NORTHERN Irish driver Kris Meeke has signed with Toyota to form the most experienced team in the FIA World Rally Championship next year.
PHOTO: Kris Meeke tested his new Toyota Yaris WRC for the first time on Tuesday in Finland (Toyota pic)
Meeke, who was dumped by Citroën after Rally Portugal in May, will resume his career alongside Finn Jari-Matti Latvala and the Estonian Ott Tänak, who has won four events this season for the Toyota Gazoo World Rally Team and currently is third in the drivers’ championship standings.
His signing was announced today just after his former team confirmed an effective swap by securing Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi to partner five-time champion and M-Sport Ford defector Sébastien Ogier.
Citroën did not reveal the 2019 outlook for current drivers Mads Østberg and Craig Breen, although media speculation this week has the latter moving to M-Sport Ford with New Zealander Hayden Paddon.
One of the biggest driver shake-ups in years means this season’s finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on 15-18 November will be the last time several stars will appear for their current teams. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville. Ogier and Tänak are fighting for the world championship on the Coffs Coast.
Ticket are on sale at www.rallyaustralia.com.au.
At 39, Meeke is the oldest front-line WRC driver. He’s started 91 WRC rallies since 2002 and won five. Although regarded as one of the fastest drivers, his record of crashes prematurely ended his time with Citroën.
Jari-Matti Latvala, 33, also joined the WRC in 2002 but has started 193 rallies and scored 17 wins. Tänak is 31 and has taken six wins from 91 starts since joining the championship in 2009.
Toyota revealed Meeke tested a Yaris WRC car for the first time on Tuesday in Finland. He said the motivation to chase the world title remained.
“It’s been a difficult few months for me, but I wasn’t that long away and I got that hunger back,” he added.
“I still think I can achieve a lot more in the sport and hopefully with this new exciting venture we can achieve good things together.”
Long-term co-driver Paul Nagle will not follow Meeke after the pair agreed to an amicable split. Seb Marshall, currently sitting with Hayden Paddon, is tipped to replace Nagle.
Toyota Gazoo Racing team principal Tommi Mäkinen said his 2019 line-up had the pace and experience to mount another title challenge.
“We know Kris is very fast, but he also brings a lot of experience. His technical understanding is at a really high level and I believe he can provide new knowledge and ideas to help us in our aim to keep making the Yaris WRC better,” Mäkinen said.
The 27-year-old Finn Lappi, who leaves Toyota after two seasons, is regarded as one of the WRC’s rising stars and believes partnering Ogier can only help his career.
“It’s a good opportunity for me to keep improving. After having learned many things from Jari-Matti Latvala last year and from Ott Tänak this year, I’ll have everything it takes to be even better if I also manage to draw inspiration from Seb,” said Lappi, who inked a two-year deal.
Citroën’s C3 World Rally Car has not won since Spain with Meeke 12 months ago, but Lappi believes his switch will pay off.
He lies fourth in the 2018 drivers’ standings and his maiden victory at his home rally in 2017, on only his fourth World Rally Car drive, signalled the arrival of a new star.