COFFS COAST (NSW) – Departing M-Sport Ford driver Ott Tänak could clinch the FIA World Rally Championship at next month’s Kennards Hire Rally Australia to take to a new job at Toyota, which was announced today.
PHOTO: Ott Tänak (right) and co-driver Martin Järveoja celebrate their maiden WRC win in traditional fashion at Rally de Sardegna earlier this year (Jaanus Ree pic)
The Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team confirmed anticipated news that Tänak, 30, would join a three-car line-up with Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi from the 2018 opening round at Rallye Monte-Carlo in January.
Tänak, who won his first two WRC events this season, is second in the drivers’ standings and 37 points behind M-Sport teammate Sébastien Ogier. Although considered only an outside title chance, Tänak has rounds in Great Britain and Australia and 60 available points remaining for a challenge should the four-time champion Ogier falter.
The news adds to the excitement building around Rally Australia, which will be the closing round of the 2017 WRC on the NSW Coffs Coast on 16-19 November.
(Rally Australia tickets tickets are on sale now at ticketek.com, with a 2-for-1 offer on a $99 three-day, all-stages pass available until 31 October.)
Tänak has been a popular member of the British-based M-Sport team and will want to leave on a high note in Australia, while third-placed Thierry Neuville is keen to improve his final position after scoring no points for Hyundai at the two most recent rounds.
Ogier has said this week he wants to clinch the drivers’ title at Wales Rally GB on 27-29 October. He has won the event for the past four years and will need another maximum result to avoid postponing the championship to a decider in Australia, where rivals will be able to exploit his handicap of running first on the Coffs Coast’s gravel roads.
“I didn’t want to go to the last rally in Australia and still be fighting for the championship,” Ogier told Britain’s Autosport magazine.
“The road cleaning is really bad on that rally and to go there and fight in those conditions, with the championship leader having to drive (in the worst conditions) at the front on the first day, it wouldn’t be so good.”
Tänak’s move to Toyota appears to leave incumbent Juho Hänninen out of a seat.
“I would like to express my thanks and appreciation for everything that Juho has done for us. He will always be a member of our family and has played an important part in taking us to where we are today,” team manager Tommi Mäkinen said without disclosing what Hänninen’s future would be.
Hänninen’s co-driver Kaj Lindström has been appointed team sporting director and will start the job at Rally Australia, where Toyota will field Latvala and Lappi in Yaris World Rally Cars.
M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson said the team farewelled Tänak and co-driver Martin Järveoja with a heavy heart.
“There’s arguably been no other driver who I have put as much faith in – or given as many chances – but I recognised his potential straight away,” Wilson said.
“It’s not easy to say goodbye, but it’s time for Ott to experience pastures new and we wish both him and Martin the very best for the future.
“Until then, there remain two very important events and I know that Ott and Martin will be giving their all to end their time with the M-Sport family on a high.”