International racing news

Toyota's rally taster
Japanese giant tipped for world championship return from 2017

Toyota’s mooted return to the World Rally Championship gathered further momentum when the company’s president and CEO Akio Toyoda visited Rally Finland for a passenger ride with a difference.

Tommi Mäkinen, the five-time Rally Finland winner and quadruple world champion, drove Toyoda through part of the Kakaristo stage on the event’s second day, prior to the first competing car. Mäkinen was at the wheel of a bespoke four-wheel-drive Toyota GT86 with Subaru running gear. It was built, at Toyoda’s behest, by the Finn’s preparation firm in Puuppola.

While Toyoda was quick to dampen speculation that a deal has been struck for Tommi Mäkinen Racing to spearhead Toyota’s possible WRC entry from 2017 – its first since 1999 – he did confirm that a comeback would be discussed at board level in Japan.

“Toyota has a lot of rallying DNA,” Toyoda said. “As a top guy of the company I want to continue that kind of legend, but Toyota is a company so I have to show everybody that Toyota needs to go rallying to make better cars.”

Speculation about Toyota’s WRC comeback has been rife since Mr Toyoda appeared on Japanese television during coverage of the Monte Carlo Rally in January.

Toyota Motorsport GmbH in Cologne has been developing a Yaris-based World Rally Car and is launching a rear-wheel-drive GT86 conforming to the FIA’s R3 regulations for customer use from early 2015. Neither project is understood to have Toyoda’s personal blessing, however.

Fatality halts Ulster event

The Ulster Rally, fourth round of this year’s British Rally Championship, was abandoned after an accident in which Northern Irish driver Timothy Cathcart lost his life.

The 20-year-old’s Citroën DS3 R3 left the road on the third stage, Fardross. This season had been his first in the BRC’s top division. His co-driver Dai Roberts was injured and transferred to a Belfast hospital for treatment, but early reports indicated that a full recovery was expected. In the wake of their accident, the remainder of the rally was cancelled as a mark of respect.

It is the second time this year that the BRC has been beset by tragedy. On May’s Jim Clark Rally, in the Scottish Borders, three spectators died after being hit by a car that left the road.

Strakka Dome delayed

The race debut of the Strakka Dome S103 LMP2 coupé has been delayed until the final round of the World Endurance Championship, at Interlagos in November.

A redesign of the car’s rear suspension dictated a new gearbox casing and bellhousing, both long-lead items, and prevented the car joining the WEC schedule when it resumes at the Austin, Texas, round on September 20.

Strakka team principal Dan Walmsley said: “Strakka will only race this car when it is proven and a competitive package.”

Verstappen Jr lands F1 seat

Rookie racer Max Verstappen, the son of former Grand Prix driver Jos, will graduate to Formula 1 with Toro Rosso next season... when he will be just 17 years old.

The Dutchman, who at the time of writing lies second in the European Formula 3 Championship in his first season of car racing, will become the youngest Grand Prix driver in the sport’s history, beating former Toro Rosso racer Jaime Alguersuari (who was 19 years 125 days when he made his debut in Hungary in 2009).

Verstappen had signed with Red Bull’s young driver programme only a few days before the deal was announced.

Toro Rosso also confirmed that Verstappen will partner Daniil Kvyat in 2015, with Frenchman Jean-Erc Vergne making way.

* Toyota LMP1 test and reserve driver Mike Conway will make his race debut with the marque at the Austin round of the World Endurance Championship on September 20. The multiple IndyCar race winner, who was also a front-runner in LMP2 in the 2013 WEC, replaces Kazuki Nakajima alongside Alex Wurz and Stéphane Sarrazin on a one-off basis.

* Fifteen-year-olds will be able to race in the UK next season. The MSA has announced that it is lowering the age limit by one year for some slicks-and-wings formulae, likely to be restricted to the new FIA Formula 4 category.

Martino Finotto

European Touring Car champion, long-time sports car racer and engine constructor Martino Finotto has died aged 80 after a long illness.

The wealthy Italian’s career arguably peaked with his victory in the 1979 ETC, aboard a self-run BMW 3.0 CSL shared with long-time driving and business partner Carlo Facetti, but he is best remembered by many for his sports car exploits. The CARMA FF team he founded with Facetti built the fire-breathing Ferrari 308 GTB turbo Group 5 contender of 1981, but more significantly produced the Giannini-badged four-cylinder turbo engine that propelled Italian constructor Alba to the Group C2 (né Group C Junior) titles in the 1983 and ’84 World Endurance Championship.

Finotto, whose wealth was founded in the chemical industry, started racing in 1972 and was a ETC race winner by 1977. He continued racing regularly until 1991 and made his last international start in 1995.

Mike Smith

Mike Smith, who has died aged 59 after complications following heart surgery, was a household name in the 1970s and 1980s, but also a talented driver good enough to run at the front in the BTCC. He was also behind the Trakstar team that won the title in 1990 with Robb Gravett.

Though a well-known radio and TV personality, Smith’s first love was motor sport. After an FF2000 accident in 1976, however, it wasn’t until the 1980s that he was tempted back to race in the Ford Fiesta series. He graduated to production saloons, winning the 1986 Willhire 24 Hours in an Escort RS Turbo, then moved into the BTCC in 1988, taking four podiums in a BMW M3 and fifth in the championship. Trakstar began in 1989 with a pair of Cosworth RS500s, but lack of funding meant Smith contested only a few races in 1990 (although he and Gravett teamed up to win the two-driver race at Brands Hatch). A sponsorship shortfall led to the team folding in 1991.