Toy­ota saves Meeke’s ca­reer

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - DAVID EVANS

Toy­ota will field one of the most ex­cit­ing driver line-ups in the his­tory of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship when Kris Meeke joins Ott Tanak and Jari-matti Lat­vala in the Yaris

WRC squad next sea­son.

The North­ern Ir­ish­man’s WRC re­turn will be con­firmed next week, when Es­apekka Lappi is an­nounced as a Citroen driver, free­ing up Meeke’s seat with Tommi Maki­nen’s Fin­land-based team.

There ap­peared to be an op­por­tu­nity at Toy­ota early last week for Craig Breen, but Au­tosport’s sources con­firmed that Meeke com­pleted his deal right about the time the team was ar­riv­ing at Rally GB last week. Spec­u­la­tion that his re­turn was com­ing closer was height­ened when the five-time world rally win­ner was spot­ted at nearby Manch­ester air­port.

With gos­sip and ru­mour go­ing into over­drive among WRC com­men­ta­tors, Meeke’s des­ti­na­tion out of Manch­ester was in­deed con­firmed as west­erly – but he wouldn’t be touch­ing the M56. In­stead he passed the Dee­side ser­vice park at some­thing ap­proach­ing 500mph as he flew to Las Ve­gas to watch Conor Mcgre­gor’s UFC fight against Khabib Nur­magome­dov on Satur­day.

Maki­nen re­fused to dis­cuss drivers for 2019, con­firm­ing only that there may be changes to the line-up. “We are pre­par­ing for pos­si­ble changes,” he told Au­tosport. “We’re in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­ten­tial [al­ter­na­tives] and we have good chances. There’s noth­ing to say at the mo­ment. We are work­ing with Ja­pan on this sub­ject now.”

Asked specif­i­cally about Meeke and Breen, Maki­nen added: “They both have po­ten­tial. And we are real­is­ti­cally think­ing about not too many op­tions

[in terms of drivers] if we want to fight for the man­u­fac­tur­ers’ cham­pi­onship.”

One thing Maki­nen did say is that he wanted an end to con­ver­sa­tions of a clan­des­tine na­ture. “I hope we can talk about this soon – pretty soon we need to know,” he said. “I would say I hope every­thing is sorted out be­fore Rally Spain at the end of this month.”

En­cum­bent Toy­ota driver Ott Tanak ad­mit­ted he could see the po­ten­tial ben­e­fit of sign­ing Meeke. “It’s not my choice, it’s not my de­ci­sion,” Tanak said, “but Kris is a fast driver – we all know that. Over­all I think it would be a strong line-up.”

Au­tosport’s source said: “Meeke deal is done. We know he is com­ing to Fin­land. It’s an ex­cit­ing time for Toy­ota – to have three drivers so fast and all of them ca­pa­ble for the rally win on any event. We have seen Meeke’s speed on any sur­face; he dom­i­nated in Cor­sica and he wins in Fin­land. This is spe­cial for Fin­nish peo­ple. It is show­ing what he is ca­pa­ble of – it makes the team warm to him.”

It re­mains un­clear whether Meeke has tested the Yaris, but he has vis­ited the factory in Pu­up­pola – and not for the first time. Be­fore sign­ing with Citroen, Meeke spent a long time con­sid­er­ing an of­fer from Maki­nen to drive for Toy­ota from 2016 on­wards. With Citroen’s C3 WRC all at sea in the mid­dle of the ’17 sea­son, the An­dorra-based driver must have won­dered if he’d made the right choice.

His re­la­tion­ship with the French firm nose­dived fol­low­ing his Rally Por­tu­gal crash in May, with the de­ci­sion to jet­ti­son Meeke com­ing just days later.

Since then, Meeke hasn’t been seen at a rally, pre­fer­ring to re­main at home with fam­ily and friends. That will change this week­end, how­ever, when he drives a Ford Fi­esta RS WRC at Ral­lyle­gend in San Marino. He will be co-driven at the demon­stra­tion event by Derek Ringer, who guided Meeke’s men­tor Colin

Mcrae to the 1995 World Rally Cham­pi­onship.

Meeke is ex­pected to be­gin his pre-monte Carlo run­ning with Toy­ota in De­cem­ber, but it’s likely that he will be in the car be­fore run­ning in the French Alps.

World cham­pion Se­bastien Ogier, who is head­ing in Citroen’s di­rec­tion for next year, told Au­tosport he was look­ing for­ward to see­ing Meeke back.

“It would be good to have him back with us again,” said Ogier. “He is one of the fastest guys around in the world cham­pi­onship. Peo­ple can say he has missed some con­sis­tency through his ca­reer but, you know, this guy, he knows how to drive fast and he is able to win ral­lies. As well as that, he’s a spec­tac­u­lar driver and we know that the fans love to watch this kind of driver.”

Citroen is un­der­stood to be likely to run just two factory C3 WRCS for Ogier and Lappi next sea­son. Hyundai is reck­oned to be clos­ing on agree­ments with Hay­den Pad­don and Dani Sordo to com­plete its 2019 line-up, while M-sport re­mains open, with only Teemu Suni­nen un­der con­tract for next year. El­fyn Evans, Craig Breen and Mads Ost­berg are all push­ing for a seat at the Cum­brian ta­ble.

“MEEKE’S DEAL IS DONE. WE KNOW HE IS COM­ING TO FIN­LAND”

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