For the second World Rally Championship week on the bounce, Jari-Matti Latvala will be competing in a factory-built Toyota. This time it’s a different class and a different continent.
So, exactly where is the championship-leading team principal?
As his colleagues headed south from Jyväskylä to Athens, J-ML hopped on a plane set east, bound for Obihiro, Japan. He’s competing in Rally Hokkaido this weekend. And he’s doing so in the GR Yaris Rally2 Concept.
“Of course I will miss Acropolis,” last month’s Rally Finland fifth-placer told DirtFish, “but it’s an important opportunity for me and Juho [Häninen, co-driver] to go and drive the car in Japan – we’re never going to say no to this.”
Will he manage to keep up to speed with 10th round of the World Rally Championship?
Ridiculous question. Do we know this guy at all? This job, the team and the sport are his life. And DirtFish is going to keep him posted too.
“I will be looking between the stages, when I’m not driving,” he laughed.
If you can’t be in Lamia this weekend, Obihiro really is the place to be. Much as we love Toyota City, the north of Hokkaido is one heck of a place to go rallying. The mountains, the reddening Acers, the bang-bang chicken.
What’s not to love?
“I know,” grinned Häninen. “The food is so good!”
Latvala will have a very cool team-mate this weekend, too. Katsuta-san’s going.
No, not that one. Taka’s dad: Mr K Sr, Norihiko.
In fact, he’s been there pretty much all year.
Toyota technical director Tom Fowler sheds more light on the plan.
“We’ve been running a prototype Rally2 car almost all season in Japan,” he told DirtFish. “Takamoto’s father has been driving for us. The GR Yaris Rally2’s not homologised, but there’s a class in Japan which allows you to provide documentation for a car and enter in an open class. That’s what we’ve been doing.
“The idea for Jari-Matti to go there is to promote the car more and bring some more visibility to that activity – the program has been a little bit under the radar in Japan. As soon as Jari-Matti is out there, everybody wants to know what’s going on.”
Fowler added that Katsuta Sr’s input into the development is as important as any of the drivers who have tested the car – including his son Taka.
“Don’t forget,” said Fowler, “this is a Rally2 car we’re developing. Yes, of course, we want it to win WRC2, the European title and championships around the world, but this is perhaps not a car where the ultimate performance is sought on every meter of every stage. It’s a car which has to suit different styles and different levels of driver.
“Taka’s father is a very accomplished rally driver, but unlike his son he’s not competing at the sharp end of the WRC. Having a driver at his level gives us more insight into the systems we’re running in the car and how it can work for the customer base.
“At the same time, Japan is going to be a big market for us and, operationally, there are things we need to learn, hurdles we need to get over when it comes to a European-based team running a European-built car in Japan. We need to integrate our technicians and engineers with the TMC (Toyota Motor Corporation) guys out there.
“That’s what Jari-Matti’s doing this week.”
This time, however, there’s no automotive industry legend in the shape of Akio Toyoda to step into the Finn’s shoes. Running the team and facing down Hyundai’s attempt at a second consecutive Greek podium lock-out comes down to Fowler and sporting director Kaj Lindström.