RALLY MEXICO LATVALA
Jari-matti Latvala finally defeats his championship-leading team-mate Sebastien Ogier TAKES HIS MEXICAN CHANCE
It’s not often driving out from the end of a stage you are flagged down by the rally leader. Jari-matti Latvala was out of his car and looking concerned. It was Sunday morning, the 50-mile Guanajuato stage was in his rearview mirror and there was just the powerstage remaining. And he was starting that one with a minute in hand over everybody.
The bespectacled Finn leaned into the car.
“I made a mistake,” he said, in a typically apologetic Latvala fashion. “When we got to the end of the long stage, the organisers were giving out the T-shirts to the drivers and co-drivers. Miikka [Anttila, co-driver] got one. I thought he had one for me as well, but I was wrong. Could you go back to the stop line and get me one, please?”
The T-shirt was OK, it was red and told the world that you had completed the Guanajuato stage. But it was just a T-shirt.
But that’s Jari-matti. That kind of thing means so much to him; he’s a rally fan first and a professional rally driver second.
Last week in Mexico, he was the consummate professional. And turned in one of his best ever performances. He was fastest pretty much everywhere. Oddly, that wasn’t the point. In his position, running eighth on the road, the Finn was in the perfect place on a surface swept clean of the loose gravel and giving considerably more grip than the man at the front would be enjoying. More of the man at the front later.
In all honesty, if Latvala hadn’t been quickest, he should have been dismissed on the spot.
Speed’s not an issue for Latvala, never has been – how could it be for a man unbeaten in Finland since 2013? Getting to the finish of an event has been. Still is. Dare we say was? Not yet.
But Mexico was a major step forward. He took his time. He didn’t rush himself. He didn’t snatch at seconds. He didn’t take risks. He knew the advantage was all his and he let it come to him in the kind of way that Sebastien Loeb would have done.
Just over 30 seconds up on secondplaced Sebastien Ogier on Friday night, eyebrows were raised. Shouldn’t he have expected more? There was no stress. He had another day in the perfect place to come. Yes, Sunday was all about 50 miles in one hit, but the approach for the road there was a little more about catching monkeys: slowly, slowly.
Predictably, Latvala had a full and detailed explanation, not to mention the usual interesting backstory.
“I remember,” he said, “when I was here in 2012 – the speed was amazing. The first day I was attacking and leading, then I hit the rock and we broke the suspension arm. We managed to get to service, then we attacked some more. Next day we got the puncture and lost 30 seconds. And on the last day, still I tried to attack and I finally I rolled!”
There’s a pause and a smile at the recollection.
“That,” he said, “was not good. But now, I think I am learning. It’s coming more instinctively for me to slow down. I have to stay calm.”
He stayed perfectly calm on the baking stages last week.
Two thirds of the way through Sunday’s Guanajuato marathon, he began to lose the brakes at the rear of his Volkswagen Polo R WRC. Still, calm. He lost 25.3s to Ogier – pretty much what he’d planned and expected to lose, with the secondplaced winner of the first two rounds now right ahead of him on the road. Everything was under control.
For the first time in Mexico and for the first time since Corsica last October, Latvala and Anttila stepped onto the roof of their Polo and celebrated.
“I feel I have turned a bit of a corner here,” he said. “It’s not about 110 per cent all of the time.”
Hush: Was that the sound of a penny dropping?
“It’s so important for me to take this win,” he added. “Now we have something on the board for this year.”
He’s pointless no more.
SS1 Street Stage Guanajuato (0.68 miles) Neuville 59.1s Leader
SS2 Super Special 1 (1.43 miles) Ogier 1m38.9s Leader
SS3 Super Special 2 (1.43 miles) Ogier 1m38.1s Leader
Mexico wreaked absolute havoc on a WRC2 field already short on entries – but in the end Finn Teemu Suninen emerged with his Skoda Fabia R5 intact and 20 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. Suninen had kept his head while those around him lost theirs. Then came back the next day and lost them again.
His fellow Skoda driver Armin Kremer led after Thursday night’s three asphalt stages, but the German’s tenure of the top spot was shortlived. He retired with suspension problems on Friday morning. He returned on Saturday, only to suffer the same fate.
Another Fabia, Peruvian Nicolas Fuchs hit the gravel running on Friday morning and moved to the front of the field, dropping out when he hit turbo and suspension trouble. Fuchs’ Saturday didn’t improve much when his gearbox refused to play ball on the way to the first stage. After half an hour of roadside repairs, he got it working again and went on to set a handful of fastest times through day two. He would finish fourth – and the last of the crews to get to the end without having to return to the rally.
Abdulaziz Al-kuwari made his first appearance of the year with a new car (Fabia R5) and returning co-driver (Killian Duffy). Stopping to change two punctures on Friday kept them out of the running, while ripping a wheel off on Saturday ruined their weekend. As well as being enormously frustrating.
Eventually Polish driver Hubert Ptaszek took second place, despite front differential problems aboard his Peugeot 208 T16 on Saturday afternoon. He had Max Rendina breathing down his neck, comparatively speaking, with just a 92-second gap between second and third places going into the final day.
As he had throughout the rally, Suninen drove perfectly through the final day’s two stages. He said: “We didn’t want to take the risk, we drove in the middle of the road and it worked for us. It has been a tough event, really tough, but we stayed out of trouble.”
Michel Fabre took his second WRC3 win in as many rallies. Of course he did: for the second event in a row, the Frenchman’s DS 3 R3T was the only entry in the class.
4h25m57.4s +1m05.0s +5m36.4s +5m37.9s +6m22.6s +9m59.5s +12m58.5s +14m09.6s +18m01.8s +32m37.3s +44m39.2 +1h09m36.4s accident accident