No-one ever questioned Jari-Matti Latvala’s commitment in the World Rally Championship as the 21st century Flying Finn smashed through some of the biggest crashes since Ari Vatanen hung up his helmet.
But now the retired driver with the greatest total of starts in WRC history – 209 events – is facing the biggest challenge of all as he is handed leadership of the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team.
Even the man who gave him the job, Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda, is not sure if he has done the right thing.
“His ability as a manager is unproven, but the attributes that we have in common between us were the deciding factors for entrusting the team to him. I believe these will bring the strength to the team,” said Toyoda.
“We hate to lose. This is also what we have in common.”
No-one has really explained why Tommi Makinen lost the boss’s spot at the WRC team, but Latvala’s appointment is likely to mean more influence from Japan and also Toyota’s long-term motorsport headquarters at Cologne in Germany. It will be interesting to see if Makinen’s appointment as ‘Motorsport advisor to Toyota Motor Corporation’ is anything more than a face-saving way of removing him from the WRC program.
Latvala will take up the reigns in little more than a month at the Monte Carlo Rally as Toyota starts the 2021 championship as defending drivers’ champion with Sebastian Ogier, who is joined by Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanpera and Takamoto Katsuta in the team’s Yaris WRC.
Latvala and Ogier were giant rivals, even as team mates at Volkswagen, although the Finn’s 18 victories is no match for the Frenchman’s seven world titles.
So, how will they work with Latvala in charge.
“We’ve always had good relations, so I’m looking forward to it next season. I am sure he will put all of his energy into this new job,” said Ogier.
“I think a lot of people were surprised about this yew of course, but I think it will be interesting to see how things go. There is nobody who is more passionate about the WRC and knows more about the history of the sport than Jari-Matti.”
Latvala even has an historic Celica GT-4 in his collection of rally cars.
But he knows his new job is very different to driving, and means an end to his plan for a comeback in either 2021 or 2022 after losing his driving spot with Toyota at the end of 2019.
“As Team Principal, I have to see the bigger picture: I have to motivate everybody in the team to work together to achieve the best results. It’s a new challenge and I’m up for it,” Latvala said.
“Tommi has done a fantastic job with the team, building it up from zero and bringing the success that he has. Of course, there is always room for improvement and I want to use what I have learned over the years as a driver and work together with the team directors to make this team as successful as possible.
“The 2021 season is just around the corner but the entire package is already there within the team, with a proven car and the same strong driver line-up, and everybody knows what needs to be done to prepare for Rallye Monte-Carlo in January.”
Apart from his leadership, Toyoda can clearly see the public relations benefits from sliding Latvala in to replace Makinen.
“He always thinks of the fans and of his team-mates. Being one of the top drivers, I often saw him running up to fans as soon as he got out of the car at the service park,” Toyoda said.
“He cared about everybody in the team like mechanics and engineers and always talked to them. I believe this kind of attitude and character empowered the team a lot and helped lead to the manufacturers’ title.
“I trust him to lead the new Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team and I’m looking forward to climbing up onto the roof of the Yaris WRC with him.”