TOYOTA PREDICTS EARLY STRUGGLES
Victories will take time for the Finnish-based squad, says boss Makinen
Toyota team principal Tommi Makinen has ruled the Yaris WRC out of potential victories in its maiden season in the World Rally Championship.
The Yaris, which was tested for the first time just seven months ago, will break competitive cover at this month’s Monte Carlo Rally with Jari-matti Latvala and Juho Hanninen driving the team’s first two cars. Toyota test driver Esapekka Lappi is looking at a seven-round programme starting in the spring.
Makinen said: “The target for the  season is to reach the good position during every single rally and to continue to build towards the 2018 season when we will have a full, three-car team to compete for the manufacturers’ championship.”
Makinen said the Toyota’s debut would likely be compromised if the weather stayed dry in the French Alps. The team only began a significant asphalt test programme in October.
“We have concentrated our test more on gravel rallies,” the four-time world champion added, “because most of the championship is on this surface. We have some information on what we need to do next and we will homologate parts to make us even faster [on asphalt], but there will be some compromises in Monte Carlo because of the [shortage of] time.”
Late addition to the team Latvala will lead Toyota’s first return to the WRC since it departed the sport on an ultimately fruitless search for success in Formula 1 in 1999.
The Finn admitted he had feared his dream of being World Rally champion was over when he looked likely to miss out on the Toyota drive he landed late last year. Latvala and his former Volkswagen team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen were set head-to-head for the seat in a Yaris WRC. Following a stellar drive to win Rally Australia and seal third place in the drivers’ championship, the Norwegian looked to have the edge for the seat until Latvala was confirmed late in the day.
Like his new boss Makinen, Latvala has focused his attentions on 2018, feeling the Yaris WRC needs more work this season before he’s able to challenge for Finland’s first crown since Marcus Gronholm in 2002.
Latvala, who has finished second in the race for the drivers’ title three times, said: “My dream is still to win the drivers’ title. A month ago, that dream collapsed [when Volkswagen announced its departure from the WRC]. After that, it was a very stressful period when I didn’t know what was going to happen. When everything came together, I knew I had the chance to fight again – but not necessarily in 2017. The team is committed to the WRC for the next five years and, if I work for it, the opportunity is there for me.”
Latvala’s countryman and teammate Hanninen was delighted when the former VW driver joined Toyota.
“Jari-matti is one of the easiest guys to work with in the WRC,” said Hanninen, “he’s so open and willing to share the information. After his first two days, we have been sharing everything. I cannot imagine anybody easier to work with.”
Hanninen has set his own target of remaining as a full-time WRC driver with Toyota in 2018.
He added: “This year I have a great opportunity, I’m not finishing one event and waiting for the phone call to tell me when and if I will be driving next time.
“I want to be part of this team in 2018 and that’s only up to me to do. I want to make a good result for myself and also for the team next season.”
“The team is committed to WRC” LATVALA “The target is to reach a good position on every rally” MAKINEN
It’s 2017. The one we’ve all been waiting for.
This new category of World Rally Cars has been more than four years in the making. Looking back through my notes, it was early 2013 that I had my first conversation with FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen about what might be possible. What the next generation might be all about.
It was a while after that the FIA revealed that awful picture depicting what a 2017 World Rally Car might look like. Fortunately, none of them do. But it made the point: width and aggression are everything this year.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see all the cars testing and you should rest assured, they’re every bit as quick as we’d hoped they might be. Black lines on dry asphalt will be drawn on demand in Corsica come April.
As for who’s going to win, you can expect a full analysis of the teams and the crews’ chances in the next couple of issues of Motorsport News as the season winds itself up to a Monte Carlo start. But one thing is sure, we have never gone into round one with everything so wide open.
For that, we thank that dodgy diesel engineer who meddled with Volkswagen’s ECUS.
And, of course, we start the season with two British drivers and one Irishman right at the front of the field. It’s been a long time since we had so much homegrown interest and potential on a global scale.
And anybody who remains unconvinced of the opportunity presenting itself to Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle this season should think again. It’s massive and it’s right there in front of them; almost, but not quite there for the taking.
At the pair’s pre-monte test, a French colleague proffered the opinion that given Sebastien Ogier’s late arrival in Cumbria, Meeke actually starts the season as favourite.
KM was as succinct as ever in his single-world response to that theory. “Bullsh*t.” We’ll see. It’s not just the world championship that’s in for a fascinating season either – the British Rally Championship pulled off a phoenix-like recovery last year. This time around, it’s that tricky second album for the reborn, coming back Brit-poppers.
The series starts without its champion (and for that we have to be thankful – Evans fully deserves a full-time job going around the world in a rally car) and that will undoubtedly present a golden opportunity for other crews.
As my colleague Jack Benyon pointed out last season, the events are the area of most concern for the series organisers. And, unfortunately for them, they’re the area they’re likely to have the least influence.
The arrival of Ypres will raise the BRC bar this season and those falling short must be cut loose if the series is to build a reputation and return itself to its rightful spot as Europe’s premier rally championship.
We have a fascinating season ahead, starting with Autosport International in Birmingham next week. If you’re there, come and say hello.
Latvala will spearhead Yaris assault on WRC