Analysis: Are the curtains down on Latvala's title challenge?

After a calamitous start to his 2016 campaign, is challenging Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title still realistic for Jari-Matti Latvala? Valentin Khorounzhiy investigates.

Analysis: Are the curtains down on Latvala's title challenge?
Jari-Matti Latvala, Miikka Anttila, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Miikka Anttila, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Richard Burns and Robert Reid celebrating
Tommi Makinen
Richard Burns
Richard Burns celebrating
Petter Solberg
Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen
Marcus Gronholm
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, Citroën DS3 WRC, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team
Sébastien Loeb
Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Winners Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Miikka Anttila, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Miikka Anttila, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport

Given the sheer number of drivers in the WRC field that would do anything to get a seat with Volkswagen, it should be very difficult to feel for Jari-Matti Latvala.

The Finn, after all, is not only driving the best car in the championship, but is clearly one of the most naturally gifted competitors in the sport, a regular frontrunner since 2008 and a driver who should have had little trouble becoming champion ever since he joined the strongest team.

Sebastien Ogier, of course, had other plans – and while the duo have become firmly established as the two key players in the WRC in the past three years, Latvala has yet to manage to run Ogier particularly close when it comes to the title fight.

The Finn's finest performances in the Polo R (and there have been a fair number of those) don't stack up to the relentless efforts of his teammate, a driver who's not only the finest of his generation, but will quite possibly one day be considered the greatest of all-time.

As disheartening as it must have been for Latvala to see people call the 2016 season for Ogier before it began, it's clear now that they had a point – two rounds in, Latvala has yet to score, while his French teammate has aced both rallies, scoring a maximum of 56 points.

Latvala might say that his season now starts in Mexico with round three, but are the Finn's 2016 chances of that elusive title really still alive?

Is a comeback possible?

There's probably a debate to be had about whether or not the 56 points Latvala trails Ogier is simply a matter of bouncing back from two rallies which the ruthless Frenchman dominated, almost effortlessly, without giving up a single point even in the Power Stages.

But, taking the psychology aspect out of it, just how plausible is it that a two-rally deficit can be made up? Here are some recent examples of drivers coming from behind to win the title:

Year Champion Worst deficit during season (proportional to current system)
2001  Richard Burns 25 (70) pts to Tommi Makinen after 8/14 rounds
2003  Petter Solberg 19 (53.2) pts to Richard Burns after 5/14 rounds
2000  Marcus Gronholm 14 (39.2) pts to Richard Burns after 7/14 rounds
2007  Sebastien Loeb 13 (36.4) pts to Marcus Gronholm after 9/16 rounds
1998 Tommi Makinen 13 (36.4) pts to Carlos Sainz after 9/13 rounds

Since WRC switched to 25 points per victory in 2010, no eventual champion has been as far behind as Latvala is right now. Sebastien Loeb, the champion of arguably WRC's finest recent season in 2011, was 15 points off after that year's opener – and it took him two rallies to get back to the top spot.

And while the rest of the WRC's “modern era” from 1997 onward has featured some rather spectacular comebacks, only in one campaign was the eventual champion's deficit bigger than a two-rally points haul.

That year was 2001, when the late Richard Burns picked up his only WRC crown by erasing a mammoth 25-point gap - the equivalent to 70 points in today's system - to Tommi Makinen in the second half of the season.

Burns, it should be noted, also non-scored in the first two rounds of the season, but he was also competing in a much more evenly-matched WRC field, to the point where a solitary win in New Zealand and consistent scoring were sufficient to overhaul his rivals.

There's basically no chance that 2016 will see seven different winners, nor is there much prospect that Ogier, like Makinen back in 2001, will go through a six-rally stretch with no better than a sixth-place finish.

Burns himself would later give up a 19-point lead to Petter Solberg in his final year in the WRC in 2003, while Marcus Gronholm would come up just one point short of stealing the 2006 title from Loeb, whose 35-point advantage almost evaporated in the four rounds he missed due to an injury in a biking accident.

Compared to that, Latvala's situation doesn't seem that precarious as just two non-scores from Ogier could restore the status quo.

But while the Frenchman isn't immune to making mistakes, he has failed to score points just six times in the last three seasons - hardly encouraging for Latvala.

Can anyone else stop Ogier?

If Latvala's title bid cannot recover from the early setback, that spells big trouble for WRC's 2016 season, because it's very unlikely anyone else can give Ogier a fight.

In 41 rallies since the Volkswagen Polo R was introduced, Ogier has stood on the top step of the podium 27 times, boasting a better win percentage than even Loeb had in his title-winning years.

Indeed, the 14 rallies Ogier has failed to win in that timespan generally fall under two categories - those events in which he suffered an accident or a mechanical issue, and those where he had to settle for second place, beaten in a straight fight.

Two of his straight fight losses come courtesy of Loeb in his farewell part-time season, but the others, including two extremely close runs at Finland and a great duel in Portugal, all saw him lose out to Latvala.

Nobody in the current full-time field apart from the Finn can really say they have beaten Ogier without the Frenchman running into some sort of trouble.

And while Andreas Mikkelsen came extremely close in Sweden last year and Hayden Paddon kept him on his toes this year, even the duo's biggest fans are unlikely to believe that they can reliably match Ogier throughout an event's distance.

Latvala can - and he's proven as much on several occasions. But if he cannot dig himself out of his early 2016 slump, it will likely kill any semblance of a title fight for yet another season.

Ogier's defeats since 2013:

Rally Winner Ogier's result
Monte Carlo 2013  Sebastien Loeb 2nd, a minute and a half behind Loeb
Argentina 2013  Sebastien Loeb 2nd, 55 seconds behind Loeb
Greece 2013  Jari-Matti Latvala 10th, early puncture and fuel pressure issues
Germany 2013 Dani Sordo 17th, damaged suspension on first day
Sweden 2014 Jari-Matti Latvala 6th, snow bank collision
Argentina 2014 Jari-Matti Latvala 2nd, a minute and a half behind Latvala
Finland 2014 Jari-Matti Latvala 2nd, 4 seconds behind Latvala
Germany 2014  Thierry Neuville DNF, went off the road on first day
France 2014 Jari-Matti Latvala 13th, gearbox failure
Argentina 2015 Kris Meeke 17th, engine problems
Portugal 2015 Jari-Matti Latvala 2nd, 8 seconds behind Latvala
Finland 2015 Jari-Matti Latvala 2nd, 14 seconds behind Latvala
France 2015 Jari-Matti Latvala 15th, gearshift problem
Spain 2015 Andreas Mikkelsen DNF, crashed out of the lead on Power Stage
shares
comments
Latvala says "my season starts in Mexico" after Sweden disaster
Previous article

Latvala says "my season starts in Mexico" after Sweden disaster

Next article

M-Sport ready for Mexican fiesta

M-Sport ready for Mexican fiesta
Load comments
How Neuville stole the show from Ogier vs Evans slugfest in Spain Prime

How Neuville stole the show from Ogier vs Evans slugfest in Spain

While all pre-event chat focused on the two World Rally Championship title fighters, their closest challenger charged into the spotlight on Rally Spain. Thierry Neuville's star turn and another strong drive from Elfyn Evans in his fight with Sebastien Ogier made for an intriguing event as the 2021 campaign nears its crunch point

WRC
Oct 18, 2021
The steely determination behind the WRC’s Solberg 2.0 Prime

The steely determination behind the WRC’s Solberg 2.0

Two decades after Petter Solberg emerged as a World Rally Championship winner, his son Oliver is ready to take the WRC by storm. Having secured a part-time WRC factory drive for Hyundai in 2022, he's raring to repay the marque's faith in him and follow in his 2003 champion father's footsteps

WRC
Oct 14, 2021
Analysing the key moves in WRC’s 2022 silly season Prime

Analysing the key moves in WRC’s 2022 silly season

The World Rally Championship will step into a new hybrid era in 2022, but the car changes haven't been the only excitement that has built within the paddock. WRC's 'silly season' kicked off in a big way and all the key driver moves for 2022 - of which there are many - look set to shake things up.

WRC
Oct 13, 2021
Why winning in Finland was Evans' true WRC coming-of-age Prime

Why winning in Finland was Evans' true WRC coming-of-age

By his own admission, the fifth World Rally Championship victory of Elfyn Evans' career in Finland last weekend was the drive of his life. Winning five stages in a row and soaking up huge pressure from the Hyundais on the fastest gravel stages around, the Welshman put in a faultless showing that proved what he is truly made of

WRC
Oct 4, 2021
Does Neuville have a point with his WRC Rally1 rant? Prime

Does Neuville have a point with his WRC Rally1 rant?

OPINION: Thierry Neuville's diatribe against the upcoming Rally1-spec machines that will usher in the World Rally Championship's new hybrid era was remarkable in an era where drivers are usually reticent to air their views in public. But are the Belgian's concerns about speed, safety and cost entirely valid?

WRC
Sep 16, 2021
How Rovanpera reached new heights in the Greek mountains Prime

How Rovanpera reached new heights in the Greek mountains

After Kalle Rovanpera’s historic feat at Rally Estonia, the Finn scaled new heights at the Rally of the Gods with a commanding victory. And this time Toyota’s young star demonstrated why the future is bright with his devastating speed and consistency at the Acropolis Rally

WRC
Sep 13, 2021
The WRC drivers that came of age at the Acropolis Rally Prime

The WRC drivers that came of age at the Acropolis Rally

Five drivers have won first time out at the Rally Acropolis, transcending the tough dirt and gravel Greek roads to cement a place in rallying folklore. Here are three of the first-time winners' tales

WRC
Sep 9, 2021
Understanding Suninen’s sudden WRC exit gamble Prime

Understanding Suninen’s sudden WRC exit gamble

From being considered a likely contender to drive the next-generation M-Sport Ford Puma in 2022, Teemu Suninen's abrupt exit has created plenty of questions. The Finn's bid to become his country's next World Rally Championship winner won't be furthered by being sidelined, but there may be reason behind the decision

WRC
Sep 2, 2021