BP Ford team leader Mikko Hirvonen admits he needs to learn how to control the World Rally Championship from the front if he is to take the title fight to reigning champion Sebastien Loeb.
The Finn retook the lead of the championship after winning in Jordan last month but as a result was first on the road at the last round in Sardinia, when Loeb blew him into the weeds on leg one as the Ford driver struggled for pace on the loose surface.
Loeb’s win in Italy saw him close to within three points of Hirvonen at the summit, meaning the 27-year-old will again be the man charged with the ’road-sweeping’ duties at this weekend’s Acropolis Rally in Greece.
And Hirvonen insists that he cannot afford a repeat of his woes in Sardinia, when he lost almost a minute to his Citroen rival after day one.
“I need to improve my first day times a lot when I am first on the road, and I am working on that,” said Hirvonen.
“Hopefully I can learn to drive the first day like Seb [Loeb] and Marcus [Gronholm] did last year, but Greece will be very difficult.
“The Acropolis is usually the hottest rally in the championship, but having been to Jordan last month where temperatures were close to 40 degrees, I don’t think we will experience that kind of heat here.”
Hirvonen is expecting a tough challenge on the rocky stages around Athens, but insists his Focus RS will stay the course.
“Although Jordan was also abrasive, I think Greece will be more so,” he continued.
“There are plenty of loose rocks, especially during the second pass of stages, and the road base is hard bedrock. That’s why the rally has earned its reputation as a car-breaker.
“The conditions are tough on cars and tyres but I’m not worried about either. The Focus RS has proved its strength many times; Pirelli’s tyres have also been remarkably strong this year with few punctures.”
The 2008 Acropolis Rally got off to an inauspicious start for Hirvonen’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, however, who slid off the road during today’s shakedown session and smashed side-on into a tree stump.
Neither Latvala nor his co-driver Miikka Anttila was injured in the impact and the car was taken to the service park for repairs.
“It was a bit of a scare, but I hope it means I’ve got any bad luck out of my system before the proper rally starts,” said Latvala.
Loeb, meanwhile, has hit out at the punishing nature of the stages he will tackle in his C4 this weekend.
“It’s not my favourite rally. These rough roads make the cars suffer, and that’s not something I like,” he said.
The Frenchman claimed his 40th WRC win in Italy to move to within striking distance of Hirvonen, and with one win and three second places from seven Acropolis Rally outings under his belt, is bullish about his chances this weekend.
“In Sardinia, we succeeded in closing the gap with our rival, and the Acropolis Rally could be a good chance to reduce the deficit further still,” he said.