Toyota is on course right now to comfortably outscore Hyundai on Rally Estonia. To top that, come Sunday it could be the team that runs the youngest ever winner of a World Rally Championship round. That’s one way of engaging new and young fans.
But team principal Jari-Matti Latvala – who’s been in the position of shouldering the responsibility to bring home the points in the manufacturers’ title battle, as well as being the record-breaking upstart gunning for a first win – wants rally leader Kalle Rovanperä to dial it down come Saturday.
“I knew that he’s going to be fast here because he basically, in the beginning of his rally career, started in Baltic countries,” Latvala, speaking about his 20-year-old driver, told DirtFish.
“He’s been driving in Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania so these kinds of roads suit him very, very well, but of course it’s still been a nice surprise how strong he has been today, that under the pressure from Craig Breen he’s been able to pull a little bit more of a gap to him.”
Pressure originally came from Hyundai’s Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville too, but both had their challenges stunted by punctures, and that combined with the road-sweeping positions of Rovanperä’s team-mates Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans has already turned Estonia into a two-way fight for victory.
Latvala has an Estonian workforce being relocated or laid off at the end of this year that it would be nice to reward with a win – especially doing so by pushing its machinery to the limit.
But after a day of Rovanperä doing just that in the Yaris WRC, with five outright stage wins on Friday, Latvala now wants a different approach on show.
“When you are leading the rally yes you need to take a little bit of risks for sure,” Latvala said. “He had quite a huge moment on the very last stage of the day and [it was] also very close to the end but OK, that is the way you have to attack.
“But for sure there comes a certain moment where you start to have moments coming constantly, then comes the moment suddenly very soon you will run out of luck, I would say. Of course we need to remind Kalle that speed is fine but going more can cause problems, so just calm him down a bit not to overdrive tomorrow.”
Drilling it into Rovanperä head that he doesn’t need to push all the time will be crucial on Friday night, because it’s something that may be quickly forgotten on the stages on Saturday if Hyundai plays tactics.
Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo’s response to Latvala’s instructions for Rovanperä to heed caution was to joke that he would relay that message to Breen, saying “first of all maybe that he [Latvala] tells Rovanpera to be cautious, because maybe we [can] go fast and pass”.
Tänak is restarting the rally and while he will need to preserve his car so it’s in top condition for Sunday’s powerstage, he’s also being put back into the event to entertain the fans and demonstrate the i20 Coupe WRC’s pace. If he starts going for fastest stage times from first on the road, Rovanperä needs to make sure he drives his own rally and not respond to Tänak’s pace.
But Tänak could also be employed as a disruptor in other ways, via late entry to time control on stages so he slips down the running order and leaves dust in the way of the other Toyota drivers instead, or, if the rain arrives on Saturday, by driving at a pace that tricks those running behind into thinking the conditions are either worse or better than they actually are. Nothing can be ruled out now Tänak’s title ambitions seem to be over.
Latvala added: “I would say he [Rovanperä] did a fantastic day and he needs to just keep going the same but not to add more until it comes to the situation when Craig is coming closer, then maybe I’d use a bit more, but not necessarily start the day with the absolute maximum because there are new stages and things can happen on the new stages. Just be smart, but I am very confident with Kalle.”
His Hyundai counterpart was similarly confident about both Breen, who is currently carrying Hyundai’s rally-winning hopes, and Tänak.
“[Breen] has done very well,” he said. “He already showed last year that on these kinds of roads he is very fast.”
As for Tänak?
“Once you have a puncture like he did in the stage the frustration for sure was there because he’s shown that as long as he’s in the rally he is by far faster than anyone else.”