Buoyed by his third consecutive Rally Australia triumph just under a fortnight ago – a result that has reinvigorated the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship title fight – BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team star Mikko Hirvonen has acknowledged that whilst it 'removed some pressure', the key now will be to 'carry that success forward' over the remaining three outings.
Both WRC crowns had looked to be heading the way of Ford's arch-rival Citroën at the beginning of the weekend Down Under – and indeed, the French outfit could even have clinched the manufacturers' laurels on the Coffs Harbour-based event – but costly accidents for Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier allied to a commanding one-two finish for Hirvonen and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala have kept Ford in the running and enabled the elder of the two Finns to close the gap at the top of the drivers' standings to just 15 points.
Next up for the WRC gladiators will be the Rallye de France based around Strasbourg, in the north-east of the country and nestled between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Black Forest to the east. Last year, Latvala and Hirvonen could manage no better than fourth and fifth places respectively as Citroën monopolised the podium first time out in Alsace, whilst Ford's effort on the only asphalt event of the 2011 campaign to-date – in Germany just over a month ago – was somewhat less-than-successful.
Hirvonen, however, remains confident that the Blue Oval will be considerably more competitive next weekend on a route characterised by stark contrasts between narrow, bumpy forest passes, fast, wide runs where speeds approach 200km/h, vineyard roads on flat open plains and two street test locations.
“The stages are bumpy and abrasive in some sections, but the biggest surprise last year was how much we could cut the corners and the amount of mud and dirt that was dragged onto the roads,” the 31-year-old mused. “They were very messy. I think the organisers are taking steps to prevent so much cutting, but we won't know what difference that will make until the recce.
“When we check our pace notes on the recce, we must be careful in deciding which corners we can cut and which we can't. Where there is a drop-off from the edge of the road, we must think closely about whether it's worth risking a puncture by cutting, or not. Winning in Australia removed some pressure, but we must carry that success forward and fight for the championship over the final rounds.”
Hirvonen and Latvala shared four days of testing this week at the Alès circuit, near Nîmes in southern France. Also in attendance was former Ford driver Markko Märtin, an acknowledged asphalt expert who claimed back-to-back victories for the team in France and Spain in 2004.
“We were encouraged by our performance on asphalt in Germany last month, when we set some great stage times and were closer to our rivals than previously,” asserted Latvala, incredibly still seeking his first win of 2011 after dutifully yielding to Hirvonen in Australia, and for whom Rallye de France will mark his 100th WRC start alongside loyal co-driver Miikka Anttila.
“The results didn't reflect that because we had some problems, so we want to take that performance a step further and Markko joined us to offer set-up advice. On the first morning, I discovered that our set-up was slightly too soft in Germany, so we revised that and the handling immediately felt better.