Belfast Telegraph

Bad news for Meeke as Ogier departure sparks Citroen's exit

Sebastien Ogier
Sebastien Ogier

By Sammy Hamill

It came sooner than expected but once Sebastien Ogier confirmed he was leaving, almost certainly to join Toyota, Citroen moved quickly to pull the plug on their World Rally Championship.

The French manufacturer, which dominated the WRC for a decade after the Millennium, winning the world title nine times with Sebastien Loeb, made the announcement in Paris yesterday, citing the "absence of a first-class driver available for the 2020 season" following six-time champion Ogier's decision to walk away with one year left on his contract.

There has been no comment so far from Toyota but it is believed that they will announce Ogier's signing early next week, the French ace joining Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanpera in a new-look team for 2020.

It almost certainly means the departure of Kris Meeke, who is coming to the end of his year-long contract with the Tommi Makinen-run Toyota Gazoo team.

The Ulsterman was one of a number of drivers who grappled to tame Citroen's troublesome C3 WRC car over the past three years before he was sacked halfway through the 2018 season.

But even Ogier couldn't overcome its problems, at one point claiming it was impossible to drive in certain conditions.

He and Meeke were the only drivers to win in the car, but when his C3 was hit by hydraulic failure on the first day of Rally GB last month, ending his hopes of preventing Ott Tanak taking his world crown away from him, an already frustrated Ogier decided he'd had enough.

And the door to an escape route opened when Tanak suddenly revealed that he was quitting Toyota to join Hyundai.

With such a tempting opportunity available, Citroen, whose parent PSA Group had already announced that they would quit rallying at the end of 2021 to concentrate on endurance racing with Peugeot, could do nothing to prevent Ogier from jumping their ship.

Citroen's withdrawal reduces the number of full-time professional places available for next season, leaving question marks over the futures of a string of drivers, including Meeke and Craig Breen as well as 2014 Circuit of Ireland winner Esapekka Lappi, who still has a year to run on his Citroen contract.

Toyota boss Makinen had previously expressed his wish to keep both Meeke and Jari Matti Latvala on board, but with another ex-Circuit of Ireland winner, Juho Hanninen, already employed as their test driver, he may have to let them go.

There appears to be only one 2020 seat left up for grabs. If Evans' departure is confirmed, there will be a place at M-Sport Ford alongside Teemu Suninen - but it will come with strings, including budgetary considerations.

Meeke and Latvala, along with the rest of the Toyota team, travelled to Tokyo for the Japanese company's end-of-season celebrations following the cancellation of Rally Australia because of bushfires. It may have been a muted occasion for both of them.

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