Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will draw on previous experience to boost their world championship title challenge as they head to Spain next week for the penultimate round. They are tied for the lead of the drivers’ series and with three points covering the top three pilots, the Finns can look back on the 2009 campaign to recall an equally tense battle.Hirvonen started the final round then with a single point advantage and the duel for the crown was only decided in the final speed test of the season. The 31-year-old starts Rally de España (20 - 23 October) knowing that having experienced the pressures of a final round shootout two years ago, he is well prepared for whatever the Spanish event throws up - and he is relishing what lies ahead.“I was in a similar situation in 2009 when two of us fought for the crown until the final special stage. This time three drivers are covered by three points with two rounds to go, and it’s going to be an exciting weekend. The knowledge I gained two years ago will help, but I’m not looking at changing anything this time – except the final outcome,” said Hirvonen who lost the title by just one point.Rally de España is the longest and most varied round of the FIA World Rally Championship season, with more than 406km of competition over three days. Traditionally a pure asphalt fixture over smooth and flowing roads in the Tarragona region of north-east Spain, the rally developed into a mixed surface event last year and that format is retained for 2011.Friday’s opening leg is essentially gravel, with several short asphalt sections mixed in, which Hirvonen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will tackle with their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Cars in full gravel specification. After a marathon 16 hours of competition, the Ford Abu Dhabi team will convert the cars into full asphalt trim for the final two days.
The holiday resort of Salou, south-west of Barcelona on the Costa Daurada coast, hosts the rally. The asphalt roads nearby can be compared to a race circuit in their characteristics. They are smooth, often abrasive and can become slippery as drivers cut corners to save tenths of a second, dragging stones and dirt onto the surface.
Hirvonen has eight starts to his credit in Spain, with podium finishes in 2005, 2008 and 2009. A win and third place in the last two rounds ignited his title challenge and he is clear about the task ahead.“Every corner will need to be driven at maximum speed because the only way to win the championship is by trying to win the last two rallies,” he said. “It will be all-or-nothing, with plenty of risk taking because none of us can afford to play it safe anymore. I must do well in Spain to take the fight all the way to the final round on gravel in Britain. I believe we can do that.”Hirvonen has the advantage of being second in the start order behind joint championship leader Sébastien Loeb for the opening predominantly gravel leg, the longest of the rally. Loeb must open the roads, sweeping the slippery dirt and gravel from the surface to the benefit of those behind.
“I will have a small advantage over Loeb in terms of road position on the first day, so Friday is going to be a big opportunity for me, and I need to ensure I make the most of that,” added Hirvonen.Latvala’s best result from seven starts in Spain is fourth last year. The 26-year-old Finn aims to build on the superb pace he displayed on asphalt in France earlier this month, which netted seven stage victories, including five out of six in the final leg.“Spain’s asphalt is great to drive,” he said. “The second and third leg roads are wide, smooth and shiny, and the grip is consistent because there are few surface changes. I enjoyed the gravel stages last year. They were hard and medium-fast, and the asphalt sections weren’t too quick. It will be key to look after the tyres on the asphalt in the first day because it can really damage gravel rubber.”Latvala is aware of the need to keep energy levels high during the opening day. “Diet and fluid intake is always important, but it will be even more so here. After breakfast there won’t be the chance to eat apart from the mid-leg service. We’ll burn a lot of energy over such a long day so we’ll take energy bars in the car to keep our performance level to the maximum,” he said.Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team’s third Fiesta RS WRC, the Abu Dhabi driver aiming to build on his seventh place finish last season.
“I've been improving on asphalt and the six points I won in Spain last year was the best result of my season. My aim is to catch Federico Villagra on the leaderboard and achieve my best ever season result. I’ll need another quality performance to do it, but I have the confidence,” said Al Qassimi.Team News* Tyre partner Michelin will provide three tyre specifications for the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers. During the mixed surface opening day, hard compound Latitude Cross gravel rubber only will be used. In the second and third asphalt legs, the Pilot Sport asphalt tyre will be available in hard and soft compounds. Drivers will be allocated a mix of hard and soft tyres and their selection, which will depend on the weather and nature of the road surface, must come from that allocation only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.* Six 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. Munchi’s Ford World Rally Team drivers Federico Villagra / Diego Curletto return for the first time since Greece. Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino will be at the wheel of the Monster World Rally Team car and Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte are entered by FERM Power Tools World Rally Team, both fresh from career-best results in France.
* The rally marks the final round of the S-WRC support category. Five registered Ford Fiesta S2000 cars are entered, headed by Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk, who lie second in the championship and just three points from the lead.