Something Jari-Matti Latvala said last week, after Toyota’s world champion-in-waiting Kalle Rovanperä had done the unthinkable and turned his GR Yaris Rally1 into a ball, was rather intriguing.
Team bosses generally look poorly upon drivers crashing their cars. But Latvala was far from disappointed. He almost didn’t care. He had basically expected it to happen two weeks earlier. A crash, Latvala reckoned, was inevitable at some point this season.
“If you look at every champion – [Sébastien] Loeb, [Sébastien] Ogier – every single season even though they win, there is at least one rally where they have been off the road, or two.
“And when you have a period like Kalle, eight good rallies in a row, I knew at some point it was coming.
“I was a little bit worried already in Finland, maybe it’s coming in Finland, but it didn’t come. He managed to do it well but it was coming here [in Ypres].
“In a way, you can say that it was inevitable.”
It’s certainly a big statement and a thought-provoking theory. But does it hold water? Is Latvala correct that no driver has, or can go, a full championship-winning season without making a major driving error?
Well, thanks as always to the fantastic resource that is eWRC-results, it’s time to find out.
We’ll use Loeb and Ogier as the main references, as the two drivers Latvala namechecked and the ones that have redefined what it means to be successful in the World Rally Championship.
Loeb won nine championships on the bounce from 2004-2012 – a period famed for rally wins it must be said, not rally bins.
But Latvala’s thesis suggests only one mistake needs to be made per season. And Loeb certainly wasn’t immune to those.
In 2005 Loeb almost made it through all 16 rounds without error, but hitting a tree on the first day of Rally Australia put paid to that.
In 2006, were it not for his mountain bike injury Loeb would’ve cleaned up. But that slip off the road on the first day of the Monte Carlo Rally was certainly a mistake – it just didn’t damage Loeb’s campaign too much as his recovery drive to second was simply epic.
In 2007 he buried his Citroën C4 WRC into a Norwegian snow bank and lost a wheel later in Sardinia. In 2008, he was perhaps more unlucky as he crashed with Conrad Rautenbach on a road section in Jordan (while leading) but in 2009 – despite a streak of five wins to start the season – Loeb crashed twice in a row in Greece and Poland!
The move into a DS3 WRC didn’t eliminate the mistakes either – who can forget those famous crashes in Australia 2011 or Portugal and Sardinia 2012?
Ogier wasn’t any cleaner either, despite the assurance in which he drove (as Latvala’s team-mate, don’t forget) in a Volkswagen from 2013-16. Germany, VW’s home event, was his bogey rally.
Running wide and damaging his VW beyond repair in 2013 was bad, but crashing out twice – the second time extremely spectacularly – in 2014 was catastrophic.
In 2015, Ogier’s big blunder was on the Rally Spain powerstage when he ran wide and smacked a protective Armco barrier in the (needless) pursuit of all three bonus points, while in 2016 he wedged himself in a ditch on the inside of a Finnish hairpin.
In M-Sport colors Ogier wasn’t error-free either, smashing sideways into the trees at speed in Finland 2017 and clipping a stone in Portugal 2018, running off into the trees at a subsequent corner. Toyota neither – remember Ogier nosing his Yaris WRC off and into the snow in the dark within sight of the final stop-line of the day on Arctic Rally Finland last year?
So far then, Latvala’s theory certainly seems accurate. But the more astute of you may have clocked that two of Loeb’s title seasons are missing there: 2004 and 2010.
In 2004 Loeb retired twice, but both times because of his Xsara WRC’s oil sump failing and letting all the oil escape from the engine. There was nothing Loeb could really have done to avoid the compressions and impacts that led to it.
And Loeb’s 2010 was similarly impeccable. The only time he was off the podium was Rally Japan, where he struggled to find a rhythm but didn’t force it either as his championship lead was already all but unassailable.
For what it’s worth, Ogier’s 2020 didn’t feature any notable mistakes either, but given this was a heavily-reduced season due to coronavirus it doesn’t feel so valid to include. Had 2022 been just a seven-round affair, for example, then Rovanperä wouldn’t have crashed at all.
Juha Kankkunen and Miki Biasion did also both manage to complete a championship-winning season without a rally-bending crash, but there were of course fewer events per season in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
By the letter of the law then, Latvala is wrong. It isn’t impossible for a driver to go a full season without a major crash or mistake. Loeb, in particular, has proved it.
But in practice… who are we to question his judgment? As the driver with the most starts in WRC history, Latvala knows better than anybody else how tricky it is to keep a run of momentum going. Eventually, something will slip.
Rovanperä’s came in Ypres, but don’t expect it to lead to a fall.