Toyota got a podium finish on its WRC return in Monte Carlo - but how did it do it?
Sam Sheehan
12 February 2017

At the end of 1999, Toyota withdrew from the World Rally Championship to prepare for a Formula 1 campaign that turned out to be a disaster. Accustomed to winning on the special stages, it couldn’t repeat that in single-seater racing, with three podiums a scant return on a multi-million-pound investment.

Now it is back in the WRC with a Yaris powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder, 1.6-litre engine. The team is run by WRC legend Tommi Mäkinen, who has chosen two fellow Finns to drive, namely Jari-Matti Latvala and Juho Hänninen. The Yaris WRC made its debut in the snow and ice on last month’s Monte Carlo Rally and Autocar was there to follow Toyota’s comeback.

FRIDAY, 1.13PM, SERVICE PARK, GAP

Two Toyota Gazoo Racing mechanics work frantically to loosen the rear struts and release the suspension from the body of Latvala’s Yaris WRC’s body. Passing tools to each other, they start to adjust ride harshness, as per Latvala’s request after the fifth special stage.

“My suspension was too stiff” is the succinct feedback from Latvala, who is running fifth overall but losing time to those in front. It turns out he’s been running the wrong set-up on his car for today’s snowy road conditions – and he’s not happy.

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“Both Jari-Matti and Juho came to Monte Carlo with two different set-ups: tarmac and snow,” explains team principal Mäkinen. “In the morning we had some dramas with Jari-Matti’s engine, which wouldn’t start in parc fermé, so they had to push the car away from there.”

Mäkinen tells us that dealing with the engine issue left the mechanics with no time to adjust the set-up for the following snowy stages. “That’s why Jari-Matti has had a little bit of trouble up until now,” he says.

Not a great start, then, but at least Latvala has made it back to the service park in Gap, some 150 miles north of Monte Carlo in the Alps. Hänninen lost control on some ice in a downhill braking area and collided with a tree, damaging his Yaris beyond immediate repair.

Despite the bumpy start, Mäkinen is fairly relaxed. Hänninen was up to third overall before his crash, and the Yaris WRC is showing encouraging pace. “Our clear target is to learn and to be as strong as possible in 2018,” he says. “Of course, it was looking more than good straight away here before the problems, but this is the Monte Carlo Rally.”

Monte is one of most challenging on the WRC’s 13-round calendar. In the vast inclines and declines of its Alpine stages, road conditions are unstable, with thick snow and ice giving way to sun-kissed tarmac in the space of a few miles.

FRIDAY, 3.30PM, SS7, ASPRES-LES-CORPS

Mäkinen has left Toyota’s warm service park awning to come up to one of SS7’s highest points, almost 1600 metres above sea level. This part of the course twists and winds up mountains, hugging cliff edges to one side and offering drivers the option of a frightening drop on the other. The spectacular views of the snowcovered peaks are beautiful enough, but the sight of reigning champion Sébastien Ogier in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC draws the attention of every rally-mad spectator.

The Frenchman dances his car from apex to apex, his smoothness making this daunting task look almost easy. He powers past the fans who peer over rocks and cling to trees in sub-zero temperatures.

Other stars blast through, but there’s no sign of Britain’s Kris Meeke in his Citroën C3 WRC. Earlier in the day he slid off the road and damaged his car’s suspension.

We hear the Toyota approaching from a long way off. Its deep exhaust note is contrasted by the sharp chirrups of the anti-lag system. Latvala drifts into view, snow dust spraying out from under his tyres, and charges past with the car looking in good condition. The smile on Mäkinen’s face grows.

SATURDAY, 8.25AM, SS10, LA BÂTIE-MONTSALÉON

Hänninen has returned with a repaired car, but his accident yesterday means he’s out of the overall running. Latvala leads Toyota’s charge but was actually 2.8sec slower than his team-mate through SS9, the first 19.36-mile special stage of the day.

“I pushed too hard on dry tarmac [near the start of the stage] and I destroyed the studded tyres before I reached the ice,” says Latvala.

Braving the cold before the start of SS10 is Toyota Gazoo Racing boss Koei Saga. The 64-year-old stands as close as he can get to the road’s edge, waiting for his cars to come by.

“We are very happy,” is his reaction to a question about how the rally has gone so far, before a Yaris WRC bursts into sight and distracts him.

SUNDAY, 12.28PM, SS17, LA BOLLENE VESUBIE

Both Yaris WRCs make it safely through the final stage of the rally and set top-six stage times. Even better, Latvala secures second position overall, 2min 15sec behind the Fiesta WRC of Ogier.

“We’re in a really good position,” says Latvala. “I said beforehand that if we came sixth it would be good.”

Can Toyota maintain this momentum throughout its first WRC campaign since 1999? “It’s too early to make predictions like that,” says Mäkinen. “But I hope next year we will be ready to fight for the titles.”

Gazoo Racing’s team principal might be cautious with his words, but there’s no denying Toyota’s return to the WRC has got off to a flying start. The 2017 season could be very interesting indeed.

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