Generally speaking, conversations with Jari-Matti Latvala don’t make me miserable. Almost always, you come out of a chin-wag energized and mindful of everything this great sport of ours has to offer.
Not the case in Croatia. Latvala made me sad.
But he had a point. And a really good one.
We were talking Kalle; considering potential plight and ultimate flight that was round three for championship leader Rovanperä.
He’s 21. Twenty. One.
And he’s a trailblazer for the next generation. Gen-vid. The oracles of onboard.
Yes, Thierry Neuville, Elfyn Evans and the current cohort have all been watching onboards for years. But the foundations of their careers were laid in the analog action of actually driving the roads and taking the experience. Layering know-how year-on-year and building a picture of a stage down the seasons was the only way to understand what rain might mean on a particular road or loop.
That’s why rally drivers generally came good in their mid to late-20s.
Don’t forget, for now (and very much for now if Rovanperä’s season unfolds like it’s started), Colin McRae remains the youngest ever World Rally Champion. The Scot was 27 when he took the title in 1995. After him, the second most youthful title winner was Juha Kankkunen; he was 140 days older than McRae.
That’s all changing now.
To you and I, WRC’s exceptional All Live content is entertainment. For Rovanperä and those following in his footsteps, it’s the only preparation they’ve known. In a couple of hours, All Live offers the opportunity to land digital experience it would take years to stack in an analog fashion.
Latvala and I couldn’t help but reminisce.
“When I was young,” he said, “when I was starting out, you couldn’t watch the live TV stages. There was no All Live, nothing like that. All Live started in 2014 and I bet that has made the change. Now you can come earlier and younger to the championship.
“Now I have started to really realize I couldn’t drive the full championship anymore.
“The amount of video work the youngsters are doing… in my time I was watching videos, but not the amount they are doing. I couldn’t do that. I’m not up to it for the whole championship.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. You can see the guys when they are watching the video – this knowledge is really supporting the pacenotes. When they recognize a little bit the corner, the attack is even bigger. The speed is optimised all the time, in your mind it helps you to accept and to take the higher risks.
“It’s changing the sport.”
And it’s changed irrevocably.
The genie’s out; now the onboard content is surfing its way through cyberspace, there’s no putting it back.
Is that a bad thing?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
On one hand, I love that we can have a 21-year-old blazing an absolute trail and leading an even younger generation into the best sport in the world.
But on the other hand, I miss the days when young drivers were drafted into a third or fourth factory seat to get experience when and where they could.
There’s no doubt the modern way is much more amenable to the teams, but what does it mean for the future? After close-on two decades with just three different world champion drivers, we’re staring down the barrel of Rovanperä winning 10, 15 or 20 titles.
Sure, younger guns will come along and they’ll watch his onboards exhaustively. But isn’t Kalle already ahead? He’s going to be the first driver of a digi-analog generation. He’s done the virtual homework and the real-time groundwork.
In terms of driver preparation, onboards are the biggest game-changer in the history of the sport.
They’ve also had a big impact on the story. And this is what made me a little bit sad.
“I think they do…” Latvala starts and pauses. “I think they do take away some of the mystery, if you like.
“If you knew there was some stage where one driver always was really, really quick you knew going to that event, it would be tough. You would always be thinking: ‘How is it possible to do this?’
“Think about [Sébastien] Loeb on his best on Tarmac in the years ’05, ’06, ’07 – you would always be thinking that. Everybody was wondering what is he doing and how is he doing that? But of course, we couldn’t see that and we couldn’t find out.
“We could watch some sections of onboard, but never the full stage. For us, it was like a mystery to see where he was backing off a little bit to save the tire.
“And now the mystery has gone a little bit.”
Conclusions? Still not sure either way. But Latvala’s admission that he’s genuinely done at the top of a sport he genuinely loves marks a real moment. We all knew it when he took on the job of Toyota team principal at the top of the 2021 season, but it’s sad all the same.
Same with the mystery. Would Colin McRae’s total domination of the Motu Road through the mid-nineties have been anything like the story it was without the paradox of one of the sport’s fastest, most combative drivers being unbeatable across mile after mile of laboriously twisty Kiwi gravel?
It would not.
Me? I’ll miss the mystery.