VERY few – among them the man himself – expected the new combination of the mercurial Jari Matti Latvala and the still-developing works Toyota Yaris would be a stunning World Rally Championship winner so soon into 2017.
But Latvala seized his chances after early Rally Sweden dominator Thierry Neuville inexplicably crashed out of a handy lead on the last stage of the day on Saturday.
Latvala’s victory was his 17th in the WRC and perhaps his most emotional and satisfying.
Consider his awful 2016 when he was psychologically whipped into the metaphoric foetal position by rampant VW teammate Sébastien Ogier. He then faced the prospect of a year spectating after VW withdrew from the sport at the end of last season, finally picking up a drive with the returning Toyota in a late deal (after Ogier had tested the new Toyota Yaris in November and rejected an offer from the Japanese manufacturer).
Latvala subsequently took second to Ogier in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta in the season opener in Monte Carlo but the encouraging result had been helped by some attrition.
Now, Jari Matti Latvala is a winner again. And after a 17-year absence from the FIA World Rally Championship, Toyota is back on the top step of the podium, remarkably just two rallies into its return and likely just as surprised as some of more fancied rivals.
Hyundai, in particular, will be asking its drivers why it has such poor results when its i20 is, on most evidence, the fastest car in the 2017 WRC.
With Neuville crashing the previous evening during the short special stage at the Karlstad trotting track, Latvala started the final leg with a slender 3.8sec lead over M-Sport’s Ott Tänak.
The Estonian was expected to really challenge J-ML, who has been known to doubt himself under pressure.
Instead, the Toyota driver won all three of Sunday’s snow and ice-covered speed tests in his Yaris World Rally Car to extend the margin to 29.2sec.
Such was Latvala’s confidence that he whipped old nemesis Sébastien Ogier and the re-joining Neuville on the final Power Stage to claim five maximum bonus points.
There was little actual snowfall during Rally Sweden but, having had to cancel eight of the scheduled 21 stages in 2016 due to a lack of snow, the organisers had taken steps to move their event further north this year. The studded treaded tyres used on the event handled the extra power and downforce of the latest cars, drivers saying the 2017 cars are nicer to drive and more forgiving.
Latvala now holds a four-point advantage over Ogier in the overall drivers’ standings. It is the first time any driver other than four-time champion Ogier has led the championship since February 2014.
It was also the first Toyota win of this century, the last being in China in 1999.
“It’s amazing,” exclaimed the delighted Latvala, always a man never to hide his thoughts and feelings. “A new team, a new car, our second rally and we’re winning. I have no words to describe it, I’m so emotional.
“We’re at a good level but now we go forward and it gets more difficult. Mexico is next up and I’m really motivated for the championship,” J-M L said.
Tänak had the upper hand on Latvala on Saturday when he closed in and looks set to pounce. Then with his Fiesta not handling to his liking and after dropping seven seconds in the opening special stage, the improving Estonian settled for second, matching his career-best result.
Teammate Ogier was also in the victory fight but a spin in the first corner of the opening test ended his hopes and he finished 30.3sec behind Tänak.
Dani Sordo was the top Hyundai finisher in fourth following Neuville’s shunt. The Spaniard finished 39.7sec ahead of Craig Breen, who struggled to refine his Citroën C3’s set-up but banked good points from a solid debut in the car.
Kiwi Hayden Paddon was seventh in another i20, but still struggling to learn his way on snow and ice. He also lost his power steering on Saturday, comparing driving the car to “wrestling a 400-pound lion” . He’ll be more at home when the new-era World Rally Cars take on the challenge of high temperatures and rough and rock dirt roads at Rally Guanajuato Mexico, March 9-12.
That will be the next big serious test for the new Yaris And the reborn Latvala.
FIA World Rally Championship points after two rounds of 13: 1. J-M Latvala 48; 2. S Ogier 44; 3. O Tänak 33.
Bathurst Six Hour entry nears capacity
Production-based motor sport continues to show impressive competitor support with, at last count, 67 cars locked and loaded for the Hi-Tec Oils Bathurst Six Hour this Easter.
The entry list is just five from its 72-car capacity, reminding us of the huge fields the Bathurst 1000 attracted back in the good old days.
A capacity grid is now expected with the race on amongst would-be entrants to secure a start.
Though only into its second year, a full grid is now likely on Easter Sunday.
“We have more entry forms in front of us than grid positions so it is up to the next five cars to commit and the grid will be full,” said event director James O’Brien.
Unlike the Bathurst 12 Hour where the emphasis is on exotic GT poster cars, the Six Hour race is for more mainstream brands and affordable models.
There is depth in every class throughout the field. However, the 22 cars in the Extreme Performance/Forced Induction Class A are set to do battle up front.
Entries from Mitsubishi, Audi, Ford, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Holden/HSV in class A and B underline the depth of the outright fight.
Two all-new Ford Focus RS entries have been received, including one from defending race winners Morcom Motorsport and a new entry from Keltic Racing – the banner under which race-anything Tony Quinn goes racing.
Two Mercedes-AMG A45 hot hatches are entered along with several competitive BMWs and a host of the enduring Mitsubishi Lancer EVO models, including a two-car team from Pollicina Motorsports and three from Dylan Thomas’ successful CXC Global Racing outfit.
Supercars regular Tim Slade is set to drive alongside Thomas in the lead entry.
Conroy Motorsport will make the debut of the KIA Proceed GT in this year’s race, boosting an already fiercely competitive class D battle that includes the usual host of Toyota 86 competitors, a Honda Integra, and a Mini Cooper.
The Hi-Tec Oils Bathurst Six Hour doubles as the opening round of the 2017 Australian Production Car Series.
Visit www.bathurst6hour.com.au for more information.