Toyota boss pre­dicts bat­tle to con­tinue through­out 2017

Motor Sport News - - Headline News - By David Evans

This year’s World Rally Cham­pi­onship can be one of the most open and en­ter­tain­ing in the se­ries’ his­tory, ac­cord­ing to the WRC’S lead­ing team prin­ci­pals.

The first two rounds have shown how close the com­pe­ti­tion will be with M-sport’s Ford Fi­esta WRC win­ning in Monte Carlo and Toyota’s Yaris WRC tak­ing the lau­rels in Swe­den. Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC has, how­ever, been the fastest driver of the season so far with 12 fastest times – dou­ble the num­ber of any­body else. The Bel­gian has also led for 23 stages so far in 2017. Jari-Matti Lat­vala is sec­ond, with the Finn out front for six. Round one win­ner Se­bastien Ogier didn’t lead in Swe­den, but was P1 on round one for five of the French Alps tests.

“The cars are very close to­gether,” Toyota Ga­zoo Rac­ing team prin­ci­pal Tommi Makinen told Mo­tor­sport News. “This is a very, very good sit­u­a­tion for the cham­pi­onship, we need to have this kind of close com­pe­ti­tion. If you look at the teams, it’s good for Se­bastien Ogier and Ott [Tanak] to be in the Ford. For me this is so in­ter­est­ing to have so many driv­ers fight­ing in so many cars; what could be bet­ter?”

Those sen­ti­ments were echoed by Makinen’s op­po­site num­ber at M-sport, Mal­colm Wil­son, who said: “This is the clos­est I have ever known the com­pe­ti­tion since I have been run­ning the team. Given the new tech­ni­cal reg­u­la­tions for this year, it’s in­cred­i­ble to see just how close the cars are. Ev­ery one of the four man­u­fac­tur­ers is so evenly matched right now. I think we can def­i­nitely say that we are in for one heck of an ex­cit­ing season in 2017.”

Citroen is the team that is cur­rently slow­est, with only one fastest time – cour­tesy of Stephane Le­feb­vre in Monte Carlo – and no stages led. Wil­son warned of writ­ing the French man­u­fac­turer off.

“I think it’s fair to say every­body ex­pected Citroen to be right there among the strong­est, if not the strong­est,” said Wil­son. “They had taken the year off to con­cen­trate on de­vel­op­ment, but lis­ten, they will be back. Make no mis­take about that.”

De­spite lead­ing for the most num­ber of stages, Neuville has crashed out of the lead on the first two ral­lies. He and his co-driver Ni­co­las Gil­soul are de­ter­mined to bounce back at next month’s Rally Mex­ico. Gil­soul said: “We’re deeply dis­ap­pointed, ob­vi­ously. Dis­ap­pointed for our­selves, for our fans, but es­pe­cially for the team, who did an amaz­ing job. We owe you a re­venge and we are de­ter­mined to take it start­ing from the next rally. In the mean­time, I think this is the right mo­ment for me to open a quote book: ‘It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.’”

With icy as­phalt and snow out of the way, the teams are all turn­ing their at­ten­tion to gravel test­ing this week, with Spain the lo­ca­tion for most of the cars. Next month’s Leon-based event will be the first of nine gravel ral­lies this season. Who­ever can make their car work best on the loose will have a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage as the season rolls for­ward.

Makinen ac­knowl­edged there was work to do for Toyota, say­ing: “In the twisty cor­ners, the en­gine is push­ing on a lit­tle bit. This isn’t a mas­sive thing and we started test­ing some new map­ping and en­gine soft­ware on Juho’s [Han­ni­nen’s] car in Swe­den. When you are lift­ing from the throt­tle, it’s not re­leas­ing im­me­di­ately.”

The Toyota isn’t quite as po­tent as some of its com­peti­tors at lower revs, which has forced the team to run a more ag­gres­sive anti-lag strat­egy. Makinen ad­mit­ted this could be linked to the prob­lem.

Rally Swe­den win­ner Lat­vala is also keen to work on dif­fer­en­tial set­tings – in­clud­ing the front pre-load as well as cen­tre ‘diff maps – in more rut­ted con­di­tions.

“I was strug­gling in the ruts in Swe­den,” Lat­vala told MN, “it was quite frus­trat­ing. When we had nice ice on the fi­nal day, it was no prob­lem – we were fastest.”

Next month’s Rally Mex­ico will be a stern test for Toyota. Not only are the stages the rough­est its Yaris WRC will have com­peted on, but the Fin­nish-based team could also suf­fer from its lack of high al­ti­tude and high tem­per­a­ture test­ing.

Photos: mck­lein-im­age­

Neuville has led twice, and also crashed out twice too

Toyota has sur­passed its ex­pec­ta­tions al­ready

M-sport has proven fast, and has a win with Ogier

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