Teenage Finn leads Ford's bid in British Rally Championship. Despite being too young to even drive in his native Finland, 17-year-old Jari-Matti Latvala will lead Ford Rallye Sport's attack on this year's British Rally Championship. He aims to...
Teenage Finn leads Ford's bid in British Rally Championship.
Despite being too young to even drive in his native Finland, 17-year-old Jari-Matti Latvala will lead Ford Rallye Sport's attack on this year's British Rally Championship. He aims to follow in the footsteps of several world champions who used the British series as a platform to greater success.
Latvala, who launched his career in Britain last season because Finns cannot legally drive until they are 18, will pilot an official Focus RS World Rally Car on the eight-round series. The Focus, built and run by M Sport, the team which operates Ford's FIA World Rally Championship programme, will be prepared to 2001 specification, making him eligible for the title.
Many Finns leapt to prominence in the British series before moving onto the world stage. Ford took Ari Vatanen (1976 and 1980) and Hannu Mikkola (1978) to British titles before they went onto win world championships. Stig Blomqvist, Colin McRae and Richard Burns are others who lifted the British crown before claiming the sport's ultimate prize.
Latvala drove his Focus RS for the first time during the championship's launch day in Nuneaton today. He piloted the car over 10 runs of a 2.5km special stage, a mix of asphalt and gravel, giving passenger rides to journalists, prizewinners and VIP guests. "It was my very first drive in the car and I couldn't believe how fantastic it was," he said. "When I arrived at the service park this morning it was just like Christmas. All I could do at first was stand there and look at it."
Latvala came to the attention of M Sport and Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson when the Finn and Welsh co-driver Carl Williamson finished 17th on their first world event, the 2002 Rally of Great Britain - entering the record books as the youngest driver to finish in the top 20 of the British round.
"He is quite literally an extraordinary driver," said Wilson. "With only six months behind the wheel of a rally car, Jari-Matti has gone out and achieved goals that even more experienced drivers are still aiming for. When his manager approached us to talk about the 2003 season we jumped at the chance to assist."
Latvala is managed by Finland's Timo Jouhki, who guides a number of that country's top drivers, including Tommi Mäkinen and also Mikko Hirvonen who is tackling his first world championship season with Ford Rallye Sport this year.
"Jari-Matti has worked hard at his development and hasn't taken any unnecessary risks, although his ability has literally rocketed him to the top. We've worked through programme options for this season and are delighted that there will be an official Ford Focus RS in the starting line up for the British Rally Championship," said Wilson.
The Finn is also hoping to compete in up to four world championship rounds and is excited that he will be eligible to compete in his home event, the Rally Finland in August.
"You must be 18 years of age to hold a driving licence in Finland," explained Latvala. "I guess in some ways I was far too impatient to wait the extra year to be able to legally compete at home, so the logical move was to come to the United Kingdom where the legal age is 17. While it was a risk, I was lucky to have the support of my family, friends and manager Timo Jouhki, and it was definitely worth it."
"I'm looking forward to completing a full season of the British Rally Championship as I already have some knowledge of the events. We will concentrate on this championship first and foremost, but any opportunity to gain experience of world championship events during the season will be great as that is ultimately where I want to be," he added.
Wilson acknowledges the young Finn has the potential to go far. "Ford Rallye Sport has staked a claim and has made no secret that the company will focus on the development of youth for the future. We firmly believe that is where the future of rallying lies. We hope that to work with such a talented young driver will not only have many benefits for both Jari-Matti and his M Sport support team, but will add value to the British Championship," he said.
Wilson also believes that working with young drivers at all levels will also benefit M Sport's world championship activities with Ford Rallye Sport, as engineering and support staff for all programmes work closely together at the company's Cumbrian base.