Toyota saves Meeke’s career
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”