The 2017 World Rally Championship was being hailed as a return to the Group B era, with an excited buzz from commentators about how these are the fastest cars in the history of rallying. Sadly, the speed of the cars wasn’t the only aspect of 2017 to be reminiscent of the Group B era; the beginning of the season was overshadowed when a spectator was killed on the very first stage of the year. The FIA quickly started considering rule changes to keep average speeds below 80mph and have already begun cancelling stages to highlight to other rallies that they will not tolerate exceedingly high speed stages.
However, the first two rallies of 2016 have provided plenty of excitement. In Monte Carlo it seemed as if Thierry Neuville had it in the bag until an error on Saturday evening damaged his suspension and lost him 32 minutes. This allowed reigning world champion Sebastian Ogier to come back from a poor start to take the win. Engine issues for M-Sport’s Ott Tanak meant that Jari-Matti Latvala took second place in Toyota’s first outing since 1999.
Three weeks later in Sweden and it was as if history was repeating itself for Neuville. He was well in the lead when, once again, he crashed on the Saturday evening. The only points that he has scored across the two rallies have been from the powerstage bonuses, which is exceedingly frustrating for Hyundai given that without those mistakes Neuville was on to win both events. This time it was Latvala who took the win, much to the surprise to those who didn’t expect the Toyota to have anywhere near the pace that Latvala is getting out of the car. Tanak and Ogier rounded out the top three respectively, with Latvala taking an early lead in the drivers’ championship by four points.
Latvala’s success is unexpected for a driver that nearly didn’t have a seat after VW left the championship at the end of 2016. Toyota was overlooked by both Kris Meeke and Ogier, with the season anticipated to be simply a learning year for the team as they adjusted to being back in the championship. But both Latvala and Toyota have been defying expectations in 2017.
It remains to be seen if Neuville can hold it together through Saturday evening, his apparent nemesis, in Mexico and start putting the points on the board that he deserves. The climate couldn’t be more different to Sweden, but will the pattern from the last couple of rallies hold? Whatever happens, underestimate Latvala and Toyota at your peril.