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FEATURE - PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 12TH 2009
WRC: Five of the best
Imagine the thrill of grabbing hold of a car and throwing it round some of the most iconic and awe-inspiring roads in the World Rally Championship. That image could become reality as Autosport magazine took five rallying aces to their favourite stages in the world that you can drive yourself.

Now, autosport.com brings you the video footage from their spellbinding ride, and each driver's account of his exploits, serialised from today.


  By David Evans
 
 

First up it's Mikko Hirvonen's guide to the Great Orme road in Wales…

Mikko Hirvonen is on a roll. The lead driver of the Ford World Rally Team is powering his Focus Zetec-S along Great Orme with a grin on his face that even today's wet and windswept weather cannot shift.

"It's been a while since I last drove this road – and that was flat out under competition conditions," grins Hirvonen. "Now I can actually take in the fantastic scenery around me and really enjoy the car, the road and the drive."

The headlands of Great Orme and Little Orme in North Wales create a protected swathe of coastline that's as breathtaking as any in Britain. A designated Heritage Coast, complete with stunning geology and breathtaking landscapes, it's also home to the picture-perfect town of Llandudno. With its historic pier, fine Victorian architecture and famous gardens – not to mention the castles and historic manor houses that surround it – it's no surprise that Llandudno is Wales's favourite holiday resort.

The road that follows the jutting Great Orme peninsula is a sinewy, serpentine stretch, punctuated with blind crests, tightening corners and challenging cambers. Drive up this cliff-hugging route and there's nothing but a small rock wall to separate you from the churning sea hundreds of feet below on the right. It's a four-mile white-knuckled ride where the slightest misjudgement could end in disaster.

But it is more than just a superb road with a jaw-droppingly beautiful scenic backdrop. It was one of the few public roads in the UK used in the World Rally Championships, making it even more of a challenge for hard-charging drivers as they switched from the slippery stages in the Cambrian forests nearby to its grippy and narrow surface. It's stunning setting, demanding route and fine spectator viewing points have made it one of the most revered stages in modern rallying.

The last time Hirvonen drove this snaking strip of blacktop was in 2001, and although he's driven on hundreds of other stages in dozens of different countries since then, the road is instantly familiar to him.

"I can remember certain parts of it with real clarity," he says within a few hundred yards of setting off. "I remember roads like some people remember photographs or people's faces."

Relaxed and languid behind the wheel, Hirvonen gives a running commentary, his eyes picking up numerous points – a slight narrowing in the road, a pool of sitting water, a repaired patch of road that might be more slippery than expected and an off-camber corner – that his brain instantly processes to keep the Focus flowing along the road with smooth and precise inputs. It's a masterclass in driving technique.

While most drivers would get more than a little dry-mouthed at the thought of carving a 300bhp Focus rally car along such a treacherous route, Hirvonen positively thrives on the rush. Whether it's rocketing his Focus WRC car along the tight alpine roads on the Monte Carlo Rally or flying over the gravel stages of his homeland in Finland, Hirvonen never worries about the potential danger behind every corner.

"I never get scared," he says. "I may be driving along roads with sheer cliffs on one side – like Great Orme – or racing along narrow forest tracks with trees only inches from the car, but I never really think about that. I'm so pumped up on adrenalin that all I focus on is the road ahead and what my co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen is telling me. Nothing else matters except getting to the end of the stage quicker than anyone else."

Hirvonen knows all about going fast. Since winning the Finnish Formula 2 title in 2002, the 28 year-old Finn has impressed with his speed and consistency – arguably the two key attributes of any rally ace. And it's his ability to consistently rack up the points that helped Ford to take the manufacturers' title in 2006 and 2007 – and push hard in 2008.

Hirvonen spends much of each year travelling the world on the gruelling WRC circuit, so the last thing he wants when he has a break from racing and testing is to get on another plane for a family break. But he might well make an exception for North Wales.

"It's such a beautiful spot here. It has wonderful scenery, a real sense of history and I remember from my last visit that the people here are very friendly. And don't forget – you have great rally roads like Great Orme thrown into the package, so it's the ideal destination for keen drivers and their families!"

Tomorrow, look out for Jimmy McRae's favourite stage.

  FEATURES FROM FEB 12, 2009 - FEB 18, 2009
WRC: Five of the best
By David Evans
Williams: On the comeback trail
By Adam Cooper
Petter Solberg: Mud, sweat and tears
By Petter Solberg
WRC: Five of the best stages - #2 Lough Gill
By David Evans
WRC: Five of the best stages - #3 Montalcino
By David Evans
WRC: Five of the best stages - #4 Col de Turini
By David Evans
Dodgy Business: Answers in the offing
By Tony Dodgins
Technical analysis: Testing round up
By Craig Scarborough
The Weekly Grapevine
By Dieter Rencken
Sebastien Buemi: Rookie resolve
By Edd Straw
Time to deliver for Nelson Piquet
By Mark Hughes
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  ABOUT DAVID EVANS
David Evans is the rallies editor of AUTOSPORT. A successful rally driving father ensured an early introduction to motorsport and, fascinated as he was by rallying, the fourth estate was of equal interest. Having read (or at least looked at the pictures) from the age of two, he joined Motoring News in 1996 and later moved to AUTOSPORT in 2002.
Contact David Evans
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