Mikko Hirvonen admits he will be under more pressure than usual as he prepares to perform on home soil on Rally Finland this weekend – the eighth outing of 13 on the 2011 World Rally Championship calendar – but he has already ably proven that such pressure is nothing he cannot handle.
The fastest and most spectacular of all WRC events, Rally Finland has been a happy-hunting ground for Hirvonen in the past, with the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team star popularly triumphing there two years ago, and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala
doing likewise twelve months later.
Two-time World Rally Championship runner-up Hirvonen – who lives close to the rally's base of Jyväskylä, and as such can rely upon a wealth of local support – is aiming to make it three victories for the home-grown duo in swift succession this time around, and what's more, his second win of the season would also quite literally provide the icing on his birthday cake, as he turns 31 the day after the finish.
“Rally Finland is special,” enthused the Flying Finn, currently a challenging second in the 2011 WRC title standings and confessing to feeling a genuine buzz ahead of the event. “I'm competing in front of family and friends, and it provides an extra boost for me to try to win. It also brings more expectation, as the Finnish fans support Jari-Matti and myself and they want to see one of us win. It's more pressure – but good pressure.
“The new stages will be interesting. I drove some of those roads in 2001 and 2002 when I competed in the national championship, but it was a long time ago and I can't remember them. Perhaps during the recce before the rally I will start to recall some sections. A win here is important, not just because it's my home rally, but also because I need maximum points for the championship.”
The 'new stages' to which Hirvonen alludes were actually previously used in the WRC back in the 1980s, with the second day taking place around Lahti – just 80km from the Finnish capital of Helsinki – and Lake Päijänne. That section complements the more familiar smooth gravel speed tests and blisteringly fast rollercoaster roads littered with awesome, stomach-churning jumps and blind crests – and aside from Latvala, Hirvonen will be joined on the demanding event by Khalid Al Qassimi, nominated to score for Team Abu Dhabi.
“The last four years with Ford Abu Dhabi have been my best in motorsport, and I hope to celebrate Abu Dhabi's fourth anniversary with the team and the WRC with a strong result,” remarked the 39-year-old, returning to the fray in the team's third Fiesta RS WRC for the first time since Rally Italia-Sardegna back in May and bidding to improve upon ninth place in 2009, his best Finland result from four starts.
There will also be seven privately-run Fiesta RS WRCs on the event, whilst 40 of the 124 overall competitors are entered in Fords.