Thierry Neuville was too fast for Africa’s Safari Rally Kenya last week, according to Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala.
The driver turned team principal sympathized with Neuville, the long-time leader of round six, but highlighted that rally winner Sébastien Ogier’s approach was the right one.
Neuville led for 12 of the 14 stages he started in Kenya, but missed out on a maiden 2021 win when a rear damper failed on his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC on the first stage of the final morning.
When all three official Toyotas had hit trouble on Friday, Latvala feared the chance of an eighth success for the Japanese brand might have passed.
You must listen to the warning. I feel very sorry for him that he couldn’t win it but, if I understand well, it was a little too much for the final dayJari-Matti Latvala
“We knew we had Taka [Katsuta] there,” Latvala told DirtFish, “but we thought it could be difficult to make the podium with the main team.
“But at the same time, I said to a couple of people in the team: ‘The speed Neuville is going, I can’t see how he is able to see the finish line with that speed – it’s too high. He is too fast.’
“He got two punctures. The punctures, let’s say he was lucky on that situation. Normally you get away with one, but normally you don’t get away with it the second time. You must listen to the warning.
“I have to say, I feel very sorry for him that he couldn’t win it. His speed was good, but, if I understand well, it was a little too much for the final day.”
For Latvala, Africa did to Neuville what Africa had threatened – and had done to plenty of the other factory cars.
“I thought the drama would start only on Friday afternoon,” said Latvala, “but it came so fast in the morning. I think maybe the drivers started to get carried away with the speed and then it caught them.
“But this is usually the way in the new rallies, when you don’t know the roads and the terrain. Remember Turkey in 2018? The result for me and [Ott] Tänak – we didn’t have the performance, but we took the double victory.
“Then in 2019 and ’20 there was less and less drama in Turkey because people knew the place and they knew what to expect.
“You have to fit the speed according to the terrain. The drivers who had set this plan was Taka. Tänak was also of this mindset and he was unlucky with the windscreen, but then there was Sébastien.
“Look at Séb on all of the rough stages. He took care of the car and he could make the win. It was a very special one.”
Given Toyota’s special relationship with a rally Björn Waldegård won for the Japanese marque for the first time in 1984, Latvala was doubly pleased to see Ogier’s Yaris WRC topping the podium.
“It’s definitely a nice one for Japan. The last win for Toyota here came in 1994. The investment they made through the 1980s and ’90s – this was the most important event for Toyota.
“I was talking with Miki Biasion last week. He won Safari in 1988 and 1989. He was telling me the Lancia budget was the equivalent today of €5m [$5.95m] – and this was just for the Safari.
“Toyota and Lancia were a little bit the same like this, having the workshop out there and everybody working for many months to make everything ready for this rally.
“Toyota and the Japanese love this rally and this is a big victory.”