PHOTO: Jari-Matti Latvala (right) and co-driver Mika Anttila are joined on the podium in Sweden by Toyota Gazoo principal Tommi Mäkinen to celebrate their new team’s and car’s maiden WRC victory (Toyota pic)
JARI-Matti Latvala dominated the final day’s stages to give Toyota an emphatic and historic Rally Sweden victory last night (Australian time).
The win, Latvala’s fourth on the only full snow round of the FIA World Rally Championship, was the first for Toyota since 1999 in China and an extraordinary achievement only two events into its comeback after 17 years.
Although even the official Toyota Gazoo team had modest early expectations for its Finnish-based venture, Latvala now leads the drivers’ championship standings by four points over his former Volkswagen teammate and four-time world champion Sébastien Ogier.
Latvala won six of the event’s 18 stages, but the turning point came when he inherited the lead as Thierry Neuville crashed his Hyundai i20 Coupe on Saturday night. He started Sunday with just a 3.8 sec. lead over M-Sport driver Ott Tänak, but instead of the expected desperate battle he drove away as the Estonian wrestled an ill-handing Ford Fiesta.
Latvala’s advantage after winning the event-closing Power Stage was 29.2 sec. Tänak finished second, equalling his career-best WRC result but again denied a maiden victory after coming so close.
Ogier also was set to be in the fight for victory on the final day’s three stages, but a spin in his M-Sport Fiesta on the very first corner put him out of contention and he finished 30.3 sec. behind teammate Tänak.
The win marked the first time since February 2014 that any driver other than Ogier has led the championship.
“It’s amazing. A new team, a new car, our second rally and we’re winning. I have no words to describe it, I’m so emotional,” Latvala said at the finish in Torsby.
“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.”
Dani Sordo was the top Hyundai finisher in fourth after teammate Thierry Neuville had thrown away a solid lead and likely win with a crash on Saturday night.
The Spaniard finished 39.7sec ahead of Craig Breen, who struggled to perfect his Citroën C3’s set-up but banked good points from a solid debut in the car.
Elfyn Evans was sixth in another Fiesta, despite losing nearly a minute with an engine misfire in today’s opening stage. The Welshman made repairs and the car was restored to full health for the final two tests.
The new-era World Rally Cars take on the challenge of high altitudes, high temperatures and gravel roads for the first time when León hosts round three at Rally Guanajuato Mexico on 9-12 March.
The 13-round season finishes at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 16-19 November.
Final result, Rally Sweden (WRC Rd 2 of 13):
1 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miika Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h36m03.6s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +29.2s
3 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +59.5s
4 Dani Sordo/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m11.5s
5 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +2m51.2s
6 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +5m26.6s
7 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +5m31.2s
8 Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen DS3 WRC) +7m14.7s
9 Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +9m11.1s
10 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta R5) +10m02.9s
2017 FIA World Rally Championship for drivers after Rd 2:
1 Jari-Matti Latvala 48
2 Sebastien Ogier 44
3 Ott Tanak 33
4 Dani Sordo 25
5 Craig Breen 20
6 Elfyn Evans 18
7 Stephane Lefebvre 10
8 Thierry Neuville 8
9 Hayden Paddon 7
10 Andreas Mikkelsen 6
2017 FIA World Rally Championship for manufacturers after Rd 2:
1 M-Sport World Rally Team 73
2 Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT 53
3 Hyundai Motorsport 40
4 Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team 26