BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala are approaching this weekend's Rallye Deutschland in circumspect fashion, with the former confessing to having something of a 'love-hate relationship' with the event and the latter admitting to a 'lack of confidence' on its demanding and frequently unpredictable stages.
The ninth round of the 2010 FIA World Rally Championship will take place around Germany's oldest city of Trier – close to the border with Luxembourg and just 165km from Ford's European headquarters in Cologne, giving it a special significance for the Blue Oval – with the asphalt-based event returning to the calendar after a year's absence and the constantly changing nature of the characteristics and surface of the speed tests allied to the ever-present threat of rain invariably making it a tricky weekend for competitors.
Victory for Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila on home turf on the high-speed Rally Finland earlier this month earned the Crash.net
columnist a place in the WRC record books by becoming the youngest driver ever to win the famous Jyvaskyla-based event since the world championship began back in 1973. The pair also moved into third place in the drivers' standings courtesy of their success, but despite having six prior starts to his name in Germany, the 25-year-old concedes that it is not his favourite stop on the season's schedule.
“The stages have many cuts, so the roads are dirty which gives me a lack of confidence when the grip level is changing so regularly,” he explained following a pre-event recce last week. “That's why this has always been a difficult event for me. Previously I have set some good times on the Baumholder sections, because you can't cut the corners and I prefer the wide, fast roads in this military area.
“The weather can be changeable, and you have to adapt very quickly to the conditions. Driving at the Nürburgring taught me that if I turn into corners later, I will get a better speed at the exit to the corner and that has improved my style and speed on asphalt. Winning Rally Finland has really boosted my confidence, and I'm hoping for a top five position.”
Compatriot Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen, by contrast, will be looking to get back on the pace this weekend after an accident on the opening day put them out of their home event three weeks ago. The 2008 and 2009 world championship runner-up achieved a rostrum finish on Rallye Deutschland back in 2007.
“I have a love-hate relationship with this rally!” the 30-year-old quipped. “When it's dry the stages are really nice to drive, but when the conditions are wet it makes the roads very tricky with all the mud and water around. Of all the three different characteristics we see in Germany, I prefer the vineyards. We have fantastic grip, the stages are not very technical and we can build up a really good rhythm because of the high speeds.
“The Baumholder stages are a unique challenge. The surface is changing all the time, it's very tricky and the road is bumpy meaning that the right car set-up is crucial. I was disappointed with the result in Finland, but encouraged by our speed. With the all the improvements we've made, I'm looking forward to seeing what's possible. I want to be fighting for the podium.”
The bumpy, narrow roads in the Moselle vineyards on the first and last legs comprise fast sections linked by hairpin bends as they rise and fall among the grapes. Corners are frequently hidden by tall vines, and there is no rhythm to the artificial tracks.
The public roads in Saarland that are used on Saturday are faster and more flowing, but are often wooded and can be equally tricky in the wet, whilst the infamous Baumholder military ranges provide the sternest test and the 48km Arena Panzerplatte run that is used twice during the second leg is the longest of the season.
The roads there are used for tank training by US soldiers and are unique to the series. Fast, wide asphalt contrasts with bumpy, abrasive concrete, which will demand high durability from Pirelli's tyres. Massive kerb stones known as hinkelstein
– designed to keep the tanks on the road – sit on the edge and will punish the slightest mistake and the tracks are always dirty, with a mix of sand and gravel making conditions slippery in the dry and treacherous in the wet.