In Jari-Matti Latvala's latest exclusive column on Crash.net, the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team man reflects on Rallye de France, where he took his very first Power Stage win...
I'm pleased with how things went last weekend in France, because I think it was the best performance I have ever produced on tarmac and in the end I was really quick in my Ford Fiesta RS WRC car.
Unfortunately, though, the final result doesn't tell the whole story and is not a true reflection of just how competitive we were, as we lost a lot of time on Friday when I went slightly off the road in SS3.
That happened because we were on the soft tyres for the first loop of stages. It was a risky choice, but we wanted to see how things would work on them even though the conditions looked like they would probably favour the harder option.
Apart from that one test, however, we set good times in all the stages and I didn't really have any other moments, except a spin in the second stage on Sunday morning. We only lost ten seconds there, though, and I was still fourth-quickest. It was nothing like the 80 seconds we conceded on Friday morning in Pays d'Ormont 1.
Throughout the three days, the speed was really evident and in total we set 18 top three times and took five stage wins from a possible six on the final day. That was most encouraging.
The win in the Power Stage in Haguenau, Sébastien Loeb's home city, was also great and gave me a real confidence lift.
It was my very first Power Stage win, so that was special. It also came on tarmac, which I didn't expect, so it means even more.
I am not usually so good in these short super special like tests - and this test was a bit like one of those at only 4.20km long. I actually enjoyed driving this one, however. It was a really nice test. I had a good feeling last year in it and I felt the same when I returned to do the stage this time too, even on the first run [as SS20]. I felt like I would be able to fight for the Power Stage win and I gave it my all. It went really well and it was good to beat all my rivals by over two seconds, especially given the test was so short.
It was a nice way to end the event as well, one that marked my 100th WRC run with Miikka [Anttila – my co-driver]. The Power Stage win was a nice way to celebrate that, but what we are really happy about is having made a big step forward with ourselves and with the car on tarmac.
Over the years, I have always lost time on tarmac. I haven't been able to feel the car and really be as competitive as I would have liked – but we are starting to find our way now and I believe we can soon be as competitive on tarmac as on gravel.
I think it is definitely going to be possible to push for podiums on asphalt from now on – although winning may take a bit longer. Every aspect has to be perfect to win and Loeb is also a very difficult man to beat on tarmac, but we will take it step-by-step and that is something I will try and work for.
I haven't won a rally at all this year, however, so the first thing is just to win a gravel rally again! Then we can see about trying to win on tarmac.
I do feel ready, though, to really start fighting for top places on asphalt and I have a good feeling going to Catalunya later this month, especially as my Fiesta RS WRC car performed brilliantly for me in France. It looked absolutely fantastic, too, in its black colour scheme! We had no issues, no punctures and no problems. The set-up of the car was really close to perfection. The way it is, is something I have been dreaming of for a long, long time. I have never had a car working so well and so suited to me as it is now. I'm very happy.
I enjoyed returning to Strasbourg, as well, after the first Rallye de France based there in 2010. The whole event ran pretty smoothly. There were a nice number of spectators – although not necessarily as many as last year. But I think that was because crowd favourite Loeb retired on the Friday with engine problems. The service park location was good, too, and I enjoyed the stages.
I think the idea of stopping people cutting corners was a good one, although I do have reservations about how it was done. They used steel rods, which you normally use when you build concrete walls. You use them inside the concrete to make it stronger. The steel rods were just hammered into the ground. They were a rusty brown colour and sometimes it was actually quite difficult to see them.
Also, if somebody went over one of them, they just twisted and then the rod would cut the side wall of the tyre.
I didn't have any experience of punctures with them, but I know some of the other drivers did. For me, going forward for 2012, they should use bigger steel poles – more like road sign poles – and they should be white, which will make them easier to see. Overall, though, it was a good rally.
At the end, I again gave a place to Mikko [Hirvonen – my team-mate] as I had done in Australia last month. I didn't mind doing it, however, especially when we look at how tightly-poised things are in the drivers' championship with Mikko now equal on points with Loeb.
Besides, when I took the time penalty, it didn't matter to me so much, just because fourth and fifth places are obviously not the same as a podium – and while it did end up being a podium, that was only after Petter [Solberg]'s exclusion.
For me, it is more painful to have to give up a podium if you have succeeded on the rally and are in that place after driving really well. Then if you have to let your team-mate by, it is a lot more difficult. That wasn't the case this time, though, after what happened on the opening day.
Spain is next on the agenda, and I am looking forward to it. The first day there is on gravel and we have around 166 kilometres in total to tackle on the Friday. The gravel roads are very nice in Catalunya. Then on days two and three we switch to tarmac, and those stages are the closest we get to competing on a racing circuit. It is a good rally.
What will I be aiming for in España?
I am going to go to the penultimate round and try to be as relaxed as possible. I will give the best performance I can, because the fight is very tight between us and Citroën.
I am prepared to help Mikko again if need be, but I also want to do a very good job for myself, too. We will just go out there and drive flat-out.
Then we will see what the result is at the end. Anything could happen, as we've seen in the last two rounds.Jari-Matti Latvala
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