MEEKE SEALS WRC RETURN WITH TOYOTA
Northern Irishman to return to the Northern Irishman to return to the
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