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