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Friday favourite: The Gronholm advice that helped Hirvonen take on Loeb

Mikko Hirvonen never won the World Rally Championship, but was among Sebastien Loeb's closest challengers, pushing the Frenchman hard and finishing runner-up to him four times in a glittering career that yielded 15 rally wins. In the latest of Autosport's Friday Favourite series, Hirvonen picks his favourite team-mate and explains how his advice helped to shape his approach

Mikko Hirvonen, Jarmo Lehtinen, Ford Focus RS WRC

Sharing a service park tent with a double world champion can be a daunting prospect for any young driver climbing the World Rally Championship ranks. But four-time WRC runner-up Mikko Hirvonen believes the no nonsense advice gleaned from his team-mate at Ford between 2006 and 2007, Marcus Gronholm, proved to be among the biggest influences on his rally career.

At opposite ends of their respective careers, rising star Hirvonen joined 2000 and 2002 champion Gronholm to create an all-new and all-Finnish line-up at the factory Ford squad, which had run Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta in 2005.

At the relatively tender age of 26, Hirvonen was elevated to the coveted seat following a 2005 season largely on the sidelines, although he'd scored a first podium in a privately entered two-year-old Ford in Catalunya, after cutting his teeth as Petter Solberg’s team-mate at the factory Subaru team in 2004.

It was a campaign that arrived in somewhat unusual circumstances, Hirvonen installed to replace the already-signed Richard Burns when the 2001 world champion contracted the brain tumour that he would sadly succumb to a year later. Hirvonen's best finishes had been a pair of fourths in Argentina and Australia.

After finishing as the best works Ford, fifth, in a one-off appearance in Finland, and a solitary outing for Skoda in Japan that ended in retirement, Hirvonen joined Gronholm for 2006 as the junior partner in the team. But he grew in confidence alongside the former Peugeot ace to end their two-year spell with four wins and a further 14 podium finishes. In the final 10 rallies of 2006, Hirvonen was only off the podium twice and scored his breakthrough maiden triumph in Australia to cement third in the standings - a feat he repeated in 2007, with wins in Norway, Japan and Wales.

It was a period that marked Hirvonen out as a genuine WRC title contender, and the driver to pick up the Finnish rally baton from Gronholm. In 2009, he came as close as anybody to ending Sebastien Loeb's run of dominance, finishing just one point in arrears of the Citroen tour de force.

Reflecting on his 163-rally WRC career, headlined by 15 wins, Hirvonen picks Gronholm as his favourite team-mate from among a talented bunch that includes Solberg, Jari-Matti Latvala, Robert Kubica and nine-time champion Loeb when he spent the 2012 and 2013 campaigns at Citroen.

“I was still young when I joined with [Gronholm],” Hirvonen tells Autosport. “He was a bit like Kalle [Rovanpera] today in some races when he was fighting with Sebastien Loeb, he was somehow able to make incredible times.

Hirvonen (together with co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen after winning the 2007 Rally Japan) became an established frontrunner with knowledge gleaned from Gronholm

Hirvonen (together with co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen after winning the 2007 Rally Japan) became an established frontrunner with knowledge gleaned from Gronholm

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

“With Marcus, I learned a lot from him and he was really helping and telling me things. He was not shy sharing his knowledge or secrets, I really enjoyed it.”

Not all drivers are willing to open up when younger upstarts are snapping at their heels, but Hirvonen says he wasn’t surprised that his compatriot elected to divulge valuable information that helped him to be Loeb's nearest challenger in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

“I was not really surprised,” he says. “I was really young and was making my way through, and he had won world championships already, so I don’t think he was threatened by me - that I will start to win rallies and take his chances of the title away. It was easy for him to tell me things and help any way he could.”

Looking back at that period in his career, Hirvonen believes he can credit some of his own success to the advice he received from Gronholm. One philosophy particularly sticks in his mind.

“In some ways [I can credit a lot of my success to him],” Hirvonen says. “I started to think a lot about car set-ups and many things about rallying. With Marcus, one thing he was able to show me was at the end of the day you just have to be able to - in his words - 'go like f***'.

“You need to be confident. It doesn’t matter what you put on your car, or how you set it up. If you feel happy, you feel confident, then that is it. Just keep it simple and go flat-out.

“That in a way helped me, as I realised you don’t have to find all the final clicks or damper settings or whatever. If you mentally feel like this is it, that is all you need.”

Hirvonen hung up his WRC helmet at the end of 2014, but is still involved in the championship today as part of Rovanpera’s gravel crew at Toyota, while also acting as a driver coach for the marque’s WRC Challenge Programme - an initiative that aims to unearth and guide aspiring Japanese drivers into the WRC.

PLUS: The former WRC star playing the unsung hero role for Rovanpera

After breaking his duck on Rally Australia in 2006, Hirvonen finished runner-up to Loeb in the championship on four occasions

After breaking his duck on Rally Australia in 2006, Hirvonen finished runner-up to Loeb in the championship on four occasions

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

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