HOW LATVALA LED TOYOTA BACK TO GLORY IN SWEDEN
Finnish ace hands Japanese brand a huge result early in its WRC return
The telephone rang. A +358 prefix in the middle of last year meant only one thing: more drama in the ongoing soap opera that had become Toyota’s return to the World Rally Championship.
This time? Another engineer had walked out? No. Not quite.
“It’s not a Yaris.” What? “It’s not a Yaris. It’s the new crossover thing.” What, the C-HR?
Another nonsensical call delivered more madness. Very little seemed to make sense for a very long time as far as Toyota’s new Puuppola base was concerned.
And then we got to the launch in December and Jari-matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila rocked up in jeans and sweatshirts. They’d dashed direct from the airport, having jetted in from the latest test.
By this point, eyebrows were no longer being raised. Instead there was a growing sense of sympathy at the humiliation awaiting the woken giant on the Monte Carlo season opener just a few weeks down the line.
Then Latvala lucked into a podium on round one. The service park offered a collected, benevolent pat on the head. That was a nice touch. But fortune had favoured the Finns.
Sweden would be different. Just wait and see. This allegedly flawed programme would be blown apart in the snow. Shows what anybody in the service park knows.
Last Sunday afternoon, with the sun high in the sky and the temperature heading south of minus five, the good and the great of the service park gathered to say sorry to team boss Tommi Makinen and his Toyota Gazoo Racing colleagues.
A big screen was showing all the action from the powerstage and, soon enough, Toyota’s first World Rally Championship win since Didier Auriol, and a Corolla in China.
Disbelief gave way to delight at what was a dream result for Latvala and the Yaris WRC. The winner arrived on the podium through a cloud of dry ice with the car in stage mode, popping, banging and loud as you like.
But still the cheers drowned out the engine note.
This most popular of wins meant the rabbits could finally avert their eyes from the headlights. Toyota’s return is now complete.
And Latvala has joined the Japanese giant back at the top.
The final day belonged entirely to Toyota, but the Yaris had been shaded through Friday and Saturday by another spellbinding drive from Thierry Neuville.
Where was the Hyundai driver pulling these performances from? Just like through the mountains on round one, the Belgian was simply superb in the speed and ease with which he moved to the front and stayed there.
If there was a bit of a tussle with Sebastien Ogier on round one, nobody could touch him last week. To lift a line from Ari and his beloved RS1800, Hyundai has supplied Neuville with a glove for his hand.
Two years ago in Sweden, Neuville was at the top of his game and came within an ace of winning the event in an i20 that was no match for Volkswagen’s Polo.
The intervening 24 months have taken Thierry as low as a driver can possibly go. But his Monte speed brought redemption, even if it didn’t deliver the points it promised.
For two days in Sweden, Neuville was making good again. He walked away with this rally on Friday – an exceptional time on the second run through Svullyra where he quadrupled his advantage to a 24-second lead being a particular highlight – and controlled it beautifully through Saturday’s forest stages.
Forty-three seconds up and with just a mile and a bit of trotting track, a brace of Likenas stages and a second shot at Torsby, he has this rally in the palm of his hand. Then he dropped it. Turning into a left-hander, he ran the i20 too close to a barrier made out of truck tyres. His studded left-front made contact and, with a degree of steering lock on, the force ripped the wheel open and tore steering arm from its socket.
The crowd was silenced to the extent that you could almost hear the reaction from inside.
“This can’t be happening!” yelled Neuville. He’d woken from his Monte nightmare only to fall asleep and dream an even more impossibly unpleasant dream.
Hours later and after a chastening walk of shame into the Hyundai service park, Neuville’s take on the matter was interesting: “It would be frustrating if I did a mistake and destroyed the car, but I was doing the perfect job and Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver] as well. We can’t blame ourselves, we were missing some luck. Even if this is another mistake, you can see from the images that we were not pushing too hard.
“We had spent all Saturday with a deliberate strategy to take things steady and to stay in control of the rally. We didn’t want a repeat of Monte, but that’s exactly what we got. I am so disappointed for the team, for Nicolas, and myself, but we have to put it quickly behind us.”
Team principal Michel Nandan wasn’t nearly so pragmatic. “I can understand this kind of thing on an event like the Monte,” he said. “But not on a stage like this. These things shouldn’t happen in a superspecial stage when you are 43 seconds in the lead.”
Neuville’s quotes prompted fascinating insight via a text message from a former world rally champion. The message read: “If you put something down to luck, you’ll do it again. If you take responsibility, you’ll learn and do something about it. Champions take responsibility, almosts blame anything they can.”
You wouldn’t have found many arguing with such sentiment on Saturday night. Neuville aside, obviously. The accident was stupid and unnecessary. And now the world awaits Mexico next month with even more interest. Can Neuville finish the job he’s twice started or will he bag the most horrible of hat-tricks on the season’s first showing on gravel?
Having heaped praise on Neuville for his pace through the first two days, it’s worth remembering he was running in the most favourable conditions on both days. But still, he had the speed and – for the most part – the absolute composure to win this rally.
Looking at Hyundai’s bigger picture, the Koreans look like they might have just edged M-sport’s Ford Fiestas in terms of speed from rounds one and two (remembering the caveat that it’s still far too early to judge anything…). Dani Sordo was his usual supremely consistent self to collect more points for fourth and Hayden Paddon returned from a genuine Monte nightmare with some strong times, and a typically and expected strong attitude too.
Make no mistake, once Neuville finds the finish as well as his form, Hyundai makes the strongest possible case for the manufacturers’ silverware this season.
Latvala’s Sunday drive
On hearing of his rival’s downfall, Latvala’s first thoughts were of a possible win. But, being the lovely fella he is, his second thoughts were for Neuville.
“You remember,” he said, “I have been there as well…”
An ever-so-slightly vacant look appeared in Latvala’s eyes as he was taken back to the nightmare of Poland, 2009 – a mistake that almost cost him his career. He kept his seat, but lost his mind for more than a while afterwards.
Such thoughts and memories were kicked into touch. Just after six on Sunday morning and Latvala was a bundle of energy. Up on his toes, bouncing. It was minus 12, but he was jacket-less as he stepped towards the car. Senses had been numbed by the greatness of the occasion.
Did he sleep? “I have been here before,” he smiled, “I’m not so young boy anymore. Of course I slept.”
The response was the same from the ice-cool Ott Tanak, whose sole aim was to lift 3.9 seconds from the only man ahead of him and his Fiesta WRC.
This one was impossible to call. On the faster, icier stages of Saturday morning, Tanak had been unbeatable. Privately, Latvala feared more of the same with three to go.
The leader was over the moon with the conditions: solid ice. If there’s one thing JML likes it’s plenty of grip at the front when he’s slowing the car down – he’s among the most aggressive on the brakes and he feeds off the feel fed back from the front on turn in.
From the first corner, this deal was done. Latvala loved it. Full of confidence, he took more and more
out of his rival: seven seconds on first run at the 13-mile Likenas stage, nine on the next. With only the powerstage to run, he had built up a second advantage. And then for the icing on the cake: hat-trick. Fastest on the powerstage. a la Ogier. Perfect. was lost last year,” said the winner. was going in circles.” Now? He’s found. Did Volkswagen kill him with kindness? Perhaps. The all-enveloping around him ensured there was a shoulder to cry on, but Makinen’s more route-one guidance looks to struck a chord. Out spectating, Makinen could see man hesitating in some sections. took him to one side. The car,” Latvala told his boss, feels a little bit nervous.” No,” came the response. “It’s you that’s nervous. Don’t be.”
Predictably, Latvala has a theory on the Makinen management style: “The difference between [former VW boss] Jost [Capito] and Tommi is that Tommi was driving not so long ago and as a rally driver he has won four titles. He knows exactly what goes through your mind when you are fighting for the victory or when you are frustrated. He has been able to jump in my shoes and help me get my feeling.”
What were the words of wisdom? “He told me to drop my shoulders and drive.”
Asking Makinen about this in the hours that followed the finish in Sweden, he grinned.
“It’s true,” he said. “I told him to go to the car and enjoy it. I told him to enjoy his work.”
Moving on, Makinen paid tribute to his team and then paused. He knew the debt of gratitude he owed to Latvala. Before Volkswagen’s decision to walk away from the WRC, he was staring at a team led by Juho Hanninen – a likeable Finn, but one who has, nonetheless, stuck his Yaris in the trees for the second event in succession.
“Without Jari-matti we couldn’t do this,” he said. “Very clearly I want to say, he was the strongest man in the world this weekend. He has… sisu.”
There was no denying Latvala’s inner strength. He looked confident, walked tall and controlled proceedings perfectly.
New dawn or false dawn? Only time will tell, but it’s more than fair to say the former would definitely be favourable for one of the sport’s most popular drivers.
A man with a plan
If Tanak couldn’t take Latvala, there was a school of thought that insisted his M-sport team-mate Ogier would. This one had the Frenchman’s name written all over it in what would be a repeat of his heroic victory on these very roads two years ago.
Certainly Ogier was fired up for it. He fancied a shot and the 16 seconds separating him from the front was nothing in comparison to the mountains he’s climbed on some Sundays.
Incredibly, his challenge lasted 50 metres into the first stage. “I tried to take too much in the first corner,” he said. “I took the snowbank on the inside and I spun, then I stalled. It was stupid, probably the most stupid spin ever.”
As championship leader and first on the road, he had suffered on Friday, but throughout the event, he genuinely had the look of a man with a plan. Ogier’s never going to be happy if he’s not winning, his DNA simply won’t allow it, but he and co-driver Julien Ingrassia have come to this season with a slightly different mindset.
Winning remains the ultimate target, but the late move to M-sport and an early season lack of familiarity inside and outside of the car means they have to be clever.
Having shown a cheetah’s speed for years, a more fox-like approach was found in his decision to throttle back in the powerstage in an effort to allow Latvala the lead of the championship and the ‘honour’ of running first on the road next time out in Mexico.
While Ogier slipped from the top of the World Rally Championship table for the first time in three years, the consolation was that M-sport stood firm as leading manufacturer. And, even better, on the stage where power told its own story, the Fiestas were one-two.
Further down the order, the DMACK-SHOD Ford of Elfyn Evans struggled to keep pace with its Michelin rivals, but still there were split and stage times to cheer the Welshman’s mood.
There wasn’t much cheer to be found at Citroen. Pre-season the French firm was considered the returning force to be reckoned with, but so far it’s Toyota that’s shown it’s good to be back. ■
Latvala kept his cool to snatch Toyota’s victory
Tanak’s pace was impressive again
LATVALA Latvala kept the Fords at bay over tight final day to secure winPhotos: mcklein-imagedatabase.com
Neuville got some nasty deja vu, leading again until an accident
Citroen, and Meeke, struggled againPhotos: mcklein-imagedatabase.com, LAT
Evans took sixth on DMACKS