Mikko Hirvonen has acknowledged that Ford's commanding one-two finish on Rally Australia last weekend was an important morale-booster for the team and has reignited both World Rally Championship title battles – and whilst he knows there remains a mountain to climb to overhaul arch-rivals Citroën and Sébastien Loeb over the final three events of the 2011 campaign, he is adamant that 'we are definitely not giving up'.
After first Loeb and then, shortly afterwards, Sébastien Ogier crashed out of the Coffs Harbour event on Friday, Ford was gifted first and second places for Hirvonen and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala respectively – but the former insists that on a rally whose treacherous conditions caught out many, the pressure was far from off.
“I had enough things on my mind [trying] to keep myself on the road!” the Finn quipped, when asked how he had felt when he saw both Loeb and Ogier in trouble. “It just shows how difficult the conditions were, and the stages were very fast, very muddy and slippery. Some places you didn't have any grip when you were braking, so it was impossible to tell what kind of grip you [would] have in each corner, very tricky. Luckily, we made it [with] no accidents.
“It had been such a long time since I'd won a rally that it was never really over until the last stage, so I was nervous the whole time that something would happen or that I would make a mistake or something would go wrong. I wanted to really just wait all the way to the end and then know for sure that it was all over.”
Hirvonen went on to pay tribute to Latvala, who moved past him into the lead on SS11 and proceeded to pull away, but who ultimately ceded the position again to his team-mate, the only one of the pair who still has a realistic shot at the drivers' laurels. His third Rally Australia triumph in swift succession has enabled Hirvonen to close to just 15 points adrift of Loeb in the standings – with 84 remaining up for grabs.
“We did talk about this at the start of the year, that we could be equal as long as we fought for championship points,” explained the elder of the two countrymen. “Unfortunately, Jari-Matti has had a difficult season, so that really helped me that he slowed down and let me take the lead. Big thanks to him!”
The Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's first one-two since Sardinia, 2009 has also seen the Malcolm Wilson-led outfit narrow the gap to the Citroën Total World Rally Team to 62 markers in the manufacturers' table, meaning that although the conquest of that particular trophy will be a tall order, it is not altogether out-of-the-question.
Hirvonen asserts that the Australian result has helped to motivate the Blue Oval to 'keep on pushing', with the next goal now to take the battle to Loeb and Ogier on their home turf in Rallye France at the beginning of October.
“Yes, they are both still there,” the 31-year-old reflected of the drivers' and manufacturers' crowns, “but it was more important just to have a good result, especially since it's been a tough season; we won in Sweden and it's been very close after that, and we didn't know if we could pull it off. It was very important – especially after what happened on Friday – that we could still control things, and getting a one-two is very good for everybody. Hopefully, it will help us all in the future.
“I'm sure everybody knows that it is going to be up against the two Citroëns, and Petter [Solberg] as well [in France]. We were happy with our pace in Germany (the most recent event on tarmac), and now we have a test plan so we hope we can improve our car. We are definitely not giving up. We have to keep on pushing now that we've got the boost from his rally; hopefully we will go even faster in France and really be able to fight there.”