The news we have all been waiting for was revealed this morning as Dungannon rally ace Kris Meeke confirmed a return to top level rallying with Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Having been handed a sudden and somewhat unexpected break from the sport midway through the 2018 season when he was sidelined by Citroen Racing after a series of crashes and non-finishes, Kris has remained tight-lipped until now.
During the last week, it had been rumoured that Kris had a deal on the table to drive a full season in 2019. Realistically, there was only two teams that had room for the Northern Irishman – M-Sport Ford and Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Three years ago, Meeke had been involved in serious talks with Toyota team boss Tommi Makinen, who is also a four-time World Rally Champion, before opting to sign with Citroen. So perhaps a phone call to Makinen was the obvious call to make whilst Kris browsed his phonebook during some downtime!
It is safe to say that the call was made and that Tommi had more than enough time to listen to what Meeke had to offer. It was during this call that he was offered a drive in the car ahead of any deal being made.
Just yesterday though, the Ulsterman drove the Toyota Yaris WRC for the first time in a Finnish forest with, I am assuming, a deal already signed and sealed. And as if this change in machinery isn’t enough for Kris to deal with ahead of the new season, he and co-driver Paul Nagle, who has partnered Meeke for over a decade, have parted company.
Having crewed together for the first time in 2007 aboard a Subaru, the pairing went on to claim the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge with Peugeot before heading into the World Rally Championship with Citroen. They claimed five WRC victories together, whilst being one of the only crews capable of matching the dominant pace of Sebastien Ogier, time after time.
“The switch to Toyota does feel like a new beginning for me,” Kris said. “I’ve decided to start totally fresh, and that includes having a new relationship inside the car, with a different navigator – someone who’s never sat beside me before.”
Ahead of any official announcement, a brace of British co-drivers have been talked about when it comes to guiding Meeke to potential victory. They include Dan Barritt and Seb Marshall, both of whom have vast experience within the series.
So what does this fresh start mean for the Dungannon man? Kris will join Jari-Matti Latvala and Ott Tanak in a three-car Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally team. It’s a young team that has already amassed some impressive stats that include 18 podiums from 66 starts, six of which saw the Yaris at the top of the rostrum with just 11 retirements.
Team boss, Tommi Makinen, commented: “We are all very excited to have Kris joining us. We know that he 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.”
Kris comes to the team with 77 stage wins, 12 podiums and 5 wins from 91 starts.
“It’s a huge pleasure and honour for me to become a Toyota driver,” Kris said. “I’d like to thank Akio Toyoda, Tommi Mäkinen and the entire Toyota team for their faith in me. Three years ago, we first discussed the possibility of me joining the team, and I’m so happy that it’s finally happened now.”
“The performance of the Yaris WRC speaks for itself,” he continued, “but the team spirit here is incredible at every level, and everyone has the Japanese culture of honour and respect. I can’t wait to get started. I’ve got no particular objectives other than to enjoy my driving again and help Toyota to win a championship.”
In his 40th year, Kris Meeke is no spring chicken when it comes to the sport of rally, however he recalled a fond memory from his competition past, and before he was driving legally…
“The very first championship that I won was actually when I was aged 16 and co-driving for my brother on our local road rally championship. We clinched that title in a Toyota Corolla, so for very many reasons, it feels incredibly good to be here. I can’t think of a better place to be.”
See a video of Kris Meeke’s thoughts now…