If you can't beat Loeb, join him, says Hirvonen
Rally star Mikko Hirvonen finds himself in the lion's den this season, in the same team as his long-time arch-rival Sebastien Loeb.
For six years Hirvonen battled as a Ford driver trying to wrest the world title from the great Frenchman, once finishing just one point behind. He was second two other times, and third twice.
Now the amiable Finn has moved to join Loeb – winner of the last eight championships – at Citroen and again he finds himself second in the championship, 30 points behind Loeb, heading into Rally New Zealand, which starts today.
The gap would be only a few points, but after Hirvonen won in Portugal he was disqualified because of a minor technical problem with the car.
Being in the same team as your main rival can make you subject to team orders, as Hirvonen found out in Argentina. He was just a few seconds behind Loeb when Citroen told them both to back off and ensure a one-two finish for the team.
"I'm not really worried about those things, it's part of the game," Hirvonen says. "For sure I understand the team point of view as well – it would be silly to fight, only against each other, to risk a mistake and losing all the points.
"Especially for me now it's a new team, everything is new for me, it's more important that I can just do my speed and be really competitive against Sebastien. If I can just be close, for now I'm really happy with that."
Hirvonen expects to get faster still as he learns more about his new car and the best way to set it up to suit his driving style. And he has time on his side – he is 31, Loeb is 38.
One benefit of joining the French team is an improvement in the quality of the food.
"It's been quite nice to see, even when we are doing testing in the forest, in the middle of nowhere, we still have red wine and cheese fondue and oysters, just about everything, so it's been really a pleasant spot to be in."
The Citroen has some advantages, Hirvonen has found this year.
"When I was driving with Ford we were sometimes really wondering how come we were losing in certain types of roads that were twisty and more narrow, and now that I have driven the Citroen as well everything kind of makes perfect sense.
"The Citroen is stronger in certain areas but maybe not as stable at high speed as the Ford was, but I believe I can help the team improve in those areas."
Cars and other vehicles also figure in his relaxation activities.
"I have two boys at home so when I have time I try to spend time with them. They are at a perfect age, they are starting to play ice hockey and football, quad bikes and go-karts, so I really enjoy spending time with them. Also if I have time by myself I really enjoy restoring old cars, I just like to get my hands dirty.
"Old American cars, 50s and 60s. I buy some wreck and do it myself," Hirvonen said.