21 Jan 08
Just 53 days after ending its FIA World Rally Championship winning season with victory in Britain, back-to-back manufacturers' champion Ford has a third consecutive title in its sights. And on Thursday night we'll get the first indication of whether or not the team's new driver line-up will be up to the task.
The Ford team heads into the opening round of the series with the same-specification Focus RS that helped it to the 2007 title. Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen, who finished third in the drivers' championship last season will be joined by fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, who have been promoted to the official works team after two years in the privately-entered Stobart VK M-Sport line-up. At just 27 and 22-years-old respectively, both have youth in their favour but also have plenty of experience with 70 and 52 WRC starts to their names.
This is Hirvonen's fifth attempt at Rallye Monte Carlo - the event he thinks is the biggest challenge in the championship. It certainly won't be the easiest rally on which to prove his number one driver status, but he's remaining positive. "I can't wait to get started again," said Hirvonen. "I will begin every rally thinking about winning, but if I can't do that then second place is where I need to be. It will be difficult for me to take on Marcus Gronholm's role in the team but I feel ready for it. I learned much from him during the last two seasons and now it is time for me to move on and show that I too can fight for the drivers' title."
Latvala comes into the team on the back of a superb end to the 2007 season, when he claimed his first podium in Ireland and won a string of special stages in Britain. "I think it will be snowy and icy but rallying is about challenges and in such difficult conditions, if I drive well, then I can gain big time advantages over the others. Driving in the dark is also hard but that's another challenge and that's what makes this sport so exciting."
"The new tyre regulations mean I have to get used to Pirelli's rubber, driving without the puncture-resistant mousse and not having the same options as we have had in the past. I've used the new tyres during testing and I could feel they were harder. The ban on mousse means drivers can't cut corners as much as before for fear of puncturing so I will need to be careful going into bends. I learnt how to drive like that in the Production WRC so I hope that experience will be useful," added Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi will drive a third official car on his Rallye Monte Carlo debut. The 35-year-old will renew his partnership with co-driver Michael Orr, the pair having won the 2004 FIA Middle East Rally Championship together. "My concern is how I will adapt my driving to the snow and ice. I've never competed in those conditions before so I will need to take it easy. At high altitude, where it can be icy, even just cruising is fast!" said Al Qassimi.