Toyota has made its first driver announcement ahead of its return to the FIA World Rally Championship in 2017.
Finland’s Juho Hanninen is the first driver confirmed for the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC programme alongside veteran Finnish co-driver Kaj Lindstrom.
Hanninen has been involved in the test and development programme for the 2017 Yaris WRC contender and has signed a one-year contract to contest the full 2017 season, with an option to extend beyond 2017.
Finland's Juho Hanninen (right) and co-driver Kaj Lindstrom will lead Toyota's return to the World Rally Championship in 2017. Picture/Supplied
The Toyota programme is headed by four-time World Rally Champion Tommi Makinen and Hanninen has been racking up the miles in the Yaris WRC since the beginning of the programme.
‘‘This really feels like a dream come true,’’ said Hanninen.
‘‘Joining a works team with such potential for a full season is a real opportunity for me. We have been working together since the car's first outing, so that makes it all the more exciting and motivating.
‘‘The Yaris WRC is incredible. I can't wait to get started at the Rallye Monte-Carlo.’’
Hanninen is 35-years-old and has been rallying since 2001, His major successes have come driving Skoda Fabia Super 2000 cars and include winning the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2010, the SWRC category in 2011 and the European Rally Championship in 2012.
Back in 2008 Hanninen finished runner-up in the Production WRC category driving under the Ralliart New Zealand banner in a team run by Neil Allport.
He finished sixth in a privately run Ford Fiesta WRC at Rally Finland in 2015 and drove six events for Hyundai in 2014 with sixth placings in Poland and Finland. Hanninen has started 43 WRC events and has recorded three stage wins.
Makinen, who is Team Principal for Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC, said the 2017 season would be first and foremost a learning experience for the team.
‘‘When he joined the team, Juho was incredibly motivated and involved,’’ said Makinen.
‘‘He also understood very clearly that we didn't want to cut any corners and that the 2017 season would be about coming to grips with the championship and learning. He has quite a lot of experience in World Rally Championship, and I'm sure that because he has developed the Yaris WRC from the beginning, he knows the car best.
‘‘Therefore, it seems to be the perfect combination to me. I know that everyone in the team will do their very best to ensure that all the energy and hard work spent on this project over the last few months bring us success.’’
Toyota announced a WRC collaboration with Microsoft at the recent Paris Motor Show and is expected to run a three-car effort in 2017. Among the other drivers being linked to the Toyota team is 25-year-old Finn Esapekka Lappi who currently runs third in the WRC2 category driving a Skoda Fabia R5.