The Icemen commeth
Mikko Hirvonen watched helplessly as Sebastien Loeb picked up where he left off when the World Rally Championship started its 2009 season in Ireland last week.
The Frenchman, who sealed a fifth successive WRC title last year with a record 11 wins, got the new campaign off to a flyer on the deep Irish tarmac, finishing the stage with maximum points and little fuss.
Dani Sordo, Loeb's team-mate, completed a one-two for the Citroën team as they laid down a marker for the rest of the championship.
Hirvonen would not have been too disappointed, though. A third-place finish for last year's championship runner-up was a respectable return for a driver who doesn't even like the slower surface. He much prefers snow.
The Finn will therefore be in his element as the WRC roars through the sleepy Norwegian town of Hamar next week. The modest municipality is located on the shores of Lake Mjosa – Norway's largest waterhole – and it provides Hirvonen and his BP-Ford Abu Dhabi team with the perfect track to catch Loeb in the standings.
The team's Focus RS World Rally Cars claimed a clean sweep of the podium when the country hosted its only previous WRC meeting in 2007. Now, Hirvonen – winner of the event two years ago – and fellow Finn Jari-Matti Latvala will look to navigate the loose-surface, snow-bank-lined track faster than their French opponent.
"I scored solid points in Ireland and now I really want to get down to business on a rally and in conditions I enjoy," said Hirvonen ahead of the rally. "Ireland was a difficult start to the year because of heavy rain and I'm sure I'll feel more comfortable in Norway's snow – conditions where we know the Focus excels."
Latvala, who will be wearing his trademark yellow glasses behind the wheel, echoed his excited team-mate's battle cry.
"A proper winter rally is great fun," said the 23-year-old. "The nature of the surface means a driver can be a lot more aggressive. The car spends more time sideways on snow because it helps it turn into the bends.
"So I must trust my tyres and use the snow banks to carry more speed and guide me around.
"When the countryside is totally white it's often difficult to see exactly where the road goes," said Latvala about his distinctive headgear. "The yellow-tinted glasses provide more definition and help me see the edge of the road more clearly. They really help a lot."
Loeb may want to invest in a pair before it all kicks off in Scandinavia next Friday.
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