Fin­nish ace hands Ja­panese brand a huge re­sult early in its WRC re­turn

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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.

Neuville’s night­mare

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 win

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­

Neuville got some nasty deja vu, lead­ing again un­til an ac­ci­dent

Citroen, and Meeke, strug­gled again

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­, LAT

Evans took sixth on DMACKS

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