The 2017 WRC opener last month in Monte Carlo saw M-Sport take their first WRC victory in 5 years. In Sweden last weekend, another team took their first win in several years. But for Toyota and Jari-Matti Latvala, it was more than just a first comeback win…
“Really, I have to say, what an incredible job with an incredible team.”
– Jarti-Matti Latvala
2016 was torrid for Jari-Matti Latvala. A solitary win in Mexico left him 6th in that years standings, so many questioned what he could actually bring Toyota when they snapped him up just a month before the season started. But a stunning 2nd place in Monaco proceeded something even more remarkable. Latvala took victory in Sweden and a first for the returning Toyota manufacturer, and now leads the drivers standings by four points. The first time anyone other than Sebastien Ogier has lead the WRC standings since 2014…
“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.”
Thierry Neuville had lead much of the rally prior to a disastrous Saturday night. Monte Carlo showed the pace of the i20 Hyundai and it was apparent right from the outset in Sweden. Latvala took the fight to the Belgian but late Friday saw him really stretch the Hyundai’s legs, opening up a lead of some 20 seconds over the Toyota. Saturday saw the brilliance of Neuville shown again as he opened up a lead of over 40 seconds by the super special on Saturday night! Only bad luck could rob him of the win. Sadly, just like in Monte Carlo, it robbed him yet again. He clipped a tyre barrier on the stage, which drifted him into a concrete barrier and wrecking his suspension. The tight battle for second place behind became the battle for first, as Latvala took over from the luckless Neuville. Had he won both Monte Carlo and Sweden, Neuville would probably be looking like the championship favourite. Instead, he desperately needs big results.
M-Sport had another great outing. Ott Tanak pushed Latvala all the way to the power stage, and a small mistake from the Finn would have handed the rapid Estonian a first WRC win. But 2nd was a stunning result for Tanak who is surely going to become a title contender if he continues to perform at this level. He is certainly going to give Ogier some headaches too. The Frenchman didn’t have the greatest rallies but still took a strong 3rd and will be a contender all the way to Australia. He had an underwhelming start to the rally, sweeping the road for those ahead but came alive on Saturday to be in contention for the win come Sunday morning. Alas a rare mistake at the very start of Sunday mornings stage cost him, but a solid podium and consistency will go a long way in this WRC season. The same could not be said for Kris Meeke. Another crash on Saturday whilst running in 5th cost the Northern Irishman 8 minutes, and any chance of a podium was gone. Citroen have a lot of work to do. Craig Breen was a solid 5th in the end, but the French manufacturer need much more than that.
But for Latvala, Sweden was redemption for all the years in Ogier’s shadow at VW. He admitted he had tried too hard to be Ogier during their time together, but a change in approach and the fresh environment of Toyota meant he powered his way to probably the most rewarding and joyful win of his career – certainly one of the best. Four points clear in the championship and with a Yaris WRC that is improving at each event. We are in for a closely contested season.