2017 Season review: Toyota
This week on wrc.com, we take a look back at the championship season and assess how the top teams fared as a new era dawned in the WRC. Today, we start with Toyota – a manufacturer that was returning to the WRC for the first time since 1999.
The performance of the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT squad came under heavy scrutiny from the first event. Was Tommi Mäkinen as good a team principal as he was a driver? Would the aggressive and somewhat unique design of the Yaris WRC translate into stage-winning times? It didn't take long to find out.
Rallye Monte-Carlo proved to be an unforgettable debut for the Japanese manufacturer. Although the changeable conditions mean its not a rally where outright performance counts for everything, you still need to be quick – and know how to survive. Jari-Matti Latvala delivered on both fronts as he confounded many of the experts and guided his battle-scarred Yaris WRC to an impressive second-place finish.
But even better was to follow a handful of weeks later at Rally Sweden. Despite his late arrival at Toyota (a legacy of being unexpectedly released from his VW contract), Latvala had quickly settled into his new surroundings and the Finn attacked from the beginning on Sweden's snow-covered roads. Six fastest stage times shocked the service park and were enough to give Toyota its first WRC win of the season – an incredible achievement at only its second event. The team was riding high.
“I cannot find the words for how proud I am," four-time WRC champion Mäkinen [below] said. "It was such brilliant work from our team during the whole weekend. This is completely different from winning as a driver. It’s even better!"
Toyota's fortunes waned slightly on the four events that followed, but Latvala was back on the podium at Rally Italia Sardegna in June and Esapekka Lappi recorded arguably the team's most impressive result at Neste Rally Finland a month later.
Any doubts about the outright speed and performance of the Yaris WRC were answered on Jyväskylä's gravel stages. Lappi, the team's third driver, was unstoppable on home soil and his 36-second winning margin in Finland was truly remarkable. And team-mate Juho Hanninen's third place ensured Toyota celebrated in style on its 'home' event.
The run in to the end of the season proved to be a bit more of a struggle, particularly at Wales Rally GB where chronic handling problems hampered all three cars and Latvala's fifth place offered very little in the way of positivity.
But, looking at the season as a whole, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT can be hugely proud of what it achieved during its first WRC season in 17 years. Privately, the team had modest expectations for the year, choosing to prioritise car development and learning over outright results. But a brace of stunning wins showed Toyota was definitely back and will be a major force to be reckoned with in seasons to come.
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