Jari-Matti Latvala’s career as a World Rally Championship driver was, it seems, done and dusted by the middle of last year. It was August when first thought was given to him succeeding Tommi Mäkinen as Toyota’s team principal in the World Rally Championship.
At the time, Latvala’s own thoughts couldn’t have been further from leading Toyota’s 2021 WRC attack. He was down. Like most of Finland. For the first time since he was 17 years old, his summer hadn’t turned on a story of 1000 Lakes. Prior to 2020, the previous 17 summers had been about one thing: Rally Finland.
With his home round of the WRC canned, Latvala was left tinkering in his Tuuri workshop, thinking about taking his Toyota Celica GT4 on a short September trip west to Seinäjoki for the Pohjamaa Ralli.
Little did he know – much further east and along the corridors of power in Toyota City – his future was being considered.
“I had a call at the end of August from [Toyota Gazoo Racing project director Yuichiro] Haruna,” Latvala tells DirtFish. “He was just asking what my plans are for 2021 and if I still want to drive? I told him a couple of events would be nice, if I can get a budget together. And then maybe try to look at options if I can get part of the development program to get with one of the teams in 2022 to be back in a car competing.
“But then he had one more question. After I mentioned the two events, he asked, ‘Could you do a job – if we had a job for you – that you couldn’t do the rallies? Would that be an option for you?’
“I said yes, but I wanted to know if I could then do Rally Finland?
“‘You can’t do Rally Finland’. I thought about this and told him if the job is very good then it’s not compulsory for me to drive. If it’s something really good then I can take it.”
Prior to that call, a 2022 resumption of his career was priority number one. Rarely does Latvala reach across the divide to talk circuit racing, but it was at this time that he instructed DirtFish readers to recall the latter days of Alain Prost’s career. The Frenchman took a year-long sabbatical from Formula 1 in 1992, before returning to win the world championship in 1993.
Last summer, that was where Latvala’s mind was. What happened next took him completely by surprise.
Latvala had thought he was being considered for some sort of media-based job, telling the story from the stages and helping to ease the burden on Mäkinen’s shoulders.
When Haruna called, Latvala was floored by the offer.
“Honestly, when they asked me to be team principal, I went quiet,” he says.
“What fantastic news you get and you are so delighted and honored but on the other hand, you are fighting inside yourself. The other side of your nature inside you, is telling you that it’s the end of the rally [driving] career. And I had to think about this and go through it in my head. But then very quickly I said, ‘Yes, I will take it’.”
I had to think about the future. You love rallying, but you have to also start to see it from the outside of the windscreenJari-Matti Latvala on his decision to accept Toyota's team principal offer
Driving is everything to Latvala. Isn’t there the potential for the WRC’s equivalent to a player-manager?
“For sure, it is the end,” he says emphatically. “Once you go for the job of team principal, you can’t come back to drive anymore. I have been away for one year from World Rally Cars, and then you take another year and you are running the team. It was a bit of a different story with Sébastien Loeb [when he stepped away from the WRC] because he was competing all the time. He did touring cars, he was doing Dakar and he was continuously driving. So it was a big difference.
“When you go to do the job that you need to start managing people and you are away from the driving, it’s different.
“OK, if I do historic rallies here and there that’s good, but I’m not keeping the level of driving anymore on the same high level where it used to be. And then it’s more difficult to jump back after maybe two or three years into the seat and try to constantly do great results.”
So there might be some driving?
Latvala smiles: “I’ve said that when I negotiated with Haruna, I said I have to be able to drive the historic events, because I can’t stop driving. Otherwise, it’s in my nature, and it will be killing me if I can’t drive anything.
“I don’t need to drive at the world level, but I have to be able to drive some rallies. Then we agreed that when there are free spots I will do some historic events.”
Anybody who knows Latvala knows his destiny is a lifetime in the discipline he loves. And running a team has always been on the agenda.
“I was thinking I could be running one of the teams in WRC2 or that type of category in 10 years’ time,” he says. “I was thinking about that when I’m between 45 and 50. Not when I’m 35!
“This coronavirus situation brought me to think quite a lot about things. If this had not happened, I probably would have been pushing hard trying to get back in the WRC as a driver. Then you get the opportunity that you get only once in your lifetime. And if you don’t take it, you won’t get it a second time. That’s a fact.
“So then I decided I have to go for it. I have to think about the future. The rallying, there’s not the seats available, there are young guys coming: Kalle Rovanperä, Oliver Solberg, these guys are coming, so it’s a matter of fact.
“You love rallying, but you have to also start to see it from the outside of the windscreen.”
In a career that lasted 18 years and made him world rallying’s most experienced driver ever, Latvala won 18 times. But never the big one. It’s hard to imagine a person to whom a World Rally Championship would have meant more. This is his life. And he desperately wanted to wear the crown.
Would the manufacturers’ crown fit in the same way?
“If you can create and have a team which is very strong and winning manufacturers’ championship titles, for sure that will feel extremely good,” he says.
“As a driver I did my job for the championship, but now I have a bigger role that I need to keep everyone in the team motivated and have the feeling they are working 100% and we are delivering the cars for the drivers that they can win the championship.
“Now the role is that I have a bigger responsibility that we can win the manufacturers’ championship. In that sense, if you do it, you will feel it a lot more than when you feel it when you were winning as a driver.”
Fortunately for Latvala, he has a team of world champions around him, starting from the top with Tom Fowler designing, building and delivering consistently the fastest rally car ever, and Kaj Lindström and Jarmo Lehtinen running the sporting side with the same commitment and performance.
Latvala has no intention of stepping on anybody’s toes. As far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing that needs fixing at Toyota.
“I have full confidence in them,” he says. “They are really professional and this is what I learned at Volkswagen. One of the things I admired with Jost [Capito, ex-Volkswagen Motorsport team principal] – and why the team was so strong – is that Jost had such good confidence for the people [around him]. Just as an example, when we had after-rally briefings, he’d never join them because he trusted in the guys. He knew they will have the comments from the drivers and make sure the car will be faster.
“He didn’t come to the debrief because he had so much confidence in the people. That’s the thing I would also like to have. You don’t need to be everywhere yourself and be part of everything. If you have trust with the guys and you know they’re doing their job, and you’re concentrating on the area which is, in my case, really to keep the people motivated and the team itself and the mechanics, that’s already quite a big job for me.
“I’m feeling that this way we are working as four people together: Tom, Kaj and then Haruna-san as project director.”
In starting 209 rounds of the WRC, Latvala the driver did so under some of rallying’s most successful team principals. Whose influence will be the greatest as he sits behind the desk behind the door labelled ‘team principal’?
“I learned from Jost, but then I learned from Malcolm [Wilson, M-Sport managing director],” he says.
“One thing with Malcolm that was very interesting was that when he was shaking hands and you agree something, you do like this. That was clear. You didn’t need to go back. You had the trust that something is agreed and it’s done like that.
“With Tommi, one great thing is that he never was angry with you when you had an accident. He never came to blame you, he never came to say, ‘Why did you do this? Why did you break the car?’ This was a very strong point of Tommi’s.
“So what are my ideas? I try to take all these good points that I learned with my different team principals and try to put that together.”
Latvala’s known some dark times in his career. His ability to convalesce has been a constant. But now, when the day’s final email’s sent, does he have any regrets as a driver?
“In the evenings, my mind has been going through the past years and events,” he says. “It’s like I started to get these flashbacks: why did I do that mistake in Monte 2012, when I was leading and went off the road. Then Germany in 2014 is very difficult to accept that mistake which basically cost me the championship. That is coming back to my head, that if I had done things differently I would have been able to win the championship.
“Now you know it’s history, you won’t be the world champion anymore as a driver and that’s probably why these flashbacks start to come in your mind.”
Conversely, his chances of masterminding a world championship have never been stronger.
There are plenty out there who question Latvala’s pedigree for the job. And it’s an understandable position. How, for example, can he direct Sébastien Ogier’s progress towards an eighth world championship after Ogier took him to the cleaners and dominated him so psychologically when their careers collided at Volkswagen?
Latvala’s not stupid. He knows that better than anybody. Rousing, chest-thumping team talks are not his style, but few in the service park can match his passion, experience and dedication to the task.
And there can be no doubt, Toyota has landed itself a popular choice among the hardcore. Latvala was loved across the land for a trademark hard-charging approach. Even he was surprised at the response to the news of his move to management.
He says: “I got more messages, so many congratulations from the people, than ever before in my life – even after winning rallies. I’m so really glad and so happy about it.”
Granted, the summer will sting a bit. Not running through suspension options at a pre-event Rally Finland test, missing the chance to dodge the Jyväskylä crowds in champagne-soaked overalls, it won’t be the same.
Latvala’s changed the channel. He’s tuned in to the bigger picture now.