Latvala rolls with it

The Finn returns to Portugal, the scene of his horrifying crash, a more mature driver, says Euan Megson.

Jari-Matti Latvala will hope to carry on from their Rally New Zealand success in Portugal.
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Eleven months ago, Jari-Matti Latvala, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver, blasted through the opening three stages of Rally Portugal and built up a 10.6-second lead. On stage four, the Finn approached a section of road he had originally marked as a double caution in his pace notes. Having changed the note the night before the rally, Latvala believed he could hold his speed through the long left-hand turn. The road, however, had other ideas.

Carrying too much speed to negotiate the narrow passage, Latvala's Ford clipped the left-hand bank, skidded across the dusty track and flipped over a roadside retaining barrier. What happened next was one of the most dramatic crashes in World Rally Championship (WRC) history. Latvala's car, with splintered metal, loose rubber and crushed plastic flying off at all angles, was tossed down the hillside, rolling an estimated 17 times in the space of a haunting 150 metre drop.

Incredibly, Latvala and Miikka Anttila, his co-driver, walked away unhurt, bumps and bruises aside, from the brutal crash. "When I did the recce I slowed down and had a quick look at where I went off," Latvala said. "I remember what happened and all the feelings well. It was a fast section and I braked too late. I hit the bank, started to roll and then went over the ridge. My first thought was fear.

"I was afraid when the rolls got faster and faster. There was so much sand coming into the car and when the roll-cage on the roof started to fold in I wasn't sure if I was going to survive. "The car finally stopped and I was relieved to see Miikka was OK. It was just a huge feeling of relief." What a difference a year makes. The Portuguese prang has seen Latvala mature from a high-speed liability to a model of consistency. Having scored his third career win in the WRC's last outing in New Zealand, Latvala is now second in the drivers' championship and leading Ford's dual title charge as he arrives for this year's Rally Portugal, which starts today.

"I'm not focusing on what happened here last year," Latvala said. "If my victory in New Zealand was a great moment in my career, then yes, Portugal was definitely a down moment. But it was not the worst moment I've had. That was in Poland [where he crashed out of second place only 1km from the finish line and spoiled a Ford one-two finish]. I'm just concentrating on the rally and putting in a good result.

"I'm still focused on my job as the team's No 2 driver and making sure I get good finishes and points," added Latvala, who trails Sebastien Loeb, the champion Citroen driver, by 36 points but leads Mikko Hirvonen, his Ford teammate, by eight. "The season is going better than I expected, but I still have a lot of work to do to maintain my consistency as the team pushes for the manufacturers' title."

Regardless of Loeb's imperious individual form - the Frenchman has won three of this season's five rounds so far - Ford will win the manufacturers' crown if the Latvala-Hirvonen double-act continues to outperform Dani Sordo, the Citroen No 2. For that, however, to be plausible, Hirvonen - so often Loeb's principal challenger - must rediscover his best form to renew their title tussles of previous campaigns.

Latvala believes that will happen sooner rather than later. "Loeb is very fast, but he made mistakes in New Zealand and that shows everyone can make mistakes - nothing is decided," Latvala added. "He is a tough man to beat and our drivers need consistency to keep pressure on him. That's the best strategy. "Mikko had a tough time in New Zealand, but he will bounce back and be fighting for victories soon, possibly even in Portugal."

Today's opening leg will consist of seven stages, with the event ending on Sunday.