x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Hirvonen to use last year's heartache as his catalyst

The Finnish BP Ford Abu Dhabi rally driver missed out on world championship glory last year by a mere point.

Mikko Hirvonen will be hoping to dethrone rally king Sebastien Loeb.
Mikko Hirvonen will be hoping to dethrone rally king Sebastien Loeb.

Four months ago, Mikko Hirvonen emerged from his battered, bonnet-less BP Ford Abu Dhabi world rally car to scenes of delirium and ear-shattering applause. The pride of his clan, the leader of his team: Hirvonen was a hero. The occasion, however, was tinged with sadness.

Sebastien Loeb had just sealed a sixth consecutive World Rally Championship (WRC) title at Rally Great Britain, the year's final round. Ten months of an undulating title tussle was over: Hirvonen had lost by a single point. And so, the rapturous welcome was to celebrate how hard Hirvonen had fought against the most successful rally driver of all time. Not, as both the Finn and his adoring faithful had dreamed, to mark their man's maiden world crown.

Hirvonen cut an emotional figure as he entered the arms of Malcolm Wilson, Ford's team director. Their embrace, which boosted Hirvonen just enough for him to go around and thank his engineers and crew, rendered Wilson inconsolable. For Hirvonen, that bitter pill of defeat was a hard one to swallow. On the eve of a fresh title fight, however, he is raring to resume hostilities. "The new season is going to be great," said Hirvonen.

"I've been waiting to get started since Great Britain and I'm happy we're kicking off again. "I don't worry about the losses because it won't change anything. I still had a great season. One point: it was the narrowest of margins." After Loeb, Hirvonen is the most consistent WRC finisher by some distance: he finished on the podium in 11 of the 12 rallies last season and only a retirement in Argentina denied him a set.

Once more he will be Loeb's chief challenger. Again, he believes he can succeed rally's king. "I'm not afraid of the challenge and I know I will have chances to beat him now," he said. "It would be huge to succeed Loeb as champion; it has been a dream of mine for ever, but especially in the last two years when I have pushed him so close." Changing WRC regulations for 2011 represent a siren on the rocks for Hirvonen. On the one hand, he is intrigued by the lower-specification Super2000 cars which will enter the fray next year. On the other, he is aware this season could be his last opposite Loeb, who has already voiced his disdain over the sport's economically-friendly but slower replacements.

"To be the last driver to win a world championship in a WRC car and the guy who stopped Sebastien would be very special - it's what I'll be trying for," said Hirvonen. "I think Sebastien will carry on anyway. You never know, but I hope he does. I wouldn't want this season to be our last title fight. "The cars we have now are the fastest WRC cars ever and it will be a shame to leave them behind. I know Sebastien doesn't like the Super2000s, but at least we'll have different engines in 2011.

"It will be a new challenge, with new rules and everyone will have to develop a car to win. It's something for everyone and I hope he is there. The more competition the better." With that in mind, he has already piloted next season's Ford as he seeks to get himself better acquainted with the new machinery. "I've done Rally Monte Carlo in the Fiesta and it wasn't too bad," said Hirvonen. "It was missing some power but the handling was very good on tarmac. It looks like we have learnt some lessons and the pace was good."

Hirvonen's win in France last month demonstrated his ever-quickening pace on asphalt. And while sealed surface events are typically Citroen-dominated domains, Hirvonen should capitalise on eight of this season's 13 rounds running on gravel. "There were only two asphalt rallies last year and that's doubled to four for this season," he said. "But every year we say how important it will be to get results on tarmac and that has not changed. It could be the most competitive season for a while. If Jari-Matti [Latvala, his Ford teammate] finds consistency he will fight for podiums, and [Loeb's Citroen stable colleague] Dani Sordo is also improving on gravel. In reality there are five drivers going for podium places; it will be a good fight."

That fight starts today in Sweden, which is as good a place as any to dust off the cobwebs, according to Hirvonen. "In a way it's a good place to start," he added. "I always enjoy snow rallies and Ford are always strong in winter events. It could be hard on the tyres though, it's been so cold that the snow hasn't melted and it will be like powder on gravel. There will be big snow banks but no ice underneath - it will be tough."

One suspects Hirvonen would not have it any other way. emegson@thenational.ae