Ultimately the call didn’t come. It wasn’t needed. But as Safari Rally Kenya reached its crescendo, it was the most debated topic in all of Africa. Or certainly one of them.
Would Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala impose team orders and ease World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier’s passage past Takamoto Katsuta and on to a fourth win of the season?
Ultimately, he didn’t need to. And, let’s be honest, he was never really likely to need to. But with two stages to run on Sunday, the pair were neck and neck and not even split by a tenth of a second. So, what if?
And, actually, what did boss Latvala say on Sunday morning?
The case for an Ogier win
It’s an obvious one. He was 11 points ahead of team-mate Elfyn Evans and 29 up on nearest non-Yaris WRC driver ahead of the Naivasha-based event. Evans was back under superally with his eyes fixed firmly on recovering to the bottom end of the top-10 with whatever he could scratch out from the powerstage coming as a bonus.
But Thierry Neuville was gone. His exit from the event on Sunday’s opener was the incident which created J-ML’s potential headache. So, Ogier could score big and open up something of a whopper of a margin over his nearest rival with half the season down.
The case for a Katsuta win
It’s a less obvious one. Can you imagine the brouhaha that would have greeted a Safari Rally Kenya win for Takamoto Katsuta? Can you imagine that would have drawn from Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda? It’s genuine question.
The marketing win from Taka standing on the top step of the podium in Kenya would have been vast. Don’t forget, this is an event Toyota spent millions trying to win in the ’80s and ’90s. Victory on the Safari, we were told, was almost as valuable as a championship win itself. But if a Japanese driver won it in a Japanese car…
That’s not to decry Yoshio Fujimoto’s 1995 Safari win aboard a Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD. But that year was non-championship and Fujimoto’s only serious Group A competition came from a Toyota Kenya-funded sister car for Ian Duncan, Kenjiro Shinozuka (already a two-time WRC winner on the continent, but on the Ivory Coast rather than in East Africa) in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo III and Austrian rough rally specialist Rudi Stohl and his Audi.
Fujimoto won comfortably. But the lack of the world championship meant, rather harshly, the world forgot.
The world would not forget if Taka-san won on Sunday.
“I can tell you, honestly, that we didn’t have any team orders. Yes, it would have been nice to have a Japanese driver winning for us, but we didn’t make any orders,” Latvala told DirtFish.
“What I said to Taka on Sunday morning was this: ‘Listen to me, now, Taka. You will go to the final day, Sébastien has six soft tires. You have four hards and two softs and your softs are not as good as Séb’s.
I am so proud of him that he went through and this was his planJari-Matti Latvala on Katsuta
“Yes, you can go and you can fight with him. But I would remind you now that, according to those tires, you have no chance against Ogier. Now you are in a position in your life and your career when you take the podium it’s more valuable than going off the road trying to fight for the win. Just calculate it now. You can take the podium now and come to the win later.’
“I am so proud of him that he went through and this was his plan. All the time he didn’t fight with Ogier, he was focused on getting the car to the finish and being on the podium. It was fantastic.”