WRC pre­view: Meeke

Kris Meeke won’t be at ev­ery round this year, but it’s all about 2017, he tells David Evans

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - Pho­tos: mck­lein­im­age­database.com and Gary Jones

Kris Meeke smiles at the irony. Fi­nally, he gets the deal he’s been dream­ing of for much of his adult life... and he ends up do­ing fewer ral­lies than he has in the past two sea­sons.

And he couldn’t be hap­pier. Gen­uinely.

In­stead of pound­ing 14 rounds of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship, Meeke will be clock­ing up some­where north of 10,000 test­ing miles aboard Citroen’s all-new C3 WRC.

He will be out on a hand­ful of ral­lies, maybe more. But any­thing over and above that would, to Meeke’s mind, jeop­ar­dise what re­ally mat­ters: next year. Twelve months from now, Meeke and Citroen need to be hov­er­ing some­where just above the ground, ready to hit it hard. And very, very fast.

“The ex­cite­ment of the an­nounce­ment has passed now,” says Meeke. “I wanted to get away a lit­tle bit over Christ­mas and I’ve done that. I needed to switch off. Now I feel sat­is­fied and just re­ally keen to get on with the job.”

This will be a year of strange sen­sa­tions. For now, noth­ing has changed. At the time of writ­ing Kris and co-driver Paul Nagle are get­ting ready for their pre-monte test. A day in the moun­tains ahead of the start will help blow the last re­main­ing fes­tive ves­tiges away and fo­cus them on the task in hand.

And af­ter round one comes Swe­den. But then the big gap: the long lay­off as the WRC criss-crosses the At­lantic bound for Mex­ico and Ar­gentina.

But by then, Meeke’s mind will be else­where. “Around Ar­gentina time,” he says, “I’ll have an­other job on [test­ing the 2017 car] and what’s go­ing on in Ar­gentina won’t even en­ter my head. Yes, it was my first win last year, but get­ting next year up and run­ning is so im­por­tant to me now.”

Meeke’s can­did enough to ad­mit that, given the choice, he wouldn’t want to tackle all 14 ral­lies in 2016.

“It was never go­ing to be an op­tion for me to do all of the ral­lies,” he says. “But I’m con­vinced that what I have is the best of both worlds. I want to be at the fac­tory and work­ing with the en­gi­neers all the time on this new car – that’s the fu­ture. I have the chance to have real, gen­uine in­put into this car and this team’s fu­ture. That’s what I want to do. If I was away and do­ing 14 ral­lies, then I sim­ply couldn’t have the op­por­tu­nity to have the same im­pact with the team that I want. Do­ing 14 ral­lies would be a hell of an un­der­tak­ing and I’m just not sure there would be time for that.

“There’s no doubt, this is the most ex­cit­ing time of my pro­fes­sional life. All the time I’ve been at Citroen we’ve been free-wheel­ing, for want of a bet­ter ex­pres­sion. Not now, Citroen’s back and ab­so­lutely de­ter­mined to get the whole thing back to where it was.

“I’ve been talk­ing to the en­gi­neers in the fac­tory and they’re say­ing just the same thing. There’s a buzz about the rally team again now, it’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent mind­set. It’s been dif­fi­cult for them as well, try­ing to main­tain mo­ti­va­tion when there was no de­vel­op­ment com­ing and no­body re­ally knew what the fu­ture held.”

So, the French will be easy to spot in the Alps this week, they’ll be the ones with a spring in their step and a know­ing look in their eye.

Volk­swa­gen’s quick to tout its 2017 mule Polo, es­tab­lish­ing an ad­van­tage in the pro­pa­ganda war. But, as team prin­ci­pal Yves Mat­ton pointed out last year, Citroen’s in the same ball­park in terms of de­vel­op­ment. And when Han­nover de­camps to Leon and Villa Car­los Paz in the spring, it’s just pos­si­ble that the old masters might move past the nou­veau riche in the test race to next year.

With that in mind, Meeke’s re­laxed about his event cal­en­dar for this year.

“We’ll be do­ing six, eight maybe even 10 ral­lies,” he adds. “Noth­ing has been de­cided yet. Af­ter Swe­den, we’ll prob­a­bly go to events like Por­tu­gal, Poland we should be do­ing and maybe some­where like Cor­sica. There’s not much point in go­ing to places like

Fin­land, where I have a fair bit of ex­pe­ri­ence of the ral­lies; ob­vi­ously I’d love to go to Fin­land, but we’ll prob­a­bly be test­ing the new car there for a week or so. It’s not like I’m go­ing to be short on ex­pe­ri­ence of those roads this year.”

With the car run by PH Sport, Meeke is adamant his Abu Dhabi World Rally Team DS 3 WRC will be run in 2015 spec­i­fi­ca­tion. There is no de­vel­op­ment com­ing for this sea­son.

Be­ing a com­pet­i­tive soul, doesn’t the fear of a bit of an ass-kick­ing from Volk­swa­gen and pos­si­bly Hyundai worry Meeke?

“I’ll be hon­est,” he says. “It’s not like we haven’t had a bit of an ass-kick­ing for the last two years… It’s go­ing to be re­ally dif­fer­ent to the last two years; we’ve been push­ing like hell to try to prove our­selves and try to get this op­por­tu­nity for the last cou­ple of sea­sons and now we have it.

“Don’t get me wrong, there will be pres­sure, there’s al­ways pres­sure, but we’re not go­ing out to try to win th­ese events. Of course we’re com­pet­i­tive and we’ll be try­ing, but there’s no de­vel­op­ment on our car and we’re on th­ese ral­lies to stay sharp and get more ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s what it’s all about for us.

“The oth­ers will go an­other step, cer­tainly Volk­swa­gen and you’d hope Hyundai would be step­ping up a lit­tle bit with the new car, but we’re not re­ally there for the fight. That’s not the point.”

The point is to pro­vide gen­uine re­sis­tance to the Ogier-volk­swa­gen dom­i­na­tion of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship.

“I’m not deny­ing that it’s go­ing to be a mas­sive task,” says Meeke. “Volk­swa­gen is so strong, it would be phe­nom­e­nal to be able to stand toe-to­toe with them in 12 months’ time. That’s what we have to be aim­ing for. I’ve al­ways said that the only way to beat Volk­swa­gen is to do ev­ery­thing, ev­ery­thing ab­so­lutely per­fectly. Ev­ery­thing, from ev­ery side has to be spot on. It re­mains to be seen if we can do that, but cer­tainly there’s a lot of be­lief in this team.”

The other thing Citroen has in spades is ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­pe­ri­ence of adapt­ing to regulation change. The Parisians have been com­pet­ing in the world cham­pi­onship al­most since the turn of the Mil­len­nium, which means they’ve been through the process of trans­form­ing a fully ac­tive Xsara WRC into a car tuned via me­chan­i­cal dif­fer­en­tials; Citroen was also around for the down­siz­ing from two-litre to 1.6 and few will for­get the seam­less tran­si­tion from C4 WRC to DS 3 WRC. The re­sults speak for them­selves. This is a team well ac­cus­tomed to evo­lu­tion.

So, it knows what the de­ploy­ment of an elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled cen­tre diff ’s go­ing to do to the new car. On top of that, Citroen has more data on what a 36mm – rather than the cur­rent 33mm – re­stric­tor will do to an en­gine boost­ing to 2.5 bar than its com­peti­tors.

That’s the ad­van­tage of run­ning a World Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship pro­gramme; the C-el­y­see has been a mo­bile dyno and data gath­erer for next year’s C3 WRC.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Meeke. But what does good shape look like? He adds: “We’ve got a mam­moth test pro­gramme ahead of us, but this time next year I want to be go­ing to Monte Carlo with thou­sands of kilo­me­tres un­der my belt. That’s what we have to aim­ing at.”

And what does suc­cess in 2017 look like?

“The tar­get has to be to be com­pet­i­tive, with the op­por­tu­nity to win ral­lies on pace,” he an­swers. “The cham­pi­onship’s not nec­es­sar­ily a tar­get for next year, but why not if we get the chance? In 2018, it’s sim­ple, we tar­get the driv­ers’ and man­u­fac­tur­ers’ cham­pi­onships.”

Ques­tion is, will any­body have top­pled Volk­swa­gen or Ogier in the next 12 months. What would Meeke pre­fer a re­cently de­flated and de­feated Ogier and mates or a French­man look­ing to start his fourth con­sec­u­tive ti­tle de­fence? Meeke’s not re­ally bit­ing. “We’re build­ing our fu­ture here,” he says. “I’m not too con­cerned with who’s fight­ing who for this year. We have the slate wiped clean and ready for 2017, that’s where we’re at.”

He’s not get­ting away with it that eas­ily. Come on, what’s com­ing this year?

“I hon­estly can’t see Se­bastien be­ing beaten,” he says. “We’ll have to see what Hyundai come up with, but for Hay­den Paddon, maybe this is com­ing a lit­tle bit too early. For all the talk about him, he only fin­ished ninth in last year’s cham­pi­onship; can he chal­lenge Ogier off the back of that? I don’t think so.

“A lot will de­pend on Thierry [Neuville] and there has to be a ques­tion mark over whether or not he can get back to where he was. No, I can’t see any­body trou­bling Ogier.” Jari-matti Lat­vala? “Jari-matti has an in­cred­i­ble turn of speed,” Meeke says. “You can’t deny that, but he still hasn’t been able to find that con­sis­tency. It’s tough, but, no, I don’t think he will beat Ogier.”

So, Meeke will face a four-time cham­pion on SS1 in a year’s time. Maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe Ogier will have be­come com­pla­cent about win­ning…

Meeke laughs: “I think you’ll find that a driver win­ning the way he’s win­ning is a driver full of con­fi­dence and a driver full of con­fi­dence is never easy to beat.”

Just as well Meeke and Citroen have a year to prac­tice then. ■

Bri­ton is happy to miss 2016 rounds to get new car right

Meeke thinks fight­ing VW in ’16 will be tough... ...but hopes to beat Lat­vala (r) and co with C3 in 2017 Much of Meeke’s year will be spent with Citroen’s test team Citroen has been build­ing win­ners since the Xsara

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