Having triumphed on the two most recent editions of Rally Australia – in 2006 and 2009 – Mikko Hirvonen confesses that he is eager to keep his winning run Down Under firmly intact on this weekend's event at its new home of Coffs Harbour...as Ford tyre engineer George Black warns that even so much as a wheel out-of-line could be costly indeed.
After prevailing in Perth in 2006 – his breakthrough FIA World Rally Championship success – and Kingscliff in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales three years later, Hirvonen clearly has a special affinity with the tough Australian terrain, but the new Coffs Harbour route represents a step into the unknown for the Finn and his rivals, leaving them all needing to quickly get to grips with roads never before seen in the WRC. It might be a new challenge, but it is one that the 31-year-old is relishing.
“When competing on a new rally, it's essential to learn quickly,” acknowledged Hirvonen, currently third in the 2011 title standings, 36 points adrift of leader Sébastien Loeb. “Accuracy when making pace notes is important, because we only have one run on which to make them and a second pass to check them – but getting a feel for the characteristics of the roads is equally vital.
“A hat-trick would be a welcome conclusion to the weekend. I'm looking forward to being back on gravel after the asphalt in Germany. I enjoy Australia, and the rally usually has a relaxed feel which helps with the preparation.”
Similarly revved-up to do battle this weekend – following a run of frustrating outings – is countryman and Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala. The 26-year-old has yet to reach the podium in Australia in three previous starts – with a best result of fourth place two years ago – but like Hirvonen, he is enthusiastic about the return to gravel and optimistic about being able to banish the disappointment of Rallye Deutschland last month.
“I enjoy fast gravel rallies, and I want to be fighting for victory,” asserted the 2010 World Rally Championship runner-up, presently fourth in the chase for the 2011 crown, albeit all-but out of title contention now. “There have been some frustrating times this year because we've lost rallies by small margins, but we know the Fiesta RS WRC is competitive, and I'm confident we can turn that around. Australia would be the perfect place to start!
“We're going to a new location, and that means the preparations must be slightly different. After the recce, we'll take a close look at our videos of the stages. When I've competed on stages several times before, the roads are fixed in my memory, so there's not so much to learn from watching the videos – but on new roads, there's always a benefit to watching them. It helps to develop an understanding of the characteristics of the stages.”
Khalid Al Qassimi will campaign the team's third Fiesta RS WRC, and is nominated to score for Team Abu Dhabi on his third Rally Australia appearance. He is aware that a sensible approach will be required over new roads.
“I understand the stages will be of a different nature to those we drove in 2009,” recognised the Abu Dhabi ace. “The weather forecast indicates showers during the rally, and on hard-based roads, conditions could be slippery. The key is to find a balance of good pace in the dry, and a compromise of speed and safety if it's wet. Missing a braking-point on slippery roads can lead to an overshoot or worse.”