CARDIFF, Wales - Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen start next week’s Rally GB (10 - 13 November) knowing that victory could deliver them a maiden world title. The Finns lie second in the FIA World Rally Championship drivers’ standings in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, and one of the sport’s classic fixtures will decide the outcome of an absorbing season.
Hirvonen lies eight points behind arch-rival Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) heading into the 13th and final round. A maximum 28 points are available from the four-day rally and the points permutations are complex. But 31-year-old Hirvonen has set his sights on nothing less than victory in the challenging forests of Wales to give him the best opportunity of landing Ford’s first drivers’ world title since 1981.
“The only thing I can do is aim to win the rally. If something unexpected happens to Loeb, I may not need to win anymore, but from the outset, the sole target has to be victory,” he said.
“If I win the championship, it would mean so much to so many people. It's the reason I'm here, and has been the goal since I started rallying – to be the best and to win the world title. It would be the perfect reward for the whole team, which has worked so hard. For me and my family and all those people who have helped me since the beginning of my career, it would be huge," added Hirvonen.
Rally GB has undergone a facelift for 2011, with a fourth day of competition adding an endurance factor to the already tough gravel speed tests. Fast forest tracks taking in the length of Wales account for the bulk of the competitive distance, but the unpredictable winter weather is traditionally the toughest challenge for drivers.
Tree-lined sections high in the hilly forests contrast with wide-open stretches and while the forecast suggests ice and snow are unlikely, fog and rain could be a threat. In damp and gloomy conditions fog hangs between the trees, while also throwing a white blanket across exposed areas on high ground, frequently reducing visibility to a few metres.
Rain is forecast both before and during the rally, and the gravel tracks can quickly turn to mud as grip becomes increasingly inconsistent. However, Hirvonen, winner here in 2007, is not afraid of the prospect of tough conditions.
“In Wales, everything depends so much upon the conditions. If they’re tricky, you need to be confident, trust the pace notes and take risks, even though you can't see so well in places. That’s where you can really make a difference, and sometimes it really is a case of win or bust. I wouldn’t mind if it rained because if the conditions are bad, there’s more chance of the unexpected,” he said.
“Although it’s short, the final Power Stage could turn out to be one of the biggest stages in rallying history. With bonus points available, the whole championship could be decided by just that one test. We must give huge importance to it, because there could be an awful lot to fight for there,” he added.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are already guaranteed fourth in the final drivers’ standings and the 26-year-old driver hopes to use his experience of this rally to boost Hirvonen’s bid.
“I want to fight for victory and to try to be in a position to help Mikko. Our target is to aim for first and second places. It’s important for the team to put myself ahead of Loeb and take points away from him, so I’ll drive as fast as I can from the start. It will be vital to be sharp and up to speed from the very first kilometre, because if we allow Loeb to build a lead it will be hard to pull him back,” said Latvala, for whom this will be his ninth Rally GB start. Second in 2008 is his best result.
“I have more experience of this rally than any other WRC round, although this year’s route is different. We drive from north Wales to the south and the last time that happened in this rally was more than 15 years ago. I’m looking forward to the new stages. I drove them when I began competing in Britain in 2002 and I recall the roads in Dyfi Forest as being the best in Wales,” he added.
With Khalid Al Qassimi unavailable due to commitments at the Abu Dhabi GP, Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet will take over the third Fiesta RS WRC for Team Abu Dhabi.
“It’s a hugely exciting opportunity to step into Khalid’s Fiesta RS WRC for the final WRC rally of 2011. The Wales road surfaces can be very challenging in rain and fog, so I’m hoping for clear conditions and targeting a strong finish in support of my team-mates, who are competing for the drivers’ championship,” said Novikov.
* Michelin's Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers and will be available in soft compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Seven privately-entered Fiesta RS WRCs supplement the official entries. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are nominated by the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, which has also entered Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor. Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino will be at the wheel of the Monster World Rally Team car with Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte entered by FERM Power Tools World Rally Team. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek complete the Fiesta RS WRC entries, both drivers piloting a WRC car for the first time in the championship.
* Ford Abu Dhabi today (Friday) completes a two-day test in preparation for the rally. Latvala drove yesterday, with Hirvonen taking over today and both days were held close to the team’s base in north-west England.
* The three Ford Abu Dhabi-entered cars will each carry a sticker on the roof in memory of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who died following a crash while racing in Malaysia last month. Simoncelli tested a Fiesta RS WRC near the team’s Dovenby Hall headquarters in north-west England just a few weeks’ earlier. (An image of this sticker is available for download at www.worldrallypics.com/ford).
The rally has a new-look with an extra day added to the itinerary. After being based in Cardiff since 2000, the HQ moves to Builth Wells in mid-Wales, allowing the route to cover the length of the country from Thursday afternoon’s start in the north to Sunday’s finish in the south. After the start in Llandudno, the short opening day includes two asphalt tests around the Great Orme headland, ending with a start ceremony in Conwy and service in Llandudno. Friday brings the return of classic stages in Dyfi Forest last used in the rally in 1997, while Saturday follows the same configuration as last year’s opening leg in Hafren and Myherin Forests. The final leg covers revised stages in the Brecon Beacon mountains and Epynt military land, using a mixture of asphalt and gravel roads. Drivers overnight in Cardiff on Friday and Saturday and the city’s castle hosts the finish ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Drivers tackle 23 speed tests covering 353.53km in a route of 1967.46km.