Jari-Matti Latvala’s journey east for last weekend’s Rally Hokkaido was about evolution and the Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 Concept.
For the Finn, retribution came for free in Obihiro.
It’s almost impossible to find anybody who doesn’t love the people, the place and the stages like Pawse Kamuy. This northern area of Japan’s northernmost island is a stunning place to drive a rally car. But for J-ML, the memories were a little bit painful.
“I crashed both times I drove there before,” he told DirtFish ahead of the event. Indeed he did. He rolled out of the Production World Rally Championship class lead in 2006 and finished well down the order after going off the road and suffering hydraulic issues in a Stobart Ford Focus RS WRC a year later.
That he scored podiums on Japan’s two Sapporo-based world championship rallies made little difference as Latvala landed back into Obihiro.
A few days and a clean sweep of stage wins last week and he’d purged himself of any miserable memories. And scored his first win aboard Toyota’s all-important second-tier car.
The GR Yaris Rally2 Concept was running in a special category for non-homologated cars in Hokkaido – as it has done all year in the hands of Norihiko Katsuta. Taka’s dad finished second.
“I remembered some of the stages from the days of the WRC,” said Latvala. “It was a very nice rally. For the GR Yaris Rally2, I have only very positive comments. The engine is giving a lot of torque, which makes it very driveable and with a lot of suspension travel, it goes over the bumps very well – it feels stable and strong.”
Latvala was running the specification normally used by co-driver and chief Toyota tester Juho Häninen, and enjoyed a day running ahead of the start.
“We did a test before, but that was about fine-tuning. We took the base setup Juho used in Sardinia at the test [earlier in September].
“I had some understeer on the first day, but we changed the front diff to make the car more accurate for my driving style and then it was just damper clicks. We were able to concentrate on the functionality of driving the car through the stages.
“We had some Tarmac, some technical gravel roads and some faster places and I felt very comfortable in the car. This is something that’s so important for the customers for this car – it’s easy to feel comfortable, confident and quick. I’m looking forward to driving again.”
Toyota Gazoo Racing chairman Akio Toyoda was impressed with Latvala’s Hokkaido success, adding: “Jari-Matti was always smiling behind the wheel.
“I am grateful that they showed us their world-level driving on actual competition stages in Japan, not just demonstration runs. His driving fascinated fans and inspired fellow drivers. Jari-Matti and Juho helped Japanese rally get closer to the world-level. I’m truly thankful for them.”
Following the two Toyotas home was former Formula 1 star Heikki Kovalainen. Third place for the Škoda Fabia Rally2 driver was enough to seal another Japanese title.