Mikko Hirvonen and the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team are chasing a hat-trick of victories in the Land of the Rising Sun this weekend as the FIA World Rally Championship prepares to return to Japan following a year's absence for the tenth round of the 2010 campaign.
Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen triumphed on the gravel roads of northerly Pacific Ocean island Hokkaido in back-to-back seasons in 2007 and 2008, and with Ford having similarly dominated two of the last three loose-surface rallies with its Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, hopes are high for further success on Rally Japan.
The bulk of the competition is based on undulating, medium-to-fast gravel forest tracks, many of which are particularly loose. The rally will take place seven weeks earlier than in 2008, so the cold weather and leaf-covered surface is likely to be replaced by drier roads and temperatures of around 25ºC – though a strong likelihood of rain could make the tracks slippery and muddy.
“I enjoyed the type of roads here in 2008,” underlined 30-year-old Hirvonen, who aside from his two wins also has a third place to his credit from five Rally Japan appearances to-date. “They were fast, flowing and quite sandy. The championship hasn't been there for two years, so it will be interesting to see if any work has been carried out on the roads. If not, they could be quite soft and slippery if it rains. Although the rally is earlier in the year this season, I don't think it will make a big difference to the road surface.
“After crashing out in Finland so early, I'm short of recent gravel competition because the previous loose-surface rally was at the end of May. The shakedown in Japan is at Sapporo Dome, so there is no opportunity to benefit from a final test on a proper gravel stage. It may take a while to get back into the rhythm again on the first stage, but it shouldn't be a problem. I should have the speed to fight for a win, but my main target is to end the year with a series of strong finishes.”
Team-mate and compatriot Jari-Matti Latvala, for his part, is on-form on gravel this season, having prevailed both in New Zealand and popularly on home turf in Finland recently – and alongside co-driver Miikka Anttila, the 25-year-old is buoyant about his prospects of at least emulating his previous best Japanese result of second behind Hirvonen in a Ford formation finish two years ago.
“The stages are fast and although there are trees close to the road, visibility through the corners is good and the speeds remain high,” revealed the Crash.net
columnist. “I prefer fast, flowing rallies like New Zealand and Finland. Japan is another rally of that nature, although the roads are narrower here. My confidence is highest on that type of road, and I want to fight for a podium. I had good speed when I won in Finland in July, and the Focus RS WRC is competitive in those conditions so I'm confident a top three finish is possible.
“We have to use Pirelli's soft-compound tyres and the warmer weather will make it more difficult for them, but the road surface is quite soft and sandy and the distances we must drive on the same set of tyres are not particularly long, so I have no worries about excessive wear.”
The works Ford operation will again field a third Focus RS WRC on the rally for Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr, with the Abu Dhabi ace enthusiastic about making his debut on what has rapidly become Japan's largest motorsport event, with more than 540,000 fans in attendance last time.
“This will be the first time I have competed in Japan,” confessed Al Qassimi, “but I am looking forward to the return to a gravel surface and, with my eighth-place finish in Germany, I am feeling confident to push for a top ten finish to claim more championship points.”