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Mon 03 Jul 2023

What Latvala's return means for Finnish fans

To genuinely comprehend what Monday’s news about Jari-Matti Latvala competing on Secto Rally Finland means for the Finn and his friends, you have to step back a year or two. Nine, to be precise.

It’s the end of Ruuhimäki on the final morning. Latvala has just gone 1.6 seconds faster than his team-mate Sébastien Ogier. J-ML’s face is an absolute picture. He thumps the steering wheel and those usually warm blue eyes have an absolute steel about them.

“This,” said Latvala, “is what I came here for. I want to give something to the Finnish fans. I want to give them this victory.”

This was, of course, the year a brake problem aboard his Volkswagen Polo R WRC slashed his lead from more than half a minute (a lifetime in fast rally Finland terms) to just three seconds going into the final day. The expectation was that Latvala would be swept aside by the dominant French force.

It didn’t happen. Latvala dug deep and delivered.

“Finland,” said the Toyota team principal years later, “can do this for me. It takes you to a different level as a driver. I love it. It’s so big an event for me and for everybody who lives in Jyväsklylä and all around Finland. It’s always the same when you have the first warm days in the country… OK, Rally Finland is coming now.”

And now it’s coming with the return of the master and three-time Finland winner – aboard a GR Yaris Rally1. He’s promised there’s no chance of him equalling fellow Suomi WRC legends Hannu Mikkola and Tommi Mäkinen on four.

“I just want to end every stage with a smile,” he said. “And I can do this, then it would be nice to see everybody else smiling as well.”

Finnish fans really have something to celebrate this year – they have a defending world champion at the top of the table with Kalle Rovanperä. They have Esapekka Lappi winding his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 up and aiming it for the podium’s top step, they have Teemu Suninen in the sister car to EP and now they have Latvala back.

Good just got great for round nine.