Ford releases Kankkunen from 1999 rally contract

Ford Motor Company has released Finland's Juha Kankkunen from his contract to drive for the Ford World Rally team on the 1999 FIA World Rally Championship. His two-year contract, which started at the beginning of the 1998 season, will now end after the final round of this year's championship, the Rally of Great Britain, in November.

The 39-year-old Finn, who has won the World Rally Championship a record four times, and co-driver Juha Repo joined the Ford team in May 1997 as team-mates to Carlos Sainz. This season Kankkunen has been the team's lead driver in the Valvoline-backed Ford Escort World Rally Car.

Ford World Rally team director Malcolm Wilson paid tribute to Kankkunen's contribution to the team. "We have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Juha during the past 16 months. He came to the team midway through the 1997 season to support Carlos in his bid to win the World Championship for drivers. He did a superb job for us then and with a little more luck his efforts would have helped Carlos win the title for Ford.

"This year he has been the most consistent driver in the championship, claiming a string of podium finishes. We are grateful for his help and wish him and Juha Repo all the best in the future.

Ford last month signed former world champion Colin McRae to drive the all-new Ford Focus rally car for the next two seasons and Wilson will now concentrate his efforts on signing another quality driver to join lead driver McRae.

"We're currently in discussion with various drivers and an announcement will be made as soon as all negotiations are completed," he said.

Martin Whitaker, Ford's Director of European Motorsport, paid his own tribute to Kankkunen. "Juha has done exactly what has been asked of him during his time at Ford and I would like to express my thanks for his efforts. Next season will be an exciting time for us with the launch of the Ford Focus rally car and with Colin McRae joining the team."