Mika H?kkinen will make an unexpected return to the cockpit of a competition car when he joins the entry list for the 2003 Arctic Lapland Rally in northern Finland next month.

Driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII WRC2 machine, the former double F1 world champion will be making his first rally appearance following an eleven-year grand prix career. More than a year after Hakkinen's last Formula One race, he remains one of the world's most popular sports personalities, especially in Germany - ironically, the home of arch rival Michael Schumacher - mainly due to his likeable appearances in Mercedes-Benz TV commercials.

"Finland is not only my home country, but also the home of rally sport," Hakkinen said, "I'm deeply impressed by my fellow Finns' and their colleagues' performances in the World Championship - their car control under difficult road conditions, even with ice or snow, is really fascinating. I always wanted to compete in a rally and I'm sure the comparison between this sport and Formula One will prove interesting for the spectators as well."

The former Lotus and McLaren man is insistent, however, that his appearance in Lapland is just a one-off, with no plans to switch codes and take up rallying on a permanent basis.

"I want to make clear that this is not to start a second career in motorsport," he smiled.

Mercedes fans need not worry that their favourite son is defecting, however, as Hakkinen, who retired permanently from Formula One last summer, will remain a member of the DaimlerChrysler family even as a one-off rally driver, with the German giant not only owning the premium Mercedes-Benz brand, but also a 37.3 per cent share of Mitsubishi Motors Corporation. Mitsubishi won the WRC manufacturers' championship in 1998, and secured four consecutive drivers' titles from 1996 through 1999 with Hakkinen's fellow Finn Tommi Makinen.

"We are very proud that Mika asked us to prepare a Lancer Evolution VII WRC2 for his rallying debut," commented Sven Quandt, the new head of motorsports activities at Mitsubishi Motors Europe, "Even though this will be strictly a private entry, it will be of high significance for us, not only as Mitsubishi, but as the whole sport will benefit from Mika's popularity and not only his home country."

Hakkinen will test the Mitsubishi over the next couple of days [17-19 December] in Finland, and will see how closely its production values resemble those of the McLarens he won grands prix with. Both cars are built for the extreme challenges of top class motorsport, albeit in different disciplines.

The often unpredictable conditions faced by the rally car on its various WRC events are even more difficult during the Arctic Rally. The competition starts and ends in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi located at the Arctic Circle, and features 15 special stages on roads with deep snow, little daylight and in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius and below.