Mikko Hirvonen has claimed that being paired with eight-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb at Citroen this season can only help him improve as a driver.
The Finn transfers over from Ford having been a thorn in Loeb's side for several seasons, and will line up alongside the Frenchman for the first time on this weekend's Rallye Monte Carlo, which returns to the WRC schedule for the first time in three years. While many drivers would be afraid of falling into Loeb's shadow at a team he has called home for ten seasons, Hirvonen insists that he is relishing the challenge.
“I see this opportunity to work with Sébastien as being of great benefit to my career," he explained, "It's not about being number one or two. We all start the season with no points on the board and the 2012 regulations will make racing fairer, both for team-mates and rival drivers.
“I was immediately struck by the very warm welcome that was extended to me. I have found a team full of people who are passionate about what they do. I have been especially impressed by the rigour of the working methods and the care taken over every detail. Although the team is predominantly French-speaking, there have been no communication problems. I already feel very much at home, both with testing and the technical meetings at the plant, I have already spent a lot of time with various members of the team.
"To some extent, it's fairly natural that the team expects more of Sébastien; he has been with them for ten years and has been world champion for the last eight years running! That takes a little bit of the pressure off me, so I'll be able to take the time to become totally accustomed to the car, the team and how it operates. In any case, I always try to adopt a positive approach to situations, as that tends to be the best way to make progress.
Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen have made a habit of getting off to a good start in recent championship campaigns, winning in Sweden in both 2010 and 2011. However, despite having also won the 2010 Rallye Monte Carlo in a Super 2000 entry, he remains reluctant to talk about his chances this weekend.
“Although I really enjoyed racing in Sweden, I think it makes more sense to start the season here,” he admitted, “That said, I'm a little apprehensive about Monte Carlo. Starting a stage where there are icy patches on slick tyres is not something I am particularly looking forward to, but that's part of what makes this rally special! My aim for this weekend will be to 'survive' or, in other words, make it to the finish without incident and pick up as many points as possible in the championships.”
Where Hirvonen will lack compared to his team-mate is in the experience of tuning the DS3 WRC to his liking, but technical director Xavier Mestelan-Pinon confirms that steps have been taken to help the Finn adjust more rapidly.
“We have had to trawl through our archives for information with this rally back on the WRC calendar!" he admitted, "In fact, the first challenge involved bringing together all the information that we have collected about the rally in order to prepare as well as possible, both from a technical perspective and in terms of team organisation - and then you have the changing and varied weather conditions, which make tyre choice complicated.