Jarmo Lehtinen says he is sad to have left Teemu Suninen and what will now stand as his final co-driving job at rallying’s highest level to join Toyota Gazoo Racing in a management role for this season.
The Finn has stepped away from a factory Ford Fiesta WRC and M-Sport Ford World Rally Team to take up the role of event leader at TGR, starting from Monday. The 15-time World Rally winner will share sporting responsibilities with Kaj Lindström at the Jyväskylä-based team.
Lehtinen’s move is a consequence of Suninen only having a part-time drive in M-Sport’s reorganized WRC line-up.
“The reason for the move is the brutal realisation that I’m not a teenager anymore and I need a steady income,” 52-year-old Lehtinen told DirtFish.
“I am really sad to leave Teemu. We had a good plan and things were looking good until our good friend COVID-19 came and postponed everything by a year.
“When I started co-driving with Teemu [midway through 2019] I said I wanted to do it for two or three years and when he had only a partial program with M-Sport for this season and no guarantee for 2022, then I really had to consider this offer of permanent employment with Toyota. I talked constructively to Teemu and to our manager Timo Jouhki and the agreement was that I had to move.
“Certainly at this level, this is the end of co-driving for me. I have committed to this job now and I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s not the first time Lehtinen has worked at Toyota or swapped co-driving for team management – he was part of Tommi Mäkinen’s original team from the middle of 2015.
“I was there for two-and-a-half years before,” he said. “But I left to go and do some work with event organisers, some work with the FIA and the promoter and, ultimately, I got back into a rally car. Looking at my CV now, it was a good move [to leave Toyota] because I have so much more experience from all sides of the sport.
“The only difference when I come back is that Kaj’s my boss now and I was his boss before – he’s the sporting director now!”
Lehtinen is reunited with his former M-Sport team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, who was named as team principal at Toyota last month.
“Jari-Matti and I were laughing about that the other day,” said Lehtinen. “We’re back together again, just in different shirts. Actually, I am really proud of Kaj, Jari-Matti and myself all being in these roles in a team like this one. We have to thank Tommi [Mäkinen] for this. We all know that historically we can see Finnish drivers and co-drivers doing well, but it’s not so often that we are seeing Finns at the top of the sport in these roles. This is our generation and we are doing it.”
The old M-Sport reunion will be taken a step further when Lehtinen’s former driver Mikko Hirvonen joins the squad to work on Kalle Rovanperä’s ice note crew for the Monte Carlo Rally.