Rally Sweden was a fairytale event for Jari-Matti Latvala and the brand new Toyota team run by Tommi Makinen out of Finland.
When Toyota decided to hand the reins of its WRC return from its own Motorsport division in Germany, (which masterminded the brand’s previous success) to Tommi Makinen Motorsport in Finland, eyebrows were raised.
Prior to this TMM had only constructed and ran Group N Subarus in Finland, could it really successfully handle the pressures and commitment of a work programme for the world’s biggest car manufacturer?
The answer has proved to be an emphatic yes and in some style. The team grabbed a podium on its first ever outing at Rallye Monte Carlo has now and followed it up with a win in Sweden.
In some ways the granting of the works contract to TMM is similar to M-Sport been given the work Ford contract in 1997. Both decisions were questioned at the time abut have proven to be successful decisions.
As well the hiring of Volkswagen refugee Latvala. This could also be seen as a gamble after reaching rock bottom in the 2016 season.
Yet the responsibility of leading the Toyota charge has reinvigorated him and he has produced some of his finest performances to date.
The Latvala/Toyota combination is a surprise but welcome championship contender and proves that new manufacturers can mix it with the established teams in the WRC.
Yet on the podium itself Latvala knew that this was only the beginning and that real fight to prove Toyota’s worth starts here.
Yet again the rally was another hard-luck story for Thierry Neuville and Hyundai.
Once again they dominated the rally, once again it all came undone by a small mistake on Saturday’s final stage which dropped them out of the points.
Both can take hope for further in the season, Neuville has been the fastest driver in the season so far but slight lapses of concentration have cost him dearly.
As a result instead of 50+ points Neuville only has 8 points in the championship.
At the end of the season in a tight title fight, these lost opportunities may come back to haunt him.
One of the main events of Rally Sweden was a silly irony involving the new fast WRC cars.
When the FIA drew up the new regulations the aim was to make the new WRC cars faster and more spectacular. While they have certainly been spectacular, they ironically proved to be too fast.
On stage nine, Ott Tanak won the stage, completing the 31km Knon in 13 minutes 45 seconds, an average speed of 85mph.
This broke the average speed record for any WRC stage by 7 mph which was set by Kris Meeke in Finland last year, on bone dry gravel.
Tanak smashed that record on snow and ice!
This spooked the FIA and persuaded the Rally Sweden organisers to cancel the second pass on stage 12 on safety grounds.
In only their second rally, the new spec WRC cars have already smashed records. The FIA should have expected this, afterall they are supposed to be faster than before.
It appears that surface of the stages and the margin of which is was broken by may have influenced the FIA’s decision.
While it might lead to suggestions that the governing body didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for when they drew up the regulations the hope is that this will be a one-off occurrence.
When the cars are breaking average speed records on every rally, nervous organisers cancelling re-runs of the stages due to the speed will make a mockery out of the regulations and the organisers.
Citroen Still to Unlock Potential C3
Citroen meanwhile had another mixed rally but at least both of the new C3 WRCs cars completed the entire rally this time. Craig Breen had an uneventful run to fifth while Kris Meeke ended the event in 12th after putting the C3 into a snowbank, losing nine minutes.
Still both drivers were comfortably in the top five throughout the rally and the car looked a lot more settled than it did in Monte Carlo and but unlike in that rally did not come away with a stage win.
Both still hint at all of the untapped potential the car has.
Breen remarked after the rally that although the team still had much to do by saying “This car has so much potential.
“I really think we can make something special.”
Ford is “Looking at” WRC Return
While works Citroen struggle for results, the M-Sport team may become a works Ford team again.
The team currently has a fast car piloted by two top line drivers and are favourites to win a championship this year.
All this is making Ford consider returning to the WRC by giving M-Sport full factory support.
This speculation was given more plausibility by the appearance of Ford Performance boss Dave Periack at Rallye Monte Carlo.
Although M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson denied any discussions between the two about a resumption of a full Ford works programme, Periack admitted “we are here having a look at it.”
The new rules and having the best driver in the WRC in Sébastien Ogier was a major draw for Periack.
“With an all-new car and the new rule package, what a great season this is going to be. Having Sébastien (Ogier) in the car is a dream come true, so this is a big deal for us – we’re excited,” he added.
Therefore the status of Ogier is crucial is the return to succeed. Ford may only come back if he stays and Ford’s return will mean he will likely stay as the American manufacturer’s mega-bucks will give him the resources to challenge for further success.
Greensmith Shows Potential in Mixed Rally for Brits
It was a mixed rally for the British contingent.
Kris Meeke was never in contention for the victory, even before he spun into a snowbank. The Citroen seemed unable to match the front runners but quick enough to be in the top five placings.
Elfyn Evans had a frustrating rally struggling for grip for most of the event and picked up a two minute puncture morning of day one.
But in WRC2 Gus Greensmith gave a very promising audition for the role of future British Rally Hero on his way to fifth in WRC2 on his first outing with the M-Sport team.
Greensmith, on his first ever snow rally, delivering a brilliant performance keeping finishing a minute and a half behind more experienced team-mate Éric Camilli.
This is the first of six outings for this year for Greensmith but with more performances like this, he may become a future WRC driver yet.
Louise Cook’s very appearance on the Rally Sweden stages was a story in itself. The former Production Car World Rally Champion had considered selling her trophy to raise the funds to compete but a successful crowd-raising campaign prevented here parting with the illustrious trophy.
As the only entrant in the WRC3 in her Ford Fiesta R2 Cook was aiming for a straight forward run.
While she couldn’t match the pace of the other 2WD local competitors she was still on track to claim maximum WRC3 points until officialdom intervened.
The spare seat brackets did not match the Fiesta’s homologation records despite being FIA approved and did not gain a performance advantage.
Therefore she was prevented from starting day three and with it all of the hard work and generosity by hundreds of people to ensure her participation was all for nothing. A massive kick in the teeth over such a small issue.
In WRC2 Skoda made it two out of two with Swedish star Pontus Tidemand bagging a win on his home event.
However, unlike Andreas Mikkelsen’s demolition of the opposition in Monte Carlo, the result here was much closer as M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen pushed Tidemand hard although he was never close enough to threaten the Swede.
Still Suninen’s performance hints that 2017 may not be the all Skoda show in WRC2.