Having almost beaten Sebastien Loeb to the 2009 World Rally title, Ford number one Mikko Hirvonen's 2010 season has proved to be a huge disappointment, and he is now out of contention for this year's championship.
But as he prepared for this weekend's Rally Japan, he told AUTOSPORT why he was still upbeat about the next event and determined to finish the year on a high.
Q. Having won this event twice, is it fair to say you're quite a fan of Rally Japan?
Mikko Hirvonen: It is, yes. It's fast and interesting roads, which I like - but also the place: the country, the culture and the people. I like it here, it's so different. Okay, things like this don't affect my driving, but I like it here and enjoy this place.
Q. How does it feel not to have a championship to think about any more? Does it take the pressure off you a little bit?
MH: No, not really. For sure it's a shame, but the whole season has been a bit disappointing and now we just want to finish off the year in the best way we can. I just want to finish the season with good rallies and, hopefully, fight for the win here.
Q. The last time we saw you on gravel was on Rally Finland, where you were very quick before the accident. Does that speed give you extra confidence coming to another soft-surface gravel rally?
MH: I think we should have good speed here, especially if it stay dry. And why not if the conditions become more muddy? It's going to be so tricky here if it does rain, there will be lots of deep mu and water splashes as well.
Q. If it stays dry and hot, how will the soft compound Pirelli work?
MH: Fortunately it's quite a soft surface, so it should be fine, no problem. It's so soft in some places we can still see our ruts from the last time we were here two years ago. In some places the roads can be quite badly destroyed on the second time we are going there.
Sunday shouldn't be so bad because they are the new stages. The roads on Friday and Saturday have been fixed with the organisers laying some soft gravel and that will get destroyed. And then some sections, still have ruts.
Q. What do you think of the fact that you come here with no test because you're not allowed to test outside of Europe and the shakedown is on asphalt - which means the first time you drive the car on gravel you are going off the start line?
MH: Unless you are Petter [Solberg]. Because he's not running as a manufacturer, he's allowed to do what he wants and he has tested. It's not really fair. He is there fighting with everybody else, but he can do what he likes with testing. Okay he's not taking manufacturer points, but he still has an advantage in quite many rallies.
Q. How tough is it to come here and drive the car for the first time on gravel when you're going into the first corner on the event?
MH: It might take a while. On the first gravel stage it might take a few corners to get the feeling, but hopefully not longer than that. It's not really ideal, for sure it would be better to have the shakedown on gravel to get that feeling, but I don't mind shakedown being in the [Saporo] Dome because it's so slippery in there, there's no grip at all. If we can't be on gravel that's the second best choice.
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