THE COME­BACK KIDS

NZ Performance Car - - Line Inside -

Toy­ota head­quar­ters would have been the place to be af­ter Rally Swe­den on Fe­bru­ary 12, as the man­u­fac­turer cel­e­brated vic­tory only two ral­lies into the team’s come­back fol­low­ing a 17-year ab­sence from the World Rally Cham­pi­onship (WRC), with Fin­nish driver Jari-Matti Lat­vala at the helm.

The vic­tory marks Lat­vala’s fourth at Rally Swe­den, and his 17th ca­reer vic­tory, and no doubt it will also have been one of his most emo­tional so far — he had faced a sea­son on the side­lines af­ter his Volk­swa­gen team with­drew from the sport at the end of last sea­son, but Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer Toy­ota an­nounced a re­turn to the WRC and quickly signed Lat­vala in a late deal. He went into the fi­nal leg with a close 3.8-sec­ond lead over Ott Tä­nak — long-time leader Thierry Neuville had crashed out the night be­fore. Lat­vala claimed all three snow- and ice-cov­ered speed tests be­hind the wheel of his Yaris World Rally car to ex­tend the mar­gin to 29.2 sec­onds.

Max­i­mum bonus points were picked up on the power stage, and — af­ter tak­ing a sec­ond-place fin­ish at the sea­son-opener, Ral­lye Monte Carlo — he had a four-point lead in the driv­ers’ cham­pi­onship, the first time any driver other than four-time cham­pion Sébastien Ogier has led since Fe­bru­ary 2014.

“It’s amaz­ing. A new team, a new car, our sec­ond rally, and we’re win­ning. I have no words to de­scribe it, I’m so emo­tional. We’re at a good level, but now we go for­ward and it gets more dif­fi­cult. Mex­ico is next up and I’m re­ally mo­ti­vated for the cham­pi­onship,” Lat­vala said.

Tä­nak, driv­ing a Ford Fi­esta, looked to have one-upped the Finn the pre­vi­ous day, but the Es­to­nian claimed to be unhappy with his car’s han­dling on the fi­nal day and con­ceded seven sec­onds as a re­sult, set­tling for a match­ing ca­reer best of sec­ond. Kiwi Hay­den Pad­don was sev­enth be­hind the wheel of his Hyundai i20 coupe.

The new-era WRC cars will face scorch­ing tem­per­a­tures and un­for­giv­ing dirt roads for the first time next month when León hosts round three at Rally Gua­na­ju­ato Mex­ico (March 9–12).

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