Wednesday | 14 Sep 2016

2017 predictor: Toyota

It's back to the crystal ball one last time as we round off our series looking at next season’s FIA World Rally Championship team and driver possibilities.

After considering some of the options at Hyundai, M-Sport, Volkswagen and Citroën, today we turn our attention to WRC returnees Toyota.
And we'll stick with Toyota tomorrow as well, when we'll launch a new user poll to gauge support for some of the drivers we have identified. In the meantime, don't forget the WRC Facebook page, where you can add your own theories.
Here then is what we reckon is on the table at Toyota:
5: Toyota
Toyota's all-new WRC operation will start 2017 with a clean sheet of paper - and that goes for its choice of drivers as well as the wider strategy that team boss Tommi Mäkinen will adopt for the debut season.
In August, Mäkinen hinted that a clutch of young drivers could form the backbone of his squad during a development-focused 2017. He said Ott Tänak and WRC 2 frontrunners Teemu Suninen, Elfyn Evans and Skoda Motorsport duo Esapekka Lappi and Pontus Tidemand were on his radar, but we expect he'll also want some experience in a line-up of up to three cars next year.
Leading the young drivers, it's no secret that WRC 2 front-runner Lappi has already held talks with Toyota and last month he admitted visiting the team's base in Finland to discuss a drive in 2017. Discussions are now in the hands of his Even Management team who, conveniently, also represent Swedish rising-star Tidemand.

Suninen is the second Finnish youngster in the frame, and he carries the considerable management clout of Timo Jouhki - the man who masterminded Mäkinen's own driving career.
Then there's the Welsh angle, in the shape of Evans, who is believed to have met with Toyota in Jyväskylä during Neste Rally Finland. Currently leading WRC 2, Evans also comes with the benefit of a full season of World Rally Car experience with M-Sport in 2015.
Tänak heads the list of more experienced drivers, but his ties to DMACK and M-Sport might complicate matters. Thierry Neuville, on the other hand, is out of contract at the end of 2016, and just a few years ago was chosen by Hyundai to be the ideal driver with which to start a new team. Another free agent, Mads Østberg, is another possibility.
Of course, the driver with the most public link to Toyota is 35-year-old Finn Juho Hänninen, the man who has carried out most of the testing of Toyota's new Yaris World Rally Car. He knows the WRC events inside out too, and has driven all of the pre-event recces this season - which suggests he has something up his sleeve next year. Fellow Finn Jarkko Nikara also has a test role, but he lacks experience of the WRC rounds outside his homeland.
Mikko Hirvonen might be another option. He's already driven Toyota's development car and lives close to the team's base in Jyväskylä. It's a long shot, but maybe a short commute to work would be enough to tempt him out of retirement - perhaps just for a few rounds.
We also expect some home grown talent to feature in Toyota's line-up, although probably not straightaway. Japanese youngsters Takamoto Katsuta and Hiroki Arai are being groomed as part of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Challenge Program but their inexperience makes it unlikely they will be ready for a World Rally Car campaign in 2017.
And while we're considering the longer term, how about 15-year-old Kalle Rovanperä? The son of former works driver Harri is one of a handful of drivers to have got behind the wheel of Toyota's World Rally Car prototype, and he left Mäkinen impressed. Currently learning his craft driving a Skoda R5 in the Latvian Championship (where it is legal for him to compete) Rovanperä could be a good longer-term bet.


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