Monday, February 11, 2008

A Record Tumbles

It's a wonderful feeling, being proven right. Five years ago, I jumped on a train to Berwick upon Tweed to watch the Jim Clark Rally. After much wandering around near the rally's base in the Borders town of Duns, vainly trying to locate the actual stages using only the rather ropey map that came with the event programme (and a fair amount of fighting through the overgrowth), I finally caught up with the action at Stage 3. The first few cars through were ex-works WRC beasts in the hands of the visiting Irish Tarmac Championship regulars. And fine viewing they were too. However, a white Ford Focus stood out as being driven seemingly much closer to the limit than anything else. Whoever was behind the wheel, he seemed comfortable using every inch of the road. I glanced down at my programme. Jari Matti-Latvala. A 17 year old Finnish kid. A name to watch, I thought to myself. By the I'd trekked over to the other side of Duns to watch SS7, Latvala was gone, crashing out in damp conditions on the previous stage. Still, it struck me that he was a more likely future star than anyone else I had seen that day.

It was at the end of 2006 that he came to my attention again. Gifted a one-off drive with the Stobart Ford team at the season-ending Wales Rally GB, he drove a surprisingly mature, measured rally to fourth place. It was enough to secure him a full-time drive with the team in 2007. Retirements in the first two events of the season did not bode well, but he recovered to finish 5th in Norway, taking his first stage wins along the way. A trickle of 4th place finishes followed, but Latvala also had more than his fair share of accidents. He might not have looked an obvious bet for the future were it not for the fact that, in only his first full season in WRC machinery, he was frequently setting fastest stage times when he was staying on the road.

The last two events of 2007 rather demonstrated Latvala's unpredictable nature. In Ireland, where drivers went off the road left, right and centre on tricky, damp muddy tarmac, Latvala drove a fine rally to take his first podium. A couple of weeks later, on returning to the forests of Wales, he lost several minutes after damaging his fog lights in the murk on Friday, but with a points finish out of the question, dominated the second two days of proceedings, setting 11 fastest stage times on the way to 10th place. It was warning enough that if Latvala could marry some consistency to his prodigious pace, he would be one to watch.

Malcolm Wilson, team boss at Ford, clearly thought along similar lines. With Marcus Gronholm heading off into retirement, he hired Latvala to partner Mikko Hirvonen in the works team for 2008 (maybe he took my advice!). Some might wonder if he ought to have gone for a more experienced driver, and Latvala's scrappy, accident-packed run to 12th in the Monte Carlo rally perhaps appeared to bear this out, but the youngster turned things round in style in Sweden.

In his second outing with the works-team, he led the event from the start, and looked in control throughout. While Sebastien Loeb went off the road early on and thus eliminated what might have been Latvala's strongest opposition, it was nonetheless remarkable that he seemed so comfortably to outpace his more experienced team mate, Mikko Hirvonen. No doubt, Hirvonen was a slow learner, and never really struck me as being truly from the top drawer, but equally, he's had several years of experience with works teams, and has won rallies from the front, most notably in Norway last year.

In winning the Swedish rally last weekend, Latvala became the youngest ever winner of a World Rally, and broke a record which had stood for nearly thirty years. Henri Toivonen's 1980 Lombard RAC Rally win, shortly after his 24th birthday, had been the benchmark for a very long time. Latvala admitted afterwards that he had always wanted to snatch Toivonen's record, but surely not even he expected to do so quite so soon (he had until mid-2009 to do it).

The parallels with Toivonen are almost uncanny. Both are Finns who came to rallying at a very young age. Latvala drove his first WRC event at 18, while Toivonen's first event, the 1975 1000 Lakes Rally, came only days after his 19th birthday. Both were the sons of rally driving fathers. Pauli Toivonen won the 1963 Monte Carlo rally for Citroen (rather controversially, following the spurious disqualification of the works minis) while Jari Latvala Sr drove in the Finnish championship through the 1980s and 1990s, taking the Gp N crown for Mitsubishi in 1995.

Toivonen was regarded by some as potentially one of the all time greats in the sport. Yet in the years between his 1980 win and his tragic death 6 years later at the Tour De Corsica, he would win only two more rallies - both at the wheel of the awesome Lancia Delta S4 in which he died. In part, this was because, until the arrival of the S4, he was never in the right car at the right time. That is not the whole explanation though. For while Toivonen was undoubtedly blindingly fast, he was also very accident-prone. Part of the reason that it took him until 1985 to secure a full time works drive in the WRC was his reputation for crashing.

It's a criticism which could also be levelled with some seriousness at Jari-Matti Latvala. While he made the finish at most events last year, he often ended up artificially far down the order after losing time with various 'offs'. In this respect, the combination of prodigious pace and a tendency to bend machinery is also more than a little reminiscent of another now-deceased rally hero - Colin McRae. I could yet be wrong, but I do sense that in Latvala, the sport at last might have found a new star to stand alongside the greats of the past - and - of course, Sebastien Loeb.

His early success might potentially present Ford's Malcolm Wilson with a rather awkward dilemma - one with which Ron Dennis would be all too familiar. Conventional wisdom would have it that Ford's obvious championship challenger - the man most likely to take the fight to the dominant combination of Citroen and Sebastien Loen - is Mikko Hirvonen. Yet this just might not be the case. If Latvala can beat Hirvonen in a straight fight so early on in his time at the blue oval, who's to say that he isn't actually the man with the raw talent to go toe-to-toe with the Frenchman?

And what if it's even more awkward than that? It's entirely possible that, while Latvala will turn out to be quicker than Hirvonen, he won't be as consistent. There lurks the danger that Latvala will succeed in taking points away from his countryman, but will not rack up the kind of consistent finishes needed to mount a serious tilt at the world title.

Perhaps it's irrelevant. It's at least arguable that Loeb is the overwhelming favourite to such an extent that Ford would be better off not even worrying about the driver's championship and concentrating on doing what they can to retain the manufacturer's title while - at the same time - giving Latvala a chance to gather experience to make a tilt at the 2009 title a serious possibility. Certainly, I'd be disappointed if it took him five years to win another rally as happened with the previous youngest ever world rally winner...

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