Jari-Matti’s Mexican Tragedy

As someone said, it went from bad to worse for Jari-Matti Latvala on third day of 2012 Rally Mexico. Ford driver was in his own universe ever since trouble on earlier legs denied him the chance to fight for the victory. He would have none of that. Despite saying he will not try the impossible and catch the leading Citroëns, Latvala was flying through the stages, scored eight stage wins and it was pretty obvious he is not going to let go. Despite and against all odds.

And indeed he could have gotten this chance in case any of the leading Citroën’s developed serious problem on the marathon Guanajuatito stage. After all, tires were popping up like baloons at the birthday party throughout the event and it was not unreasonable to expect Mikko Hirvonen could hit trouble at some point. Hirvonen perhaps, but not Sebastien Loeb. Apparently Frenchman is still immune to all the common folk problems – punctures, bent or broken suspensions, rolls, rocks in the middle of the road… Loeb just cannot be bothered.

So, with Latvala’s charge being realistically justified, was he just trying a bit too much and a bit too late? I will be first to admit I was not really fair in judging his motives and indeed the causes of his crash on special stage 22. But did he really need to push that hard, with third safely under his belt and extra points available on power stage? At best he would possibly catch one of the Citroëns in case one of their driver ran into problems. Nice amount of extra points no doubt, but were they really worth risking it all?

For Jari-Matti Latvala World Rally Championship is going towards the make or break point and he is under increasing pressure, especially after being promoted to number one spot in Ford. He is undoubtedly fast and one of the best among the best currently active drivers, but to know that and not be able to justify it with rally finishes and results is just adding more pressure on him.

When first information about Jari-Matti’s demise hit Twitter, best described by Rebecca Williams‘: “ARGHARGHARGHARGH!!!!”, I was mad and sad and frustrated at the same time – and judging from the reactions of the WRC community I was not alone. And it is pretty certain Jari-Matti was going through same mixed emotions times hundred. He had it within his grasp, podium finish after victory in Sweden, two Fords making it to the finish and bringing all valuable points… and all it took was a split second in which Latvala lost concentration over Evgeny Novikov’s crashed car and Finns hopes sank deep beneth the Mexican desert sand.

My personal reaction was to blame it all on him and start asking myself what was he thinking, setting almost 30 seconds faster split times on this mammoth stage. And I admit it’s easy to be clever and smart and tactically perfect behind the keyboard. It’s a bit different when you try to do all that but behind the wheel of a rally car, baking in 50 or 60 degrees cockpit, with expectations of entire team and company on your shoulders.

But in the end, it was Jari-Matti’s fault. I doubt even he can say for sure if crash could have been avoided with less speed and pushing on his end. It’s just one of those things, as the rally people use to say. And it is. But after sliding off the road in Monte Carlo and losing a certain podium finish in Mexico Latvala is reducing his chances to go into such wild chases in future, if he wants to present any kind of threat to the Citroën machinery.

During World Rally Radio’s excellent coverage of 2012 Rally Mexico I caught someone saying: “Drivers can no longer afford to be Colin McRaes, crashing from rally to rally and still staying up in the game”. And rally community (myself included) is very aware of that, hence the expressions of disbelief and outbursts of anger. Because Jari-Matti deserves his place in the World Rally Championship – damn it, he was smoking everyone on that 54 kilometer monster stage. But he just needs to learn, and learn quick, how not to push, however hard or against his own sportsman and rally driver character that might be. We can be poets and romantic analysts (what?) but points and only points matter in the end. And I would HATE to see Jari-Matti Latvala end up like one of the “could have been champion” aces of the past!

In the end, Julian Porter aka The Rally Guru, snapped one of the most striking and story-telling images of Rally Mexico. You can see it below and it was taken right after marshalls informed Latvala he will not be allowed to continue due to damage to Fiesta’s rollcage.