PHOTO: Kaj Lindström (left) and Juho Hänninen (Toyota Gazoo pic)
TOYOTA named Finland’s Juho Hänninen today as the first of its drivers who will lead the automotive giant’s return to the FIA World Rally Championship next season after a 16-year absence.
Hänninen, 35, has undertaken most of the testing of the new Toyota Yaris World Rally Car and preparatory reconnaissance at every WRC round this year and his appointment came as no surprise.
The Finnish-based Toyota Gazoo team led by four-time world champion Tommi Mäkinen is expected to announce a second driver after the current season ends at Kennards Hire Rally Australia next month. WRC2 frontrunner Esapekka Lappi – currently with Skoda and entered for Rally Australia – is widely predicted to get the job.
Today’s news completes another piece of the WRC picture for the 2017 season, expected to be the most exciting in years with four of the world’s top-five automotive brands – Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Ford – competing with faster, lighter and more spectacular-looking cars.
Volkswagen has confirmed Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen as its drivers, Hyundai will have Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Hayden Paddon and Citroen, Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Stéphane Lefebvre.
Only the independent, Ford-powered M-Sport squad is yet to name drivers.
Hänninen will be co-driven by the experienced Kaj Lindström, who formerly partnered Mäkinen. The pair will contest all rounds, with an option to continue beyond next year.
“This really feels like a dream come true. Joining a works team with such potential for a full season is a real opportunity for me,” Hänninen said.
“We have been working together since the car’s first outing, so that makes it all the more exciting and motivating. The Yaris WRC is incredible. I can’t wait to get started at the Rallye Monte-Carlo.”
Mäkinen said 2017 would be a learning year and Hänninen’s testing experience made him an obvious choice.
“When he joined the team, Juho was incredibly motivated and involved. He also understood very clearly that we didn’t want to cut any corners and that the 2017 season would be about coming to grips with the championship and learning,” Mäkinen said.
“He has quite a lot of experience in (the) World Rally Championship and I’m sure that because he has developed the Yaris WRC from the beginning, he knows the car best.”
Hänninen enjoyed several successful seasons with Skoda. He won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2010, the Super 2000 WRC in 2011 and the European title in 2012.
He was heavily involved in developing the Hyundai i20 – alongside Australian Chris Atkinson – for the Korean manufacturer’s return to the WRC in 2014. He drove in six rallies with the team before leaving at the end of the year.