14 Jan 08
In 2008 the BP-Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is aiming for a third consecutive WRC manufacturers' title. But after the retirement of lead driver Marcus Gronholm, this year the team's hopes ride with Mikko Hirvonen, its number two driver in 2006 and 2007, and Jari-Matti Latvala who, at just 22, is embarking on his first works WRC season.
Expecting this new partnership to deliver a world title on its first season together might seem a tall order, but in the last two years Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson has enjoyed success with a similar mixture of Finnish youth and experience, and this year he's hoping to repeat the formula.
"Before 2006 I'd not worked with an all Finnish line-up before, but the way they could support each other was something I thought a lot about," says Wilson. "Quite apart from his driving performance, I felt Marcus could help with Mikko's development, and he did that without question. I hope that Jari-Matti is prepared to listen and learn too. If he does anything like the job Mikko did, he'll be a fantastic asset to the team."
Aside from his mentoring skills, Hirvonen's most important task is to prove himself on the stages. This won't be easy. Especially after Gronholm set the bar so high with twelve podium finishes in 2007. Now, as lead driver, Hirvonen will be expected to deliver the same sort of results and handle the pressure that comes with number one status. But even though Hirvonen was slower than Gronholm on most rallies last year, Wilson is confident he's ready to step up to the challenge.
"You have to remember that Mikko was always playing a support role, in one sense, in 2006 and 2007," says Wilson. "If Marcus set off out of the blocks and was quicker, then inevitably Mikko played a back- up role. But I think we saw the speed he's capable of in Norway and Japan and GB; once he got into the lead, nobody pressured him into making a mistake. To be able to withstand the pressure from Loeb and Marcus at his age, and at that point in his career, tells me he's very strong mentally.
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