use experience to ignite 2009 WRC title bid
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's young chargers plan to use the lessons learned last season to ignite their challenge in the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship which begins in Ireland next week (29 January - 1 February). Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala raised their experience levels enormously as they turned what was expected to be a transitional year for Ford in 2008 into a concerted title bid in both the drivers' and manufacturers' series.
Now 28-year-old Hirvonen and 23-year-old Latvala, accompanied by co-drivers Jarmo Lehtinen and Miikka Anttila respectively, begin the 2009 campaign on Rally Ireland confident of stepping up their performance even further. Continuity is a key strategy of the team this season and the pairings will again have the record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally Car at their disposal. The car won four times in 2008 and has 36 WRC victories to its credit since the original model debuted in 1999.
Rally Ireland is one of just two all-asphalt events in the 12-round series and returns for its second appearance after a year's absence. However, the term 'asphalt' is a misnomer for this cross-border event which is based in Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, but also ventures into Northern Ireland.
The route is a mix of flowing mountain roads and tight, twisty farm lanes. The latter are bumpy and narrow – often little more than the width of a car – with many surface changes. They are used by farmers on a daily basis and will be dirty. With rain highly likely in late January, they could quickly turn muddy and become treacherously slippery, so much so that a more gravel-based car set-up is likely to work better than a traditional asphalt specification. Ice and snow cannot be ruled out either.
Hirvonen, second in the drivers' championship last year, also led the team to second in the manufacturers' series. He was fourth in Ireland in 2007 and knows what to expect this year.
"Rally Ireland was difficult in 2007, but this year I feel it's going to be even harder," he said. "I think we'll experience ice in places and the roads are so incredibly narrow and fast. Cars cut the corners and pull mud onto the road so it can be dirty and slippery. It's going to be an interesting and challenging event to start the year. We have a two-day test before the rally so that should give us confidence going into the start. I want to be on the podium, but if there's any chance at all, I want to fight for the win."
"I'm feeling confident about the season ahead. I learned much from 2008 that I'm sure will benefit me this year. After a too cautious start, my speed increased during the second half of the season and that's how I need to start 2009. There are only 12 rallies so it's important to score on every rally. There is no room for zero points from events because there are fewer rallies to make up for it," added Hirvonen.
Latvala claimed his first WRC podium in Ireland in 2007 and has set his sights on a repeat. "Loose surface rallies are my preference, but I've said to myself that if I can finish in the top three on asphalt this year, that would be perfect. It will be a very tricky rally because the conditions will be so unpredictable and a neat, tidy and mistake-free drive will be rewarded," he said.
"Consistency is an area in which I want to improve in 2009. I want to eliminate the kind of ups and downs that I experienced at times last season. This time one year ago I was very nervous ahead of my debut in the Ford team. I went through so many things last year, gaining experience and learning about the mental side of the WRC, that I feel relaxed and confident for the new season. I have two targets – to help Ford regain the manufacturers' title and to fight for the drivers' title. It's not a target to win the drivers' title – that's different – but I want to be able to challenge for it," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC. The 36-year-old, who finished 15th in 2007, knows Ireland will be hugely different from the conditions he will experience during this weekend's opening round of the Middle East Rally Championship in Qatar.
"I’m sure Ireland will be wet and the asphalt is bound to be muddy and slippery. It won’t be easy for me, especially after driving in Qatar, but I'll rely on my pace notes, start steadily and aim to improve throughout the weekend. I've learned a lot in the past 18 months – now is the time to realise my potential. This season my goals are to keep improving and hopefully I'll be in a position to post top 10 finishes and get in the drivers' points," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide two tyre specifications for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. The championship's control regulations dictate the use of just one pattern, but for Ireland they also allow an emergency tyre as extreme variations in road conditions are possible. The 'standard' PZero asphalt tyre will be available in soft compound and, in case of snow and ice, competitors can opt for Pirelli's Sottozero ‘Monte Carlo’ rubber. Each driver is allocated 42 PZero tyres for the rally (and six for the shakedown), of which 16 may be substituted with Sottozero tyres. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber in the event of rain or mud and each car can carry two spares.
* The team is in the middle of a four-day test in Ireland. Hirvonen started yesterday (Thursday) and will complete his programme today before Latvala takes over for Saturday and Sunday.
* Seven other Focus RS cars will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Ford debutants Urmo Aava / Kuldar Sikk are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad, which has also entered Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin. Ireland's MacHale family will also be at the wheel of Focus RS WRCs. Father Austin and sons Gareth and Aaron are all entered, co-driven by Dermot O'Gorman, Brian Murphy and Killian Duffy respectively. Another car has been entered by Irish crew David James / Jim Crowe.