BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen will be going all out for victory on the Rally Japan this week as he tries to keep his slender hopes of taking the 2008 WRC drivers' title alive.

Following the two back-to-back asphalt events in Spain and Corsica, Hirvonen now trails Sebastien Loeb by 14 points and with only two rounds in this year's World Rally Championship to go, even if he takes the maximum haul this Sunday that may not be enough to take the battle into December's Wales Rally GB.

Despite the odds being against him though, the 28-year-old hasn't given up and the M-Sport-run outfit was happy with the progress made during a recent four-day gravel test in the south of France. Indeed the squad reported that improvements were made to the Focus RS WRC's differential settings and suspension set-up.

"The test went well and it was a good feeling to be back on gravel. I have to go to Japan and try to win again - it's the only thing I can do to try to keep the championships alive," said Mikko.

"It's going to be almost impossible to take the drivers' title now.

"Even if I win, Sebastien only needs six points. But you never know. As long as mathematically it's possible we will go for it."

This year's Rally Japan meanwhile will be very much a step into the unknown as after four years in Obihiro, it has moved west to Sapporo and will be based at the 43,000-capacity Sapporo Dome, a modern baseball and soccer stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup.

All of the special stages that make up the 2008 Rally Japan are new to the WRC, but most of the countryside tests have been used for many years in Japan's national championship. Most are based on medium to high-speed gravel forest roads and organisers describe them as flowing with good visibility.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi tyre engineer George Black visited the stages after last year's rally and found them to be undulating.

"Most are quite hilly and although they are not high, they are not really flat. They are reasonably quick but narrow and some are very loose," he explained. "The surface is mostly a pebble type of gravel rather than quarried gravel, although some are compacted, almost like cobblestones, and quite slippery. One of the biggest features will be the carpet of leaves on the surface. All the roads were leaf covered last year and very wet."

Hirvonen though, is not daunted by the prospect and he has a strong record over roads new to the championship, winning in Norway in 2007 and triumphing in Jordan in April. He also claimed the top step of the podium in Japan in 2007, having finished third the previous year.

The key to success, he believes, will be the recce and making sure his pacenotes are spot on: "It helps that everyone is competing on these roads for the first time because nobody has the advantage of previous experience," he continued.

"We will need to be careful with the pace notes though because the roads are narrow and fast. On the more open corners it will be important to check carefully for rocks to see if it will be OK to make cuts or not.

"I enjoy making new notes and feel confident when I'm doing that. However, it's easy to slip up on new rallies, because we write the notes on the first pass during the recce and then check them just once on the second pass before driving the roads flat out. I've seen pictures of the stages but I don't know much more than that," he concluded.



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