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PHOTO: Toyota’s 2017 WRC line-up (from left), Jari-Matti Latvala, Juho Hänninen, Esapekka Lappi and team principal Tommi Mäkinen (Toyota pic)

AUTOMOTIVE giant Toyota has snapped up Finnish star Jari-Matti Latvala to lead its return to the FIA World Rally Championship, confirming another key move in the sport’s biggest driver shake-up in years just five weeks before the 2017 season starts.

Toyota Gazoo Racing’s signing of Latvala and new WRC2 champion Esapekka Lappi to join existing team member Juho Hänninen was announced in Finland on Tuesday.

It came a day after the British-based M-Sport team revealed the biggest prize of the off-season with the hiring of four-time champion Sébastien Ogier – backed by 2016 WRC Driver of the Year Ott Tänak – to drive its new Ford Fiesta WRC.

The news means the top four manufacturer teams contesting the WRC next year – Toyota, M-Sport, Hyundai and Citroën – have all settled their driver line-ups. Hyundai retains its existing trio of Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo, while Citroën in October announced Craig Breen and Stéphane Lefebvre will join the incumbent Kris Meeke.

However, there are still some pieces to fit in the driver puzzle as a result of the spill caused by Volkswagen’s unexpected decision last month to withdraw from the championship.

After four years with the WRC’s dominant team, Ogier and Latvala have found new homes, but plans for teammate Andreas Mikkelsen – winner for Volkswagen of Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the Coffs Coast last month – are still unknown. Mikkelsen could be a candidate for a privately-run Volkswagen team the manufacturer is said to be seeking.

Also to be advised are the futures of former M-Sport drivers Mads Østberg, Eric Camilli and Elfyn Evans and Ford privateer Lorenzo Bertelli.

Back in the WRC after 17 years, the world’s biggest auto maker revealed its Yaris rally car in final form, built to new 2017 technical rules that allow much more power, less weight, wider wheel tracks, better aerodynamics and an active centre differential for the all-wheel-drive transmissions. The cars will be the fastest in the WRC’s history, so much that drivers will need special approval from the sport’s governing body.

Hyundai and M-Sport have also shown their new cars in undisguised form, while Citroën will unveil its C3 model in team livery next Wednesday.

Toyota Gazoo Racing will be an all-Finnish effort, with three Finnish drivers, a Finnish team principal in four-time champion Tommi Mäkinen and headquarters near Jyväskylä, the home of Rally Finland.

Its announcement was made by Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda, a motorsports enthusiast who revealed he had driven the Yaris WRC last week.

“Because they involve competition on all types of roads, rallies are the optimal stage on which to hone the capabilities of both people and cars,” Toyoda said.

“Toyota has not been seen on that stage for a long time, but I’m truly happy that we’re back.”

Cars will be provided for Latvala and Hänninen at Rallye Monte-Carlo, starting on 19 January, but Lappi will be a test driver.

Toyota left the WRC at the end of 1999 after achieving three manufacturers’ championships and four drivers’ titles between Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol.

2017 WRC driver line-up –

Toyota: Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland), Juho Hänninen (Finland), Esapekka Lappi (test driver, Finland)
M-Sport (Ford): Sébastien Ogier (France), Ott Tänak (Estonia)
Hyundai: Thierry Neuville (Belgium), Hayden Paddon (New Zealand), Dani Sordo (Spain)
Citroën: Kris Meeke (Great Britain), Craig Breen (Great Britain), Stéphane Lefebvre (France)
To be advised: Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), Mads Østberg (Norway), Eric Camilli (France), Elfyn Evans (Great Britain)

2017 WRC calendar –

1. Monte-Carlo, 19-22 January
2. Sweden, 9-12 February
3. Mexico, 9-12 March
4. France, 6-9 April
5. Argentina, 27-30 April
6. Portugal, 18-21 May
7. Italy, 8-11 June
8. Poland, 29 June-2 July
9. Finland, 27-30 July
10. Germany, 17-20 August
11. Spain, 5-8 October
12. Great Britain, 26-29 October
13. Kennards Hire Australia, 16-19 November (Coffs Coast, NSW)

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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