Mikko Hirvonen knows how it feels to miss out.
Four times a runner-up in the World Rally Championship – every time to Sébastien Loeb – it’s 2009 that will haunt Hirvonen the most.
What if that hood pin hadn’t come loose over that penultimate stage jump? The Ford driver was closing in fast on Loeb’s leading Citroën. Beat Loeb, and it would have been Hirvonen – not Kalle Rovanperä – that became Finland’s first World Rally champion since Marcus Grönholm.
But that feeling of wondering what might have been has continued in Mikko’s post-WRC life too.
Thankfully, this time around, he gets to settle that score. Next year, at long last, he will start New Zealand’s Otago Rally.
“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to come to Dunedin. Being able to compete at the Otago Rally is something I’ve had on my list for a while now, and until now, we’ve failed to make it happen,” Hirvonen explained.
His first appearance was supposed to fall all the way back in 2016, but a late scheduling clash meant Hirvonen couldn’t make it and instead his seat in the Rossendale Ford Escort was taken by fellow ex Ford factory driver Markko Märtin.
Then, in 2020, coronavirus decided to thwart Hirvonen’s plan for a second time. He couldn’t fly from Finland, and there’d have been no rally to take part in anyway even if he could.
“It will be great to get to grips with the famous Ford Escort RS1800 that so many have driven and to experience all that the event has to offer,” Hirvonen said.
“I’ve seen plenty of videos from the rally and the roads are amazing, and I’m looking forward to getting down there. I am excited to also visit this beautiful area and mixing it with the local competitors.”
Hirvonen has driven in New Zealand seven times before his career, but each time in a four-wheel-drive World Rally Car and never on the south island where Otago Rally is based.
His best finish was second – claimed twice (2006, 2012) – but he has no intentions of finishing there next year.
“For sure, I will be aiming to win,” Hirvonen promised, “but I’ll be making the most of the experience and having fun at the same time!”
Event spokesperson Roger Oakley added: “It will be great to have a world-class international driver back on our beautiful Otago roads.”
“Mikko’s entry is a welcome one, and we’re glad we can finally welcome him to Dunedin.
“The fans that gather in the Otago region for the rally will get to witness a world-class driver and a man who is popular the world over.
“There have been almost 100 teams that have already registered their interest in the event, so we’re looking forward to another large field competing.”
Hirvonen will join a long list of WRC winners that have competed on the event, including world champions Björn Waldegård, Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol and Miki Biasion as well as Michèle Mouton, Mads Østberg and Hayden Paddon.
Otago Rally is held between March 31-April 2.