SPOTLIGHTS
2022.12.02

A True Love for Cars and Rally - WRC Team Principal Jari-Matti Latvala

2022.12.02

The 2022 World Rally Championship (WRC) came to a close with TOYOTA GAZOO Racing claiming three titles: drivers’, co-drivers’, and manufacturers’ championships.

The principal of this world-beating team is Jari-Matti Latvala. After joining as a driver in 2017, he spent three years behind the wheel before taking the lead from 2021.

Needless to say, Latvala is crazy about rally and crazy about cars. In this article, Toyota Times hopes to showcase just how deep his love goes.

After Rally Japan, Jari-Matti Latvala poses with President Akio Toyoda and Takamoto Katsuta, who finished third to clinch a spot on the podium. (Photo: Noriaki Mitsuhashi/N-RAK PHOTO AGENCY)

Latvala, Finnish car guy

During a visit to Japan at the end of last year, Latvala managed to fit in a demo run and a chat with President Akio Toyoda, aka Morizo. Then in June, they again teamed up to drive the hydrogen-powered Corolla in the Fuji 24 Hours Race.

On paper, they are the president of a car manufacturer and the manager of its factory-backed team. Yet when Morizo and Latvala get to talking, they are more like close friends, with endless smiles all round.

At the heart of this friendship is their shared love of cars and a competitive spirit. During the Fuji 24 Hours Race, they battled each other for the fastest lap time despite being on the same team. The sight of Latvala’s genuine disappointment at being unable to catch Morizo made a lasting impression.

The pair’s lap times at the Fuji 24 Hours Race, where Morizo was declared the winner.

Latvala would never directly ask Morizo for driving tips or how to shave time off his laps.

Instead, he quietly sought advice from other teammates, including Masahiro Sasaki and Hiroaki Ishiura. At least in those moments, Latvala must have seen Morizo not as a boss but as a rival.

He may be a “car guy” like no other, but how does Jari-Matti Latvala spend his days back home in his native Finland? Toyota Times caught up with Latvala in his downtime.

Always behind the wheel

It was a Thursday, the second week of August. The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team had just finished competing in Rally Finland, an important event in its 13-round season.

Toyota Times met Latvala at a lakeside café, where he showed up in a T-shirt and shorts. Aside from the team logo cap worn for the interview, Latvala was in his casual day-off attire.

So, was this Latvala the team principal, or simply Latvala the car guy?

Instead of being team principal, this weekend I’m going back to being an old rally driver. I’m in the process of switching into driver mode.

It’s a bit different from the mode I would get into during my days as a WRC driver. I have to take a different approach to prepare myself mentally.

The week after the WRC Finland round, Latvala was signed up as a private entry in a local rally event. Even his time off would be spent behind the wheel.

That event was the Lahti Historic Rally. Lahti is the name of a region between the Finnish capital of Helsinki and the city of Jyväskylä, where the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team is based. This region also hosts a rally event for historic cars.

This rally is not about work, but about enjoying my weekend off.

――A weekend to enjoy without any pressure?

Yes!

――You’re paying Juho to join you for a fun weekend?

Yes, yes, yes! That’s right! This is purely for pleasure.

“Juho” is Juho Hänninen, who like Latvala had driven one of Toyota’s two Yarises upon the team’s return to the WRC in 2017. This time around, Juho was entered as Latvala’s co-driver.

Juho Hänninen (second from right) after finishing third at the 2017 Rally Finland.

While the “paying Juho” quip was a joke, Latvala says he always tries to entice Juho to be co-driver with drinks. Of course, this too is a joke. The two former WRC drivers have long been close rally buddies.

So why does Latvala insist on rallying even on his days off?

Back when I was still driving in the WRC, I had a chance to compete in a historic rally, and I found that I truly enjoyed myself in a way that I didn’t while competing in the WRC.

If you were to ask a singer what they did on days off, and they replied, “Going to karaoke with other singers,” you couldn’t help but feel that this is someone who just really loves to sing. The same is true of Latvala and his fellow drivers. Whether for work or pleasure, Latvala continues to live and breathe rally.

Multifaceted Latvala

What is Latvala’s mindset when he competes in rallies outside of work?

Of course, when the helmet is on I take things seriously. But at the same time, we no longer need to show that we have the skills to take on the world.

――So, do you feel much freer now?

Yes, in that sense I have more freedom. But... at the same time I’m still team principal, and I don’t forget that responsibility when I’m driving. So, I can’t just drive however I want – I’m conscious of keeping up a good image, taking lines that give me breathing room.

In this respect – enjoying rallying while being mindful of the responsibilities that come with leading a team – Latvala resembles Morizo, who is not only a driver but also president of Toyota and chairman of JAMA.

Is this a similar mindset to Akio?

I guess so. When he puts on that helmet, he also changes from Akio the company president into Morizo. Perhaps it's a bit like that. Lately, when I pull up at a gas station in Finland, I too get recognized by many different people.

When people see me, they greet me with the Finnish word for “team principal.” In the past I would be called a rally driver, but these days more and more people address me as the team leader.

Morizo and Latvala with the hydrogen-powered GR Corolla at the Fuji 24 Hours Race. (Photo: Noriaki Mitsuhashi/N-RAK PHOTO AGENCY)

In his “formal” comments ahead of the Fuji 24 Hours Race, Latvala said that he “thought that Toyota's new approach to carbon neutrality was simply amazing.” And went on, “Having experienced firsthand the activities toward carbon neutrality,” he said, “I would like to share them with the world, especially in Europe.”

When it came time to get behind the wheel, however, there was no sign of formality. Latvala wholeheartedly enjoyed driving with his rival Morizo.

Latvala the driver

Just to confirm, at the Fuji 24 Hours, was that Latvala the team principal, or Latvala the driver?

On that day, my “driver” side came out. While competing against Morizo for the fastest lap time, I could feel my “old face” quickly coming to the fore.

Akio is really fast, and he forced me to keep putting up better times every time I drove. I couldn’t catch his time, so I just had to keep pushing to be that little bit faster. That’s why I was asking Ishiura and Sasaki how to attack the corners, when I should slow down and when I should step on the throttle.

Latvala, unusually wearing a full-face helmet, awaits his turn behind the wheel at the Fuji 24 Hours Race. (Photo: Noriaki Mitsuhashi/N-RAK PHOTO AGENCY)

――Do you feel disappointed? Would you like to race in Japan again?

I do! When the 24-hour race was over, I asked Akio to bring me back to Japan again. He told me, “Sure, come!” So hopefully I can go back again next year.

Although at home he has come to be known as a team principal, Latvala clearly gets great pleasure from talking about “Latvala the driver.”

Latvala the car-lover

Given Latvala’s passion for cars, just how many does he own?

If you include the cars I’m currently working on, that would be 20. Of those, there are eight Toyotas in all: two ST165 Celicas, two ST185 Celicas, one ST205 Celica, one Corolla WRC, one GR Yaris, and an AE86 Corolla.

Eight Toyotas in all! As he counted them off on his fingers, Latvala had the air of a child boasting about his toys.

In the upcoming historic rally, he entered one of his ST165 Celicas. From the café, Toyota Times traveled with Latvala to see this ST165 Celica in person.

Latvala and his ST165 Celica

Jumping into the Lexus he uses for everyday driving, Latvala talked excitedly about his ST165 Celicas.

This time I’ll be driving the Celica ST165 GT-FOUR. It was Toyota’s first 4WD car, released in 1988 I believe.

In any case, it was with this car that Toyota started competing in the WRC. Mine is a 1990 model. In those days, Toyota’s WRC headquarters in Germany set them up like rally cars for customers.

Actually, my father will also take part in the rally driving the same car (ST165 Celica). His is the very machine in which Carlos Sainz won in Sanremo (Italy) in 1990, and Mats Jonsson won the Swedish Rally in 1992.

――Where and how did you manage to get your hands on such cars?

It was a bit of a coincidence... Back then, I was still with the Volkswagen team and never even dreamed of one day driving for Toyota.

A person came along who had bought a Celica in the 1990s. They approached me at an event.

Latvala recalled the story in detail. Together with his father, he was invited to the individual’s house. The father-son pair were so excited about the ST165 that they ended up taking it home.

What state was the car in at that point?

The car had apparently rolled in the mid-90s, and the chassis had been repaired after the accident. The roll cage was also damaged, so we had to put in a new one.

But having replaced the roll cage, the car is still safe to drive now. I had most of the parts to restore it, with a few exceptions.

I started assembling the car from an empty shell, tracking down any parts that were missing. I got the car in the summer of 2016 and spent the next year or so restoring it.

Latvala became a Toyota driver in January 2017. When that Celica came into his possession in 2016, he was still with Volkswagen.

Even as he drove a Volkswagen in competition, Latvala spent his days off restoring a Toyota Celica. Looking back now, that irony isn’t lost on him.

Latvala, the man who kept his boss waiting

Latvala’s move to Toyota was announced at the end of 2016. In the new year, he landed straight on the podium in the first round, finishing second. A month later in February, he won the event in Sweden, helping to mark Toyota’s dazzling return to the WRC.

In between those brilliant first two rounds, Latvala visited Japan to appear at an event at Mega Web in Odaiba, Tokyo. There, among the facility’s display of old rally cars, stood an ST165 Celica.

During the event, Latvala spent every minute of break time taking photos of the Celica while keeping his boss, then-Team Principal Tommi Mäkinen, waiting. The photo below, which Toyota Times shared with Latvala, captures the scene.

Latvala takes photos of a display car at Mega Web in Odaiba, Tokyo, in 2017.

Does he still remember that day?

I do, I do remember! As I mentioned, at that point the ST165 I had bought was in pieces, so I took pictures to check if I had assembled all the parts correctly or left anything out.

Latvala lies on the ground to take detailed photos.

While chatting fondly about this episode, Latvala had arrived at the spot where his two ST165s stood side by side: one to be driven by himself, one by his father. When asked to introduce the cars, Latvala stood between them and began to explain...

About the fact that his father’s car, slightly newer, had different instruments...

That the gearbox was a 6-speed dog box transmission...

That under rally rules, the vehicle must use a production car chassis...

Then, popping open the hood, he pointed out:

The airbox for cooling...

The engine angle that gives the vehicle such good balance...

The use of the hand brake for better turning...

Without pause, Latvala continued to reel off key details about the cars, never at a loss for words. Just when it seemed like the conversation might find room for a new topic... “Look up on the roof!” Latvala starts to explain about the ducts for cooling the car’s interior.

Watching Latvala left no doubts about how much he cherished this 30-year-old car and how excited he was to drive it in the rally the following day.

When these introductions were finally done, Latvala asked Toyota Times to join him on a pre-rally test drive.

Of course, this was nothing like the real thing, but the drive offered a chance to hear the roar of the engine and the changing of the gears from inside the three-decade-old Celica that Latvala had restored with his own hands.

As he savored those sounds, Latvala’s expression slightly softened.

Latvala and his never-ending quest for speed

Over the next two days of rally, this Celica ran a total of 154 kilometers over 12 stages, at the end of which Latvala and Hänninen crossed the finish line victorious. Stepping out of the car, Latvala was all smiles.

I had a really great time chatting with Juho. I think he made my driving better. In one of the last stages, I told him, “I feel like my driving has gotten better!” Perhaps I would be faster in the WRC now – not that I race anymore (laughs).

It shows you can still learn at any age. That means my driving can still keep getting better even as I get older!

――So, this weekend, we saw Latvala the rally guy?

Of course! It was a great weekend. Above all, I had a blast driving!

On the weekend after Rally Japan, Toyota announced its WRC team lineup for 2023. While Jari-Matti Latvala’s name was sadly not listed among the drivers, he will continue to lead the team as principal.

When asked what he did in Japan after the rally event, Latvala responded, “Together with the drivers and co-drivers, we did some off-road driving and cart racing.”

Toyota’s factory-backed rally team is a group of “car-crazy” individuals, from the team owner and principal down to the drivers. Starting in January, they will once again take on the world for the 2023 season. Stay tuned!

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