x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Latvala revved up

The Finn hopes that driving on his favourite surface will see him repeat his 2008 success as the opening round starts on Swedish snow in sever cold conditions.

Jari-Matti Latvala has been asked to play more of a support role this year.
Jari-Matti Latvala has been asked to play more of a support role this year.

Only twice in the last two seasons has a World Rally Championship (WRC) podium not been topped by Sebastien Loeb or Mikko Hirvonen. Of the last 27 championship rounds, Loeb's 18 victories and Hirvonen's seven far outweigh the double success claimed by BP Ford Abu Dhabi's second driver, Jari-Matti Latvala. But the stats do not lie: the 24-year old Finn is the only driver to have halted the top two.

With a new season revving into life in snow-covered Sweden tomorrow, Latvala, who regards the white stuff as his preferred surface, is coy about his chances of causing further upsets in the 13-round championship. "For this season, the team wants me to be the second driver and support Mikko's bid for the championship," said Latvala. "My role is more supportive and I need to get as many points as possible for the manufacturers' race [which Citroen have dominated for the past two years].

"Maybe I won't have as many chances for victories but it's possible situations will arise. I hope towards the end of the year I can fight for wins." On the Swedish slush, however, few drivers should be able to out- pace Latvala, whose maiden success came at this event in 2008. "This rally is the best one to start the new season," he said. "It's better to start here than in Monte Carlo or Ireland because the changeable conditions in those rallies drastically affect the car set-up.

"I really enjoy driving on snow, it is my favourite surface. It is eas-ier because you know what tyres you need for the conditions. The heavy snowfall this winter should make for a very good rally." Having made a less-than- impressive start to last season - he amassed a paltry nine points from the first five rounds - Latvala is intent on finding consistency to match his renowned pace. Last season, it took Latvala six rallies, encompassing a high-speed smash in Portugal's fourth round, to find a balance between speed and control.

"I need to concentrate on getting consistency," said Latvala. "To do that, it's about being relaxed. I was too excited at the start of last season and when the pace wasn't there immediately, I pushed even harder and made mistakes. The more relaxed I get the faster I go, so I'm entering the new season mentally calm and ready to go." The WRC schedulers have once again smiled kindly on Ford. The loose surface events the team favour feature heavily on the calendar, while Citroen's penchant for the sealed variety will be maximised on just four fixtures.

Perhaps not as important, however, as the increase in contenders this year. Marcus Gronholm, the Finn is driving in Sweden and has confirmed he could, finances permitting, enter other rounds too, while Citroen's Dani Sordo and Latvala continue to mature. Elsewhere, Norway's Petter Solberg's full-season commitment could be crucial, as could the arrival of Finland's former Formula One world champion Kimi Raikkonen.

@Email:emegson@thenational.ae