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Just how good was Mikko Hirvonen’s drive in Rally Australia that saw him win his first World Rally Championship event?

There are many reasons to judge Hirvonen’s victory as the best of all 14 events so far conducted in 2007, and he should now be seen as far and away the WRC’s greatest young talent – and this coming from me, a big Chris Atkinson fan.

26-year old Hirvonen was picked from almost obscurity to drive for Ford this year, having been dumpedfrom Subaru in favour of Atkinson for the 2005 WRC season. And he’s fitted in well at Ford, playing the ideal second driver role as Marcus Gronholm set about trying to curb Sebastien Loeb’s dominance.

In many ways he’s had the easy job, having to pace himself and ensure that he scored points for Ford as they chase their first manufacturers’ championship since 1979. For most of the year he’s done just that.

So imagine his concern as, on the very first stage of Rally Australia, he passed his higher paid team-mate who was upside down, and seemingly out of the rally. Indeed the look on Hirvonen’s face (from the in-car camera) as he drove past was priceless.

What to do for the Finn? On the one hand, the chance of his first WRC victory was there for the taking, but on the other, the hopes of the Ford team were now on him as his team-mate struggled to right his car and stay in the rally.

Subaru’s Petter Solberg must have been licking his lips in excitement. The experienced Norwegian surely thought that, even in a car that has proven to be a lesser weapon than the Ford, he would grab his first victory since late in 2005.

But it wasn’t to be. Hirvonen drove brilliantly, set up a lead of nearly 30 seconds when Solberg was slowed in the dust late on the first day, and maintained that gap until the end of the event, over two days later.

At the end of the second day he was asked if he was nervous. “No,” he replied. “I’ve proven today that I can lead from the front, so I’m not concerned about tomorrow.”

He shouldn’t have been either, as he controlled the pace and won almost at a canter.

Full credit to Solberg, too. Asked at the post event press conference if the time lost in the dust on the first day had cost him victory, he replied:

“To be fair, Mikko did a good job. I think it could have been closer, but I think he would have done it anyway. He was a little bit faster and I was limited. It’s more important that he had a great feeling. He won the rally, without the dust. He was the real winner, that’s it.”

Mikko Hirvonen has arrived. He’s led WRC rounds before, but has failed to lead when it counted most. Sure, Gronholm was delayed and Loeb wasn’t at Rally Australia, but they were both out of contention because of their own doings.

To finish first, first you have to finish, and at Rally Australia in 2006 Mikko Hirvonen proved that he’s not only matured as a driver, but that he’ll now be a real force to be reckoned with.

Now we just need Subaru’s Chris Atkinson to follow the same path – once Subaru give him a decent car, that is!

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