Meeke relishing a clean slate after his Citroen nightmare
Kris Meeke says it is a fresh start — new team, new car, new co-driver and renewed enthusiasm for the 2019 World Rally Championship season.
Following confirmation that he will drive for Toyota next season, the Andorra-based Ulsterman admits the past few months have been ‘difficult’ following his sacking by Citroen in May, but by August he realised he didn’t want his rally career to end on a sour note.
“Everyone knows what happened earlier this year, and afterwards I decided to stay silent for a while and keep myself to myself. Sometimes it’s best not to react,” he explained.
“During that time, I came to realise that I’d not really enjoyed myself for the previous 18 months. It was an incredible realisation, but I was determined that I wouldn’t let my time in this sport that I love pass under a cloud. That made me more motivated and determined than ever.
“After Rally Finland (which he won in sensational fashion in 2016), I gave all the team principals a call and said that if there was ever an opportunity I would love to hear from them. And when Tommi Makinen asked if I’d like to drive the Toyota, it was an absolute no-brainer.”
The four-time world champion, who heads up Toyota’s WRC campaign, had originally approached Meeke when the project was getting off the ground in 2015.
“Three years ago I sat down with Tommi and discussed the possibility of me going to Toyota, but at the time it was just a vision. I would have needed to commit to a season without any rallies at first, and at the time I needed to do a full season,” he said.
“He understood my point of view, but the simplicity and logic of his vision never went away from me, and even once I had made my decision, part of me wondered if I’d missed an opportunity. So I’m delighted and grateful to have that opportunity again.”
Meeke tested the Yaris WRC earlier this week near the team’s base in Finland and was impressed, but says that was far from the only reason he is excited to be joining Toyota.
“Undoubtedly it’s one of the quickest cars out there, and there’s an incredibly strong team behind it, but what’s just as important is the culture. There’s a Japanese culture of respect and honour, which is so refreshing and welcoming.
“Everything that Tommi outlined to me when we had that conversation three years ago has come true. He’s done it his way, yet he’s so easy to relate to and, as a four-time champion, he sees everything from a driver’s point of view. It’s a whole environment that I didn’t think was possible any more, to be honest.”
Explaining the decision to split from co-driver Paul Nagle after 11 years together, he said: “The switch to Toyota feels like a new beginning for me, to the point where I’ve decided to start totally afresh. And that includes having a new relationship inside the car, with a different navigator — someone who’s never sat beside me before. We’ll be making an announcement on that front shortly.
“But I want to put on the record my huge gratitude to Paul for his help, guidance and companionship over the years. Each of our five WRC victories is incredibly special to me — but I know that while I turned the wheel, I couldn’t have done it without Paul.”
Meeke joins a team that currently leads the WRC Manufacturers’ Championship and has Ott Tanak challenging for the drivers’ title too. He will drive alongside Tanak and Jari-Matti Latvala, replacing former Circuit of Ireland winner Esapekka Lappi, who is leaving to partner Sebastien Ogier in a revamped Citroen team.