Mikko Hirvonen – consistently Sébastien Loeb's closest challenger over the past few years in the World Rally Championship – has welcomed the Citroën star's decision to prolong his record-breaking career in the sport by at least another two seasons, arguing that to finally succeed in lifting the laurels only after the Frenchman had retired 'wouldn't feel the same'.
Ending months of speculation about whether the current campaign would be his last on the WRC stage, Citroën announced on Wednesday that Loeb had committed to the team until the end of 2013 [see separate story – click here
] – a scenario that could potentially see him hang up his helmet with an incredible ten consecutive drivers' world championship crowns to his name.
However, Hirvonen – a man who came within just a single point of dethroning Loeb two years ago, and similarly finished as runner-up to the WRC's 'record man' in the title standings in 2008 – has welcomed the news, reasoning that he is eager to defeat the 37-year-old at least once before his rival calls it a day.
“If I were really lucky and Sébastien retires now and I win the title next year, it wouldn't feel the same,” the Finn – who presently trails Loeb by 26 points in the 2011 standings with five events left to run – told the official WRC website. “For sure, you would appreciate that finally you get the title, but in the back of my mind if he would be there and I manage to beat him, it would mean more. It's nice that he stays and hangs around.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Hirvonen's Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team boss Malcolm Wilson, who has similarly seen Marcus Grönholm fall agonisingly short of pipping Loeb to the championship in recent campaigns as the Blue Oval has undeniably suffered from the Alsacien's crushing dominance – although the Englishman does reckon that there will be no further contract extensions for the most successful competitor in the sport's history.
“It will be like with Marcus,” opined the former British Rally Champion. “When he did Rally Finland in 2007 and Mikko was nine seconds behind him at the end of the rally, he made his decision based on that rally. If it was nine seconds that year, he knew it would be less the following year. I'm sure Seb will make the decision based on how competitive he is.
“It's fantastic for the sport [that Loeb is continuing]. It's a great challenge for us, because if we can find a way to keep him off the top step of the podium then we're going to be doing a good job – but it's not going to be easy.”
“It's great that he doesn't want to stop driving,” concurred M-Sport Stobart ace Matthew Wilson, “and when you look at his performances this year, they're among his best. For [the Ford] boys to beat him when he's still in his prime is a bigger challenge.”