Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen head into this weekend's Rally GB with more than a realistic chance at taking the championship for the first time. They lie behind Sebastian Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena in the standings, the pairing who have held a monopoly on WRC titles for the past seven years.
Hirvonen could take the title with as little as nine points, but despite there being 28 up for grabs this weekend he is taking nothing for granted and has vowed to race for the win: “The only thing I can do is aim to win the rally. The sole target has to be the victory.”
However, to make that task even harder for the Ford Abu Dhabi Rally Team driver, Rally GB has undergone changes for 2011; even with being one of the toughest rounds on the calendar previously, there is now another day of competition to endure on the fast gravel stages. Add into the mix the unpredictable Welsh Autumn weather, and the championship's finale boils to a head nicely.
Hirvonen himself is no stranger to what it takes to win here. He took victory in the 2007 event here and says: “Everything depends so much upon the conditions. You need to be confident, trust the pace notes and take risks. I wouldn't mind if it rained because if the conditions are bad, there's more chance of the unexpected.” Indeed, heavy rain has been forecast on the stages both before and during the days of competition.
Not only will the rally be a test for the drivers, but Wales' fast forest stages have been notorious for the tyres in the past. After replacing Pirelli as official tyre supplier for this year, Michelin have come prepared. Ford will be using the French company's Latitude Cross gravel tyre, available in the soft compound only.
Elsewhere at the Ford team, Evgeny Novikov will be taking the wheel of the third car due to Khalid Al Qassimi's commitments at the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. Novikov, excited about his chance, said: “It's a hugely exciting opportunity to step into Khalid's car for the final rally of 2011. The road surfaces here can be very challenging, but I'm targeting a strong finish in support of my team-mates.”
The rally will, however, be tinged with sadness, particularly for the Ford Abu Dhabi team. All cars entered by the team will carry a tribute to Marco Simoncelli, who died following a crash in the Malaysian Moto GP round last month. Simoncelli had tested one of Ford's rally cars near their headquarters just a few weeks before.