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They call him the Ice Man, but the pace will be red-hot when Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen heads to Repco Rally Australia next month with a maiden FIA World Rally Championship clearly in his sights.

In the drive of his life on home soil, Hirvonen swept to victory in the legendary Neste Oil Rally Finland last weekend and extended his lead in the drivers’ standings to a precarious three points over five-time champion Sebastien Loeb.

It was Hirvonen’s third straight win in 2009, but he knows it will be vital to maintain his confident form in the final three rounds of the season, beginning with Rally Australia in the New South Wales Northern Rivers on 3-6 September.

While the WRC is his ultimate goal, a win at Repco Rally Australia would have special significance, as he won the previous Rally Australia in Western Australia in 2006.

Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen won the blindingly fast Rally Finland – also known as the Rally of 1000 Lakes - by an impressive 25.1 second margin in their BP Abu Dhabi team Ford Focus RS after leading all the way from the second of 23 special competitive stages.

It was a landmark result on the world’s most revered gravel rally, putting Hirvonen’s name on the honour roll with countrymen like Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen, Tommi Makinen, Marcus Gronholm and Hannu Mikkola.

"I've watched this rally since I was a kid and now I have won here myself and join so many of the sport's legends who have won here," he said.

“It's such a fantastic sensation to win my home rally that I can't put my feelings into words.”

Team director Malcolm Wilson had no such difficulty as he celebrated the 29-year-old driver’s win and Ford’s extended lead in the Manufacturers’ Championship.

“Without question, it was Mikko's best drive. Winning Rally Finland is a turning point in his career, but I never doubted he would take victory here one day.

“It was a very close battle between him and Sébastien but he always had it under control and never made a mistake. I think that's a message to Sébastien - there's a little bit more still to come.

“We call him the Ice Man in the team and he delivered an Ice Man performance.”

Hirvonen will need to keep that cool on the unfamiliar, undulating and fast roads in the Tweed and Kyogle shires, for one small mistake could see the team’s championship dreams crash out of sight.

“Three points is something, but there is still a long way to go,” he admitted.

“I am going to be first on the road (in Australia) which is going to make it difficult conditions and then in Spain there is the tarmac which has favoured Sébastien greatly in the past.

“I am just going to take it rally by rally and see what happens, but I will go to Australia on a big high after winning here.”

It would be fair to say that rallying is in Mikko Hirvonen’s blood, as his earliest memory is sitting on his father's knee learning to drive a rally car on a frozen lake beside his house.

Determined and realistic, the young Finn decided the best way to learn to drive was in a front-wheel drive car. In 1998, with his cousin navigating, he entered his first rally and despite going off the road twice, crossed the finish line.
 
Over the next two years his rally activities became a family affair, with his cousin and sister sharing the co-driver's seat and other family members helping with the running of the car. Many were there to celebrate his Rally Finland win last Sunday.

He set his sights on the 2001 Finnish Championship, then in 2002 competed in more than 20 rallies to gain the experience that would help him achieve his goal of running in the world championship.
 
Hard work paid off and in 2003 he found himself at the wheel of a Ford Focus RS contesting a full 14-round WRC programme. In 2004 he joined the Subaru World Rally Team, moved to a private Ford in 2005 and finally graduated to the BP-Ford line-up for 2006, playing a crucial role in the team's manufacturers' world title success.

After a string of podium finishes during the second half of the season, Hirvonen claimed his maiden WRC victory in Australia.
 
In 2007, Hirvonen added victories in Norway, Japan and Great Britain as he finished third in the drivers' championship. Last year he mounted a sustained challenge but victories in Jordan, Turkey and Japan weren't quite enough and he finished runner-up to Loeb.

His surge in form in 2009 has arrived at the right time. Loeb won the first five rounds, Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latavla the next but since then Hirvonen has taken over first place in the standings and three straight round wins.

Now he is preparing his ice-cold nerves for Australia and hoping for another win to bring him closer yet to the World Rally Championship.
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