North­ern Ir­ish­man to re­turn to the North­ern Ir­ish­man to re­turn to the

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - By David Evans

Mo­tor­sport News can con­firm Kris Meeke will re­turn to the World Rally Cham­pi­onship with Toy­ota Ga­zoo Rac­ing next year.

The Dun­gan­non driver will join Ott Tanak and Jari-matti Lat­vala in a fac­tory Yaris WRC, with the deal ex­pected to be an­nounced be­fore the end of the month.

Kris Meeke’s re­turn to the World Rally Cham­pi­onship is com­plete, with the North­ern Ir­ish­man ex­pected to start test­ing a Toy­ota Yaris WRC next month.

The Dun­gan­non driver will re­place Es­apekka Lappi, who de­parts Toy­ota, bound for Citroen and life along­side Se­bastien Ogier in a C3 WRC. Lappi’s move is ex­pected to be an­nounced by the French firm next week.

The team de­nied a deal was done, with team prin­ci­pal Tommi Maki­nen still not of­fer­ing pub­lic ac­knowl­edg­ment that Lappi is on his way out.

The Finn told Mo­tor­sport News: “We are pre­par­ing for pos­si­ble changes. 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.”

Sources close to Toy­ota have con­firmed to MN that Meeke’s deal was done and fi­nalised last week.

Maki­nen ad­mit­ted both Meeke and his fel­low Emer­ald Is­lan­der Craig Breen were of in­ter­est to him.

“They both have po­ten­tial,” he said. “And we are re­al­is­ti­cally think­ing about not too many op­tions if we want to fight for the man­u­fac­tur­ers’ cham­pi­onship.”

Spec­u­la­tion of a Breen deal to drive a Yaris WRC was fu­elled by the Water­ford driver say­ing he would have a drive for next sea­son.

“Ev­ery­thing is go­ing in a good di­rec­tion for the minute,” he said. “I’m look­ing for ev­ery op­tion we can. It’s look­ing good that I’ll have a car to drive – a fac­tory car – in the cham­pi­onship next sea­son.”

While he wouldn’t con­firm Lappi was leav­ing, Maki­nen did out­line a time­line of when he would like his line-up con­firmed for next sea­son.

He added: “I hope we can talk about this soon, pretty soon we need to know. I would say I hope ev­ery­thing is sorted out be­fore Rally Spain at the end of this month.”

In­cum­bent Toy­ota driver Ott Tanak said he could see the po­ten­tial ben­e­fit of sign­ing Meeke when asked by MN if he wanted the five-time world rally win­ner along­side him.

“It’s not my choice, it’s not my de­ci­sion,” he said, “but Kris is a fast driver – we all know that. Over­all I think it would be a strong line-up [to have him in the team].”

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

Breen’s best op­tion now looks to be with an M-sport Ford Fi­esta WRC as Citroen re­mains un­de­cided whether it will run a three-car team in 2019.

M-sport team prin­ci­pal Mal­colm Wil­son has spo­ken to Breen’s team, but the Cum­brian wasn’t giv­ing any­thing away.

“The pri­or­ity for me right now is to make sure M-sport is in Monte Carlo next year,” he said. “Los­ing Se­bastien [Ogier] is a big blow. There are driv­ers out there we’re talk­ing to. As I men­tioned, there has been con­tact with Kris [Meeke] and oth­ers. But, for now, we have to re­view ev­ery­thing.”

Spec­u­la­tion that a Meeke deal was close in­ten­si­fied when he was spot­ted at Manch­ester air­port on Thurs­day morn­ing. Meeke and co-driver Paul Na­gle had no in­ten­tion of at­tend­ing the Dee­side ser­vice park and were ac­tu­ally in tran­sit to watch fel­low North­ern Ir­ish­man Conor Mcgre­gor’s UFC fight against Khabib Nur­magome­dov in Las Ve­gas on Satur­day night.

Meeke hasn’t been seen at a rally since he was dropped by Citroen in May this year – but he will re­turn to a rally car when he tack­les this week­end’s Ral­lyle­gend event in San Marino.

Meeke had been ex­pected to drive an ex-colin Mcrae car on the all-as­phalt event, but will in­stead use a 2014-spec­i­fi­ca­tion Ford Fi­esta RS WRC, co-driven by the man who guided his men­tor Mcrae to the 1995 World Rally Cham­pi­onship ti­tle, Derek Ringer.

The fact that Meeke is us­ing a Fi­esta in San Marino this week helped to fuel ru­mours that he was about to sign for M-sport. In­stead, he will head to Toy­ota, the team he came so close to join­ing at the end of 2015.

Meeke will make a wel­come re­turn to the WRC in Monte Carlo in Jan­uary, with cur­rent world cham­pion Se­bastien Ogier among those ready to wel­come him back.

“For sure, it would be good to have him back with us again,” said Ogier. “He is one of the fastest guys around in the WRC. Peo­ple can say he has missed some con­sis­tency but, you know, this guy, he knows how to drive fast and he is able to win ral­lies. He’s a spec­tac­u­lar driver. Fans love to watch this kind of [driver]. If th­ese ru­mours are true then, for sure, we would love to have him back.”

Meeke will be back in a front-line World Rally Cham­pi­onship seat in a fac­tory Toy­ota Yaris

Maki­nen is a Meeke fan

This year’s Toy­ota man Lappi is ex­pected to be in a Citroen

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