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Jyväskylä, Finalnd, July 22, 2010 -- Birthday boy Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen will defend Ford's Rally Finland (29 - 31 July) title next week in one of the shortest FIA World Rally Championship events in history. Since the WRC's launch in 1973, only one rally has scheduled fewer competitive kilometres than this eighth round of the 13-event series. That was in Finland in 1975 when the event was known by its traditional name - the 1000 Lakes Rally.
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo will be joined by fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila for what many regard as the highlight of the season. Rally Finland is the fastest round of the championship and with just 310.05km of competition amid the lakes and forests in the centre of the country, the action will be fast and furious, with little opportunity to atone for the slightest mistake.
Hirvonen, who fulfilled a lifetime ambition by winning last year in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, celebrates his 30th birthday on the final day next Saturday. The rally, which is again based in the traditional host city of Jyväskylä and is affectionately known as the Jyväskylä Grand Prix due to its high speeds, celebrates its 60th anniversary.
Organisers have taken advantage of new-for-2010 regulations to pack all the action into just two legs. So while the distance is shorter than other WRC rounds, drivers face almost 15 hours behind the wheel on Friday's first full day of competition and almost 14 on Saturday, ensuring both endurance and outright speed will be a factor in determining the outcome.
Climbing onto the top step of the podium in Finland is one of the sport's most sought-after achievements. The rally has a huge following and enormous crowds will flock into the countryside near Jyväskylä, Hirvonen's home town, to view the action. Ford's all-Finnish line-up will generate passionate support, raising both the level of expectation and the pressure on Hirvonen and Latvala.
The rally will be fought out on blisteringly fast roller-coaster gravel speed tests. Finns who nurtured their careers on this type of road have a clear advantage over 'outsiders' who require several years experience before they can hope to mount a genuine victory challenge. Only seven non-Finns have won in 59 years and such is the speed that Rally Finland boasts five of the six fastest rallies in WRC history, the 2005 event topping the standings at a remarkable average of 122.86kph.
The rally offers a mix of hard, wide and fast roads combined with narrower, more technical special stages. They are as smooth as a billiard table and it is not a hard rally on machinery. However, it is incredibly difficult from a driving perspective. Awesome stomach-churning jumps frequently hide bends over the crests so the accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact, and selecting the correct line before 'take-off'' ensures maximum pace through the following curves.
This will be Hirvonen's ninth start in his home event and he has also finished second twice. He completed two days of testing last Thursday, covering about 500km. "There were lots of good things to come from the test so I'm excited about the rally. I'm looking forward to defending last year's victory because I want to keep the title in Finland. Defending the title on your home rally definitely brings more excitement in the run-up to the event," he said.
"The two-day format will be interesting. Recently, Sunday's final leg has contained very few kilometres and the result was effectively decided by what happened in the previous two days. With just two legs this year, the battle could continue through to the final stage of the rally," he added.
Latvala finished third last season and this will be the 25-year old's eighth start in the rally. "The excitement builds in Finland like no other round," he said. "I always have a few nerves before the start of a rally, but there are a few more before Rally Finland gets under way. The nerves really build on the road section to the opening stage, and then when I reach the finish of that first test I think to myself 'Wow! That was quick!' then everything starts to settle down.
"This year's rally is so short that I will need to be sharp from the first kilometre of the opening stage. But there is also an endurance factor because the days are long. I will try to get as much sleep as possible at the beginning of the week because there will be the opportunity for only about six hours sleep each night during the event itself," added Latvala.
The 2010 event marks the return to competition of rally legend Juha Kankkunen in a guest drive in a privately-entered Focus RS WRC. The four-time world champion retired from full-time competition after Rally GB in 2002, which was Latvala's WRC debut.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC for the team. This will be Al Qassimi's fourth start in Finland, his best result coming last year when he finished ninth. The rally also marks the third anniversary of Abu Dhabi's partnership with the team. "Finland is an amazing rally and a challenge for every professional driver. I feel very confident in my driving, so hopefully I will be able to grab some more championship points at the end of the weekend," he said.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in soft compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* An amazing 30 of the 101 entrants are at the wheel of Ford cars. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor are nominated in Focus RS WRCs by the Stobart M-Sport Ford team, which has also entered four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen / Juha Repo and Mattias Therman / Janne Perälä. A 2005-specification Focus RS WRC will be crewed by Jouni Arolainen / Seppo Kopra. Eight Fiesta S2000 cars are entered, four of which are competing in the S-WRC, and there are a record 14 Fiesta R2 and ST entries for the third round of the Fiesta SportTrophy International.
While the rally format has undergone major changes, the majority of the roads will be familiar to the drivers. There is one all-new test, the 6.45km Sirkkamäki on Friday, and short sections elsewhere that have not been used previously, but the rest of the 310.05km route has been driven in recent years. The service park returns to the popular Paviljonki exhibition area in Jyväskylä. Thursday evening's traditional super special stage at the Killeri trotting track has been dropped in favour of a forest test on the edge of Jyväskylä, which passes through the town's ski jumping arena. Friday's action is based west and north-east of the town before the second leg, the longest of the event, journeys south-west for tests near Jämsä and Mänttä. Drivers tackle 19 stages in a total distance of 1307.87km.