In what has been a largely forgettable season for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team, the success of Jari-Matti Latvala, the ever-improving second driver for the perennial World Rally Championship (WRC) challengers, has provided a welcome distraction. With five rounds of the 13-event calendar remaining, Ford lie 55 points behind Citroen in the manufacturers' standings, and Mikko Hirvonen, their lead driver, languishes in fifth place in the drivers' standings.
Hirvonen, who was the team's principal threat the past two seasons, began 2010 well by winning the opening round in Sweden. But his only other top-three finish was his third place in April's Rally Turkey as a combination of mistakes and the pace of the Citroens have curtailed his challenge. Latvala, however, has won two rallies in the same season for first time. With four top-three finishes, he sits third in the drivers' rankings, on target for his best championship finish to date.
Pace has always been a notable attribute for Latvala. But this year, unburdened by team orders and able to chase victory, the 25-year-old has discovered consistency to go with his natural ability. "Being the second driver has definitely helped me. It has taken away considerable pressure," he said ahead of today's opening day of Rally Germany, which runs until Sunday. "But there is no point changing my strategy now. It has been working well and I have enjoyed driving with less pressure.
"My plan [going into 2010] was to finish among the top three drivers at the end of the season and I still have the same target now. I'm not fighting for the drivers' title. My concern is the manufacturers' championship." Latvala has a well-measured combination of speed and sense, underlining his new, mature approach to competition, but the down-to-earth Finn is looking to improve his overall performance.
"I know that I am not ready to challenge for the drivers' title," he said. "Speed has never been a problem for me, it has been about finding consistency and I still need that on tarmac. "I need to make big step forward until the end of the year because I'm hoping to fight for the title next year." It is arguable, however, that Latvala has already taken the largest of the required strides. Winning in Finland, his home event, in the WRC's last outing saw the Ford driver tame what is widely regarded as the most demanding test in the series.
Questions remain over the gravel-favouring driver's prowess on sealed surface events. But Malcolm Wilson, Ford's team director, said the future is getting brighter for his No 2. "I've always believed that a win in Finland is the crucial point in any driver's career and I expect Jari to go from strength-to-strength from now on," Wilson said. "We have been under pressure for the last few months because the results haven't been coming. I said to the team that we had to dig deep and we made a push to win Finland. Jari was under added pressure with Mikko crashing, but he coped very well."
Latvala said he was "very, very pleased" with his win in Finland. "It was a fantastic personal achievement for me and a great result for the team," he said. "A win in Finland is a huge boost for my confidence in what has already been a very satisfying season." Latvala said, however, that securing his first victory on home soil was not the most important triumph of his four-win career. "You can never beat your first victory, so Finland was my second best, definitely," said Latvala, who became the WRC's youngest-ever winner when he finished first in Sweden two years ago.
"A Finland victory is appreciated more than elsewhere," he said. "For a driver, winning there is harder than in most other rallies. Even [Sebastien] Loeb [the championship leader] admitted Finland had been the hardest to win." National support - both during and post-rally - had been influential, he said. "The support from across Finland was amazing, I had hundreds of text messages and dozens of calls and emails," Latvala said.
With a tricky asphalt round lying in wait, Latvala, who has never finished higher than eighth in Germany, needs to retain the feel-good factor this weekend. There are few similarities between the lightning fast Finnish mud tracks and Germany's varied tarmac stages, but Latvala is hoping three days of tarmac testing will foster a smooth transition. "It's a very difficult rally because there are lots of character changes; the difference between the military, vineyard and farming stages can be quite astonishing. The weather also plays havoc with tyres and settings," he said.
Another top-three finish, Latvala said, is not the chief priority. "When I was in the slower Group N cars, I enjoyed Germany, but it's been difficult for me in the WRC car," he said. "I'd be happy with a top five finish and hopefully I can go well through the military stages where the grip is best. "Overall, I'm finishing more rallies and getting more points, but with five rounds left I must keep improving my skills, especially on tarmac."