Twelve months ago, Mikko Hirvonen, the lead driver for BP Ford Abu Dhabi, chalked up his second consecutive Rally Japan victory to wrench up the title pressure on Citroen's Sebastien Loeb. But the pair, traditional championships adversaries, have endured different fortunes this season. While Loeb steamrolls to a seemingly inevitable seventh successive world crown, Hirvonen, on 86 points, languishes sixth in the drivers' standings - a mammoth 105 points behind his French arch-rival.
Japan, however, offers a chance for redemption, of sorts. "It's good to be back here. I like the country and the rally; things are different here," Hirvonen said via telephone from Sapporo. "The people and culture are totally different and it's a little like going to Abu Dhabi; I feel comfortable and that can only help my driving. "Japan has been kind to me, I've won the last two years here and have plenty of nice memories. The fast, rolling stages are exactly the kind I like and it's a bit like driving in Finland, but maybe just a little softer. The stages are always totally devastated on the second, afternoon passes and that makes it difficult, but they're still quick and fun."
After labouring to just one victory - in Sweden in the opening round of the 13-event WRC series - in eight starts this term, Hirvonen is eager to improve his report card by securing a hat-trick of Japanese victories. He got off to a good start yesterday and trails only Sebastien Ogier after the opening two super special stages at the Sapporo Dome stadium. "I'm definitely trying for the win," said Hirvonen, a gravel-surface specialist. "I hope my bad luck turns this weekend because I need some good performances and results before the end of the season. I want to close out what has been a difficult year with a couple of strong events and I have a good chance for victory both here and [the season-ending round] in Great Britain."
The plus-side to Hirvonen's poor championship ranking is a favourable starting position. The Finn starts Japan as the sixth car on the road, meaning five cars will have swept the stages clear by the time he tackles them. "My starting position will help a lot if it's dry, but we've had a lot of rain this week and the passes were drenched during the recce," said Hirvonen. "The stages are wet and muddy, but that won't make things adversely worse, either; it just won't help as much."
A more worrying sign, however, of Hirvonen's reduced confidence was evident in the normally breakneck driver's safety-first approach to tomorrow's opening tests. "I'll see how fast everyone is going and then determine how hard to push," said the Ford No 1. "It's important that I keep in touch and set a few fastest stage times, but I don't think I will go completely flat-out on the opening leg. I'll see where I am at the end of the first day and devise a strategy with the team for the last two legs."