In 2017, the Finn flew across the Atlantic at the top of the table. Second place at Rallye Monte-Carlo was backed up by a win in Sweden and Latvala was Mexico-bound with a four-point cushion behind his Yaris.
It didn’t last long. Toyota’s dream start to a WRC return after 18 years away came off the rails in spectacular fashion on the León-based event.
Friday morning had been scrubbed after an unrelated traffic accident slowed the movement of cars back from a spectacular pair of Mexico City stages. So, the gravel debut of the then all-new generation of World Rally Cars had to wait until after lunch.
Not far into the 55km El Chocolate test, the split times for Latvala and Toyota team-mate Juho Hänninen began to slide away. No surprise, Latvala was first on the road as championship leader and bound to suffer. And Hänninen? He was sick.
But by the end of the test, sweeping the road was the least of Latvala’s problems. He quickly dispensed with the end-of-stage interview and moved down the road. Distracted and trying to get more information from the team, Latvala said: “It’s too hot. Much too hot.”
It was the way he said it, with real urgency. Latvala knows his way around a car as well – if not better – than most of his colleagues and he knew something was amiss. It wasn’t just the engine, but the differential as well, that was overheating and compromising his ability to slow the Yaris.
Video: Rally Guanajuato Mexico Toyota onboards
The car crawled back into service and, performance wise, was turned right down for the weekend. Latvala and Hänninen completed the shortened route sixth and seventh, both around five minutes behind winner Kris Meeke.
Of the four all-new cars, the Yaris WRC had been exposed as the one most susceptible to the high temperatures and thin air at altitude. Part of the reason for this was the speed with which the Toyota was put together. Unlike Volkswagen five years earlier, there simply hadn’t been time to bring the Yaris to México to test in these conditions.
The car’s cooling package hadn’t been able to cope once the midday sun was in full force, especially in the twistier sections like the Otates test.
Twelve months on and Toyota brought three Yaris cars to North America. The problems were there, but less pronounced. Again Latvala struggled, but on day one Ott Tänak looked to have things licked, just 11s off the lead on Friday night. The Estonian simply wouldn’t be drawn on an overheating issue. He was having none of it.
First thing the following morning and hearts sank in Toyota. He reached the end of the stage 2m46s down in a car which ‘feels like it has 20bhp’. He retired for Saturday.
The team had worked wonders on the software side, taking the engine closer to the edge to deliver power under the harshest conditions of the season, but still the lack of airflow – cooler air going in and warmer air coming out – was hindering the Yaris.
Further aerodynamic changes ahead of last season helped further and Tänak’s ability to edge Elfyn Evans for second place was testament to things improving, but the car still wasn’t at its most comfortable in the heat and thin air – as a cooked alternator on Latvala’s car proved.
This time? Problem solved. Three cars in the top five and, courtesy of Sébastien Ogier’s superb drive, the Mexican monkey well and truly off the team’s back.
How? Further aero evolutions and the sort of data analysis more experience competing at these conditions brings in terms of refinements to areas such as electronic mapping and engine tolerances.
The effort and advances weren’t lost on those at the top. Akio Toyoda, team chairman and Toyota Motor Corporation president, was impressed.
“We finally won Rally México,” he said.
“The first two years in México, we could not fight during the rally due to overheating. But our engineers have put a lot of effort into improve the cooling system and finally we reached the top of the podium. I also thank their fighting spirits for the Kaizen.”
Kaizen was exactly right.