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GP Week : Issue 72
WRC: Mikko Hirvonen I AM personally glad that Mikko Hirvonen won the GPWeek award for rally drivers, not because I have anything against Sebastien, more because Mikko is unusual as a top Finn who came without excessive prior hype from his countrymen. I came to know of him back in 2002 because Finnish friends had mentioned his name discreetly, and it was for that reason I sought him out at the start of the Finnish Rally in 2002. He had number 119, and was thus far away from the madding crowd, his Renault Clio lined up in the back of a dirty car park which the Jyvaskylan organisers thought was suitable for the start of one of the world's greatest rallies. The opening words in these circumstances are always the same: "Excuse me, do you speak English?" Yes, he said, and we got on fine after that. He speaks with a well-educated precision, and from then on he has always been helpful and friendly and full of special stories. The friends who first told me about Mikko were right -- here was someone special. The celebrated Finnish rally patron Timo Juohki was Mikko's first step in the right direction. Was it difficult for Mikko to persuade Timo to help? "Funnily enough", Mikko explained, "it was he who contacted me. You might have expected it to be the other way round! "It all happened quickly and not as you would imagine. He told me there was a rally the following week in Italy and he wanted me to take part." His first WRC event came later when he won his class in a Clio. Rallying was always a family thing for the Hirvonens. Mikko's original co-drivers were either his sister or his cousin. In the end he ended up with a choice -- Jarmo Lehtinen and Miikka Antilla, both good friends -- little knowing that within six years, together with a precocious youngster by the name of Latvala, they would represent the strength of Ford's WRC rally programme. Quietly in the background, meanwhile, Juohki was working hard. He arranged that Mikko would have the third official Ford seat in 2003, in less than six months from that Clio drive. Valuable experience was gained, but then things went wrong. For 2004 the FIA ordained that teams should consist only of two, not three drivers. Mikko was lucky, being offered the number two seat at Subaru for 2005, but this was a big disaster and he ended the season being driveless. It was back to privateer rallying. Friends helped him recover and drives were found, leading up to the Acropolis Rally in 2005, a special moment in his career. He became the first private rally driver for four years to lead a world championship rally! The next year he was back with Ford, as number two driver behind Gronholm. In 2006 and 2007 he was third in the world championship; in 2008 and 2009 he was second. A good progression was on its way ... The impressive thing about Mikko is the way he has gradually but firmly moved into the shoes which Marcus Gronholm used to wear, as team leader at BP Ford Abu Dhabi. The days when he made mistakes ended when he crashed his Subaru into the railings at the Superspecial in Finland. He was almost alone in offering sympathy when Latvala did the same this year in Poland. And until Ford's new water pump system let him down in Argentina this year, Hirvonen had accumulated an incredible 37 world championship rallies without retirement. Mikko is surprisingly interested in life outside the world championship, much of which related to his love of old-time rally cars. He has built up a replica Group 4 Escort RS which he proudly placed in the Ford service area in this year's Neste Rally. It was painted in Rothmans colours. I told him I had done the RAC Rally as co-driver in one of those Rothmans cars and he was amazed. He didn't know there were people around in the sport these days, Malcolm Wilson excepted, who had been actively involved in that project -- particularly anyone else with whom he spoke every day on the rallies. Then I realised why he did not know. When I did that rally in 1980 with Timo Makinen, Mikko was only four months old ... MARTIN HOLMES Rallies Editor opinion 2009 -- Mikko Hirvonen, 2008 -- Sebastien Loeb "It's a great honour for me to receive this award. To receive this accolade from my fellow professionals within motor sport means a great deal to me. The 2009 season was exciting and although I just missed out on the WRC title, I will be back stronger and faster in 2010." AWARDS >> 45