Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson says there is no doubt that Jari-Matti Latvala is ready to fight for the 2012 World Rally title after his performances this season.
Latvala finally took his first win of the year in Great Britain last weekend. He finished the campaign only fourth in the standings after a sometimes difficult first half of the season, but became Ford's lead driver in later rounds, obeying team orders to hand title-chasing teammate Mikko Hirvonen positions in three straight rallies before winning in Wales. Although Latvala ultimately won the finale by a large margin following Sebastien Loeb's retirement, he had been ahead of the World Champion when Loeb had his road section collision.
Asked if he felt Latvala could start 2012 among the title favorites, Wilson replied: "I think there is no question; you just have to look at how he's improved throughout the season. And I'm sure a lot of people here have also heard Sebastien on the last stage [on Saturday] when he said that he'd driven the absolutely perfect stage, that he'd driven the perfect rally and yet Jari took five seconds off him.
"I think if you look at that with Jari's Tarmac performance in Spain, he's definitely got to be one of the main guys for the championship next year."
Latvala has a Ford deal for next year, but the firm has yet to ratify its continued WRC presence, although Wilson said he is confident this will happen in the next month.
"I think my first priority is to make sure we keep Ford in the WRC and there is no question they want to be in and there is no question about myself and M-Sport, so we're in discussions and hopefully we will have a decision before the closing date for the entries in December," he said. "Of course, everybody knows that Jari is contracted to us next year and my priority at the moment is that we keep Ford in the WRC."
Latvala's current teammate Hirvonen has been linked to a move to Citroen next year in a potential swap deal with Sebastien Ogier. Having been criticized for errors and inconsistency earlier in his career, Latvala felt he had now proved those days were behind him, despite the frustrations of not winning a rally for 15 months.
"OK, in previous seasons I have made mistakes, I have been going off the road," he said. "But now I was able to keep it on the road but losing by such small margins, and that is like killing you inside. When you [get beaten by] two-tenths of a second in Jordan and eight seconds in Finland, your home territory, at some point you think it is starting to look like you are not going to win anything this year and it's going to give even more pressure for next year."