Jari-Matti Latvala believes Saturday morning’s stages on Arctic Rally Finland will be “very critical” for Toyota’s fortunes after the opening day was dominated by Hyundai.
On the eve of Arctic Rally Finland, Toyota team principal Latvala told DirtFish that Toyota needed to make use of its home advantage and ensure Hyundai didn’t steal victory.
“This is our home rally, our car is tested and developed on the Finnish road conditions so for sure we expect to be competitive here,” Latvala said.
“We hope we are fighting for the victory here, of course we have to look that the victory here would help a lot in the championship because there are rallies coming during the year where we know Hyundai have been strong, so the events which are strong for us of course we need to make the results on those events, thinking about the championship.
“I would like to see as many Toyota’s in the top three as possible.”
Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville was defeatist too, saying: “We had probably, for my feeling, a better chance to win Monte Carlo than to win [Arctic].”
This was all on paper. On snow, ice and gravel, it was Hyundai that was king. On Friday at least.
Ott Tänak won both of the day’s stages to open up a commanding lead over team-mate Craig Breen. Kalle Rovanperä upholds Toyota honor in third, but Neuville is fourth with Toyota’s other cars fifth (Elfyn Evans), seventh (Takamoto Katsuta) and ninth (Sébastien Ogier) as they struggled at the head of the running order.
Perhaps understandably, this drew a rather different response from Latvala on Friday evening than his Thursday afternoon statements.
“It wasn’t the start which we were hoping for,” he told DirtFish.
“Of course there are positive things that we saw, when Kalle was attacking the speed was great what he was doing on the first passage.
“Unfortunately he hit the snowbank and lost some time and also we could see some positive things from Taka [Katsuta], but probably with Seb and Elfyn the time loss was bigger than we expected on the front.
“We knew it was not easy but maybe it was a bit bigger.”
When pressed on why he thought that was, Latvala explained that the unexpected rise in temperatures to above freezing – coupled with the heavy usage of the road given it was rallied on just four weeks ago for the Finnish championship-scoring Arctic Lapland Rally – created a different proposition for the lead runners.
“If it had been ice, a fully ice stage, and then the snow, the contrast would have been smaller,” Latvala said.
“The driving would have been easier. But now the contrast was quite big because you had gravel which has massive grip and then the soft snow on the side which is actually very, very slippy.
“So I think this was affecting, that was very difficult for Sebastien and Elfyn to build up the confidence when they were on the front.
“It’s not the end of the world but we know that tomorrow morning is very critical because they are new stages for everybody,” Latvala added.
“If you start to lose in the morning already then there is no chance, really. In the afternoon it is more difficult to make the time compared to morning, so tomorrow morning is very, very critical to be in the game.”
Rally leader Tänak isn’t convinced Toyota is out of the picture this weekend however. When asked by DirtFish if he was happy with Hyundai’s pace in comparison to the Yaris WRC’s, the 2019 World Rally Champion pointed to his advantageous road position as a reason to not get carried away.
“So far so good but obviously they’ve been earlier on the road so I think this way the performance was not so straightforward,” he said.
“Now we still need to continue; tomorrow is a different day and different road conditions so yeah, it definitely didn’t give let’s say a clear picture today.”