ABU DHABI // As title races go, the world rally battle between Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb is as tight as it gets. With two rounds to go, only five points separate the championship leader Hirvonen, of BP Ford Abu Dhabi, and five-time world champion Loeb, of Citroen. The fast-flowing tarmac tests of this weekend's Rally Spain will not make it easier in deciding the destiny of the world crown.
Loeb, a renowned asphalt specialist, is the overwhelming favourite. If Hirvonen is to break Loeb's half-decade stranglehold on the title, the Finn will need to tear up the formbook. The Frenchman has won this event four years running. Alongside Dani Sordo, Loeb's teammate, Citroen are aiming for a fourth consecutive one-off finish in Catalonia. It is a level of domination Hirvonen is best qualified to break.
He has won the last four rounds and claimed his first WRC podium in Spain four years ago when he finished third. He requires just two second-place finishes from here to claim a maiden drivers' title. Loeb must win. In Spain, Hirvonen expects him to. "Everyone knows how strong Loeb is on asphalt, so I think there's enough of a fight for me to try to get second. Eight points would help greatly ahead of the last round but it won't be easy to achieve," said Hirvonen.
However, he is approaching Spain in the same way he would any other rally. "I'm not under pressure. It's just really exciting. I have a chance to win the title but I'm keeping my feet firmly on the ground. "I have no expectations at all and that way I've taken the pressure away, I've put it to one side. I've had a good feeling for the last five events and I've proved things to myself that I needed to."
In clawing back what seemed to be an insurmountable 20-point deficit five rounds ago, Hirvonen's recovery is unprecedented. But it has also coincided with a rare Loeb slump. A dominant Rally Australia victory - cruelly taken away for a technical infringement - showed Loeb is back. Vitally, at just the right time too. Still, he needs two wins to have any chance of a sixth consecutive crown. "I've really little alternative than to end the season with a perfect scorecard," said Loeb. "Here, more than anywhere else, we will be counting on Dani's rearguard action, because Mikko only needs to come second twice to clinch the title. I will do all I can to fulfil my side of the contract. After that, we shall see."
Ten years after his debut in Spain, being back in the comfort zone of the Tarragona region is clearly to Loeb's liking. "I enjoy these stages very much, as well as the on-the-limit driving they call for." The smooth roads around the Salou rally base will turn abrasive and slippery as the cars drag stones and dirt onto the surface. Grip becomes unpredictable and it is a complicated scenario for drivers. With each of the three day's stages being run twice, morning road conditions will worsen dramatically for the afternoon repeats.
Hirvonen, who will be the first car out in tomorrow's opening leg, has conducted an extensive 350-km test ahead of this week and believes he is well prepared. "It's good to do lots of kilometres and get the feeling back. I always enjoy driving on tarmac. "For sure there's a lot to learn but hopefully I picked up something extra that will add to the experience from previous years," said Hirvonen.