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Cardiff braces for WRC finale

CARDIFF, October 22 – Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb square up for the 2009 world drivers title at the season-ending Rally of Britain starting on Friday.SEBASTIAN_LOEB_The stage is set for fireworks in Wales as Ford Focus ace Hirvonen goes all out to hold off rallying’s equivalent of Formula One’s Michael Schumacher and clinch his first title.

Loeb, seeking an unprecedented sixth straight championship, moved to within a point of Hirvonen with victory in Catalunya at the start of the month.

And the Finn, a winner of the Rally of Britain in 2007, predicted: "This is going to be some rally.

"I’m looking forward to it. I’m waiting for that fight – it’s going to be a fantastic weekend."

The 29-year-old then added, with masterful understatement: "It might be a bit exciting."

Hirvonen, who saw the six-year older Loeb cut his lead by four points in Catalunya, reckoned there would be very little between the pair in Wales.

"Our chances are equal. Sebastien has been in this situation many times and has won five world titles.

"It’s new for me, so I have a different perspective."

In an interview on his homepage Hirvonen spoke about his affection for the privately-owned narrow gravel tracks of mid and south Wales usually used by lorries transporting timber.

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"Although I’ve won there before, this rally hasn’t always been kind to me, but I do enjoy the roads in Wales and know them well.

"They’re fast and flowing, even quicker than my home event in Finland in places. If I had to choose a rally on which to fight for the title then Finland would be my first choice. But Britain would be second on the list.

"I love driving there and the roads really suit me. At this time of year they won’t be covered in ice or snow, so they should be perfect.

Hirvonen tuned up for the title showdown by getting behind the wheel of the safety car in the Cambrian Rally, a Rally of Britain warm-up, in Llandudno, Wales, last weekend.

"Driving on the Cambrian Rally in a competitive environment will improve my familiarity with the nature of the Welsh forests. It will be the perfect way to ready myself for what should be a thrilling final round,"

Taking control of the safety car gave Hirvonen the added benefit of playing a ‘sweeping’ role being the first car on the road – which he will have as championship leader on Friday.

Ford team director Malcolm Wilson added: "Mikko’s role as safety car means he will drive at competitive speeds. It will be the ideal way for him to focus on the week ahead, which will be the most important few days of his rally career."

That Hirvonen finds himself with a one point lead going into this Cardiff conclusion to the 2009 season is fairly remarkable considering he was lagging 20 points behind Loeb after the first five legs of the 2009 season.

Loeb, successful here 12 months ago, meanwhile has a clear and simple strategy for the coming weekend.

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"In Great Britain, we just need to get ahead of Hirvonen and not worry about the other drivers," said the Frenchman as he prepares to create history – not even F1 legend Schumacher was up to winning six consecutive titles.

Loeb, who came off second best the last time he went into a season-ending title showdown, against Petter Solberg in 2003, added: "We are close to the same level on gravel and have the same chances."

In finishing one-two in Catalunya last time out Loeb – who has won six rallies this season – and Spaniard Dani Sordo assured the constructors world title for Citroen.

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