TOYOTA GAZOO Racing wins on its second rally back in WRC: The victory inspired the hope and tasks going forward – challenges to make ever-better cars is just beginning
TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT has its development base in Finland, and Rally Sweden is the team’s second “home” event of the season. The reason for this, however, is not simply because Finland and Sweden share a national border; the topographies of the host areas for both Rally Finland and Rally Sweden are distinctly similar and, though the dates on which the rallies are contested are diametrically opposite—winter in Sweden and summer in Finland—the rally courses of both countries share many features. With a succession of gentle corners through forest areas, the high-speed courses of both rallies place great demands on a car’s stability and engine performance, as well as the skill and courage of its drivers. Prior to this season, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT driver Jari-Matti Latvala has been victorious at Rally Sweden three times. Team Principal Tommi Mäkinen has also won three times at Rally Sweden among his total 24 WRC victories. For these “Flying Finns,” Rally Sweden ranks alongside their Rally Finland as one of their favorite rallies.
Leading up to this year’s Rally Sweden, Latvala and Juho Hänninen spent a few days carrying out development tests in Finland. Though the roads were laden with snow, the Yaris WRC moved across the icy surface with the ease of an ice skater, and both drivers were filled with confidence for the rally itself. However, since the Yaris WRC remains a developmental car, it would have been premature to harbor excessive expectations. The team decided on a cautious approach to the rally, in the same manner as the season-opening Rally Monte-Carlo, and Latvala committed to a concrete goal of placing in the top five.
On February 9, Day One of the rally—a Super Special Stage—was held at a horse-racing course in Karlstad. Covered with a solid layer of ice, the course was extremely slippery, and, since there were concrete blocks located just off course, any mistakes would be heavily punished. Although Latvala drove cautiously in the opening stage for this reason, he managed to record the fastest time in the Super SS. For Toyota, this was a first stage win after 17 years. Though the stage was short, the Yaris WRC had clearly demonstrated its ability to compete even on ice.
The rally entered the forests on Day Two, and SSs were held across both Sweden and neighboring Norway. The routes were again packed solid with snow and ice, but this time a layer of soft, fresh snow had fallen on top. Latvala was the second driver to start and, as such, the driving conditions put him at a slight disadvantage. However, he managed to record top-three finishes on a number of stages and, on SS4, he secured his second stage win. On the other hand, his pace was slightly slower than Thierry Neuville, who had the advantage of better course conditions due to his later start; Latvala finished Day Two in second place, just 28.1 seconds behind Neuville. Latvala’s teammate Hänninen was driving in a composed manner, but in SS5 he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. Just as in the first rally of the season, Hänninen was forced to retire from the rest of the day’s stages.
At the start of Day Three, worried about the wear on his stud tires, Latvala decided to compete in the morning stages with two spares. This made Latvala’s car heavier than his rivals, who were only carrying a single spare tire, leading to a small loss of time. In the afternoon’s SSs, Latvala opted to carry only a single spare tire, so eliminating his handicap. He drove aggressively in an attempt to make up for the time he lost during the morning, but this exacerbated the wear on his tires and the gap to Ott Tänak in third place was reduced to just 3.8 seconds. Neuville, however, who had been leading the rally, crashed on the day’s final Super SS and incurred a significant loss of time. Latvala would start the final day in an unexpected first place.
Neuville had been driving exceedingly quickly, and Latvala had struggled to close the gap. The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT driver showed no joy at assuming the lead and, instead, sympathized with his rival, who had been driving superbly: “I feel very sorry for Thierry Neuville, who lost the lead yesterday at the super special stage. I have been in a similar situation myself in the past, so I completely understand how he must be feeling now.”
Heading into the final day of the rally, Latvala held a slender lead. He banished distractions from his mind and heightened his focus. Team Principal Mäkinen advised him to “forget about the settings, and focus purely on driving fast,” and this enabled Latvala to line up for the first stage of the day with a clear head. The course was completely covered with ice, but Latvala concluded a fully satisfactory run to record his fourth stage win of the rally. Moreover, he won the rerun of the same stage, and extended his lead over Tänak in second place to 20 seconds. The performance of the car, Latvala’s driving, and the navigation of co-driver Miika Anttila combined perfectly, and so enabled the Yaris WRC to demonstrate its best performances of the season so far. Latvala also clinched the final power stage, securing a bonus point, and ended up recording the best time in each of the three final day SSs. He further increased his lead over second place, and secured victory for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT in only their second round back. After rejoining the rally, Häninen tested various settings as he guided the Yaris WRC over the finishing line. He ended the rally feeling positive about the next event.
Following the rally, Latvala said: “The Yaris WRC is extremely easy to drive, so on the final day I was able to drive along the snow-covered roads with confidence. I would like to thank the team who have created such a splendid car, and to all the fans who supported me.”
Team Principal Mäkinen, meanwhile, demonstrated fresh resolve: “Jari-Matti and Miikka did a wonderful job, and this enabled the Yaris WRC to demonstrate its full potential. I am also grateful for Juho’s contribution—he carried out various tests when he rejoined the race after his retirement. Victory in this rally not only confirmed that our development is headed in the right direction, but also provided a variety of ideas for the future. As part of our efforts to make this an ‘ever-better’ car, we will unite as a team and further accelerate our development.”
On the winner’s podium, the Finnish national flag was hoisted for Latvala, the winning driver, and the Japanese national flag was raised for the winning manufacturer, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT. Team Vice-Principal Koei Saga ascended the podium and lifted the trophy over his head. Finland, Japan, and Germany’s TMG, who created a mighty engine: this victory is the result of the great efforts of members from all three TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT development bases.