lines are drawn and for this round only, they are in the sand. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org