LAUNCH 2017 WEAPON First WRC Toyota for 2017 is launched with Latvala onboard
Toyota’s first World Rally Car in 17 years was revealed in Finland earlier this week – and as expected Jari-matti Latvala will lead the Japanese giant’s return.
Latvala signed to drive for Toyota last week and began testing the Yaris WRC immediately. Latvala will be joined in the Puuppola-based squad by Juho Hanninen, the man responsible for much of the car’s test and development running.
Reigning WRC2 champion Esapekka Lappi was confirmed as Toyota’s test driver, ensuring an all-finnish driver line up for 2017.
Latvala talked of his historical links with the Japanese carmaker, saying: “I started my rally career in a Toyota Corolla GT back in 2001 and my first competitive outing in a World Rally Car was behind the wheel of a Corolla WRC in 2003 in Estonia. So in many ways, it feels like I’m coming home! I’m really happy to join the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC team from the very start and lead this new adventure with them. I feel lucky to be part of this story and I hope we will amass a lot of victories in it.”
The 31-year-old, who has won 16 rounds of the world championship, was facing a bleak future without last week’s deal. The Volkswagen refugee admitted to MN he’d feared he could end up without a seat next season.
He said: “If you had asked me one week ago, I would have said it was looking unlikely that I would be on the start line in Monte Carlo. I am very happy to be here.”
Latvala and Hanninen will start every round in a Yaris WRC next season, with Lappi running alongside them on a selected programme of events from the spring onwards.
Toyota CEO and president Akio Toyoda spoke of his pride at Toyota’s return to the championship for the first time since 1999 and his determination to make it a winning return.
Toyoda said: “When I attended the WRC in Finland in July 2014 as a spectator, many fans asked when Toyota would be returning to the rally. Six months later, we decided to return to WRC, and it is my great pleasure to present the car to compete in WRC, with our team members who have prepared for it and the partners who have supported us in that effort.”
Toyoda experienced the Yaris WRC in its latest form earlier this month with team principal Tommi Makinen driving. His ride alongside the four-time world champion has instilled more confidence ahead of the 2017 season.
“The other day I had the pleasure of sitting in the driver’s seat of our Yaris WRC and driving the car a few miles with Tommi,” added Toyoda. “Perceiving the car’s sound and smell, the feel of the steering wheel and pedals, and, more than anything else, the look on Tommi’s face, I was able to share with him a feeling of confidence in our ability to compete with this car.”
As Toyota enters its final month of preparation for next season, Toyoda said the determination remained the same as ever. He added: “We will be doing our very best throughout this final month, right up until the WRC begins, so that we can –as quickly as possible – assure long-time fans that Toyota is back as the king of this kind of event.
“As I said after this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, Toyota Gazoo Racing hates to lose. Rest assured that the same attitude applies to WRC.”
Makinen admitted there was still more to come from the Yaris WRC, with the early development focus being on building in some reliability.
“The Yaris WRC is a well-designed car with incredible potential,” he said. “The new regulations allow for much greater freedom in terms of development. Although we have yet to explore all the possibilities, we can say that the car is reliable and quick. I really can’t wait to see the results in racing conditions.”
The World Rally Championship has a problem. In the next 18 months to two years, most of the drivers in the World Rally Championship will have an even bigger problem. He’s called Kalle. Kalle Rovanpera. The WRC’S problem right now is that it doesn’t have anywhere to put him. He only turned 16 a couple of months ago. But he’s already won the Latvian Rally Championship, tested Toyota’s Yaris WRC and finished second at the Bettega Memorial – his maiden competition in a World Rally Car. Rallying has found its Max Verstappen. Rovanpera’s been on the radar for some time now, not least after a puncture cost him the chance of beating Pontus Tidemand on Lithuania’s Rally Zemaitija in the summer.
His speed on gravel is beyond question. But what about asphalt? It doesn’t really matter, he’s got time on his side… But it looks like he’s got Tarmac fairly well figured out as well, fourth in class on his Monza Rally debut last month and then Bologna.
Granted, last weekend is very much a compromised set-up with a part-gravel, part asphalt stage, but it was the patience and precision that impressed as much as the speed and the bravery.
With very little running time in a private Ford Fiesta RS WRC, Rovanpera jumped in the car and was immediately on the pace. He finished third in Saturday’s Trofeo Pucci Night Sprint, losing out to Elfyn Evans in the semi-final. A day on and he faced this year’s Rally Italy winner Thierry Neuville in the semi-final of the main event. Neuville blinked, rolled his Hyundai and Kalle cruised into the final.
Run over four races, Evans’ DMACK Fiesta won the first by half a second. The next one was closer, the Finn missing out by 0.08s after fluffing the hairpin.
Race three? A Rovanpera win by 0.3s. The final race was a stunner, ending in victory for Evans by 0.05s.
Evans must have been breathing a huge sigh of relief as he spun his Fiesta after the finish line. Not to be outdone, Rovanpera sent his Ford into a set of celebratory donuts.
“I remember talking to Pontus about him,” Evans said after the event, “Pontus had said just how quick he was – he almost beat him on a rally…”
Given his dad’s close links with Finnish manager Timo Jouhki, it’s highly likely Junior’s future is already under lock and key.
Unfortunately for him, his home stages in Finland will remain off limits for another year. Rally GB next year would be a go-er though… Fellow Finn JariMatti Latvala remains the WRC’S youngest ever winner at 22 years and 313 days (Swedish Rally, 2008). Championship-wise, nobody’s beaten Colin Mcrae’s record of taking the title at 27 years, 109 days.
Both of those records look likely to be rewritten in the coming years.