x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ford Abu Dhabi teammates looking forward after mixed fortunes last year

Mikko Hirvonen had a bad 2010 while Jari Matti Latvala had his best season in 2010, but both are looking to raise their games and take the title in 2011

Sweden was the location of Mikko Hirvonen’s sole win in 2010 and he hopes to start an improved campaign with a victory here in Karlstad.
Sweden was the location of Mikko Hirvonen’s sole win in 2010 and he hopes to start an improved campaign with a victory here in Karlstad.

Twelve months ago life was looking pretty good for Mikko Hirvonen. The Finn had come within a point of becoming world champion in 2009 and had been triumphant in the opening round of the 2010 season in Sweden.

But for Jari-Matti Latvala, his BP Ford Abu Dhabi teammate, things appeared fairly gloomy in early 2010. Coming off the back of a 2009 season that had seen him involved in a number of costly accidents, he had been under pressure to perform, and a distant third place in Karlstad behind his victorious teammate had not been the start he wanted.

However, fast forward to the present and the events of the past 12 months have changed the make-up of the Ford team.

Hirvonen had his worst season in the sport since getting a manufacturers' car, not winning since the opening round and making the podium only once as he finished a lowly sixth in the championship.

Latvala, on the other hand, had the best year of his career, winning in New Zealand and his home rally in Finland on his way to finishing second in the championship behind Sebastien Loeb, the Citroen driver, who claimed his seventh successive title.

Quite the turnaround in fortunes for both, and it sets up a tantalising new season, which begins in Sweden tonight with the opening special stage.

Hirvonen, who was the team's lead driver going into 2010 season, acknowledges he has a lot to do to bounce back from a season of under-achievement, which was highlighted by a spectacular high-speed crash in Finland, that saw his car roll six times.

But the 30-year-old believes he can rediscover his form in the new Ford Fiesta model that the team will be racing this season.

He said: "Last year was difficult, but that was last year and I am confident myself and the team can move on from that.

"I learned a lot last year. We had some bad luck with reliability, but I think there were times last year when we tried too hard, and I think I was guilty of overdriving the car on occasions."

Latvala, speaking from his own experience, is sure that his compatriot will be back fighting for wins, starting in Sweden.

"It is difficult when things are not going for you, whether it is through your own making or not," the 25-year-old said.

"I had it in 2009, but you have to just focus and work hard and I am sure we will see Mikko back up at the front fighting for wins."

As to his rejuvenation last year, Latvala said that his improvement was largely about keeping it simple and cutting out the mistakes.

"I think the speed has always been there in my driving," he said. "It has just been a case of being consistent and I felt I did that last year and I cut out the mistakes. It was a fantastic season for me and I really grew in confidence."

Latvala won in Sweden in 2008 and he and Hirvonen go into the event knowing they can win at the only race of the season which will be contested on snow and ice.

The sport has been dominated by Loeb for the past seven years, and realistically, if anyone is to end the Frenchman's supremacy it is going to be one of the Ford drivers.

Latvala believes that Loeb can be beaten over the 13-rally season, but only if everything is just right.

"I think we have seen that Loeb is beatable on a rally, but you have to have everything exactly perfect over the weekend.

"That is what we need to do over a season to beat him. I have a good feeling for the new car from testing and I am confident we can challenge."

Hirvonen is reluctant to make predictions on how he thinks he will fare, but said: "The car has felt good in testing and I am encouraged by where we are.

"All we can do is push to our maximum and hopefully be in contention for wins."

The two Finns are joined in Sweden by Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, who will race in the majority of this season's rallies for the Ford team.

The Emirati driver, who has driven for the team since 2002, picked up 12 points in last year's series, and is hoping a pre-rally test in the snow will allow him to make a strong start in Sweden.

"I have not had any opportunities for pre-rally tests, so the time I have spent in the new car on a surface that is different to anything else we compete on has been vital," said the 38-year-old.

gcaygill@thenational.ae