MEEKE MAKES HIS MARK IN PORTUGAL
British Citroen driver took WRC win number two in emphatic style MAKES IT LOOK EASY
Walking to parc ferme to pick up their Citroen DS 3 WRC well before dawn last Sunday, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle were on good form. Talking about juggling. Out of the darkness loomed Julien Ingrassia, also bound for the world’s most valuable overnight car park.
“S***,” said the three-time world champion co-driver, “you woke up…” With a smile, it was back to juggling. Meeke paused, thought about it some more and pressed on. Yes, his career was like juggling.
“It is,” he said. Sensing the potential for discord, he emphasised: “It is! Let’s be honest, while I’ve been practicing and learning, I would’ve dropped it a few times, wouldn’t I? But I reckon I’ve got it now. I seem to be catching a few more…”
Friday and Saturday certainly leant weight to such a theory. Sunday confirmed it: Meeke could indeed juggle.
On paper, the Dungannon man’s second World Rally Championship rally win bore a striking resemblance to his first in Argentina last year. He led from the second stage to the finish Carlos Paz and the same in Porto last weekend. Dominant wins both.
The same. But actually completely different.
What Meeke did last week was above and beyond anything he’s ever done in a rally car before. Nobody will ever forget Argentina, but Portugal cast that firmly into the shade in terms of career progression. Last week, Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle established themselves firmly as a force to be reckoned with.
The whole aura about the team and the wider service park was one of complete confidence in the boys.
South America was a nightmare last season. There were sleepless nights, chewed nails, crossed fingers and lucky charms being hung all around the place. This time, breath wasn’t held every time the number seven car appeared on the screen. This time there was a general acceptance that they’d got this one under control. Somehow, somewhere Meeke and Nagle had got this winning thing sussed.
Argentina was all about raw emotion; tears of unbridled joy at the end of Britain’s 13-year wait for another win post-colin and all that meant for a man who’d been taken under the 1995 world champion’s wing.
Mcrae was no stranger to success in Portugal either, winning in 1998 and 1999. And the spirit of the Scot is never forgotten in these parts: one flag is painted on the Tarmac approach to the famous Fafe hairpin. It’s a saltire with two words: ‘Flat out’. Mcrae is adored in these parts and the man who’s come from his mentor’s mould is endearing himself to the locals too.
But this time there were no words about this one being for Colin. Or anybody. This one was business. A week last Monday, Meeke was on the phone from Porto.
Yes, he admitted, he would have a good place on the road. No, he emphasised, he couldn’t win. Nobody need worry about him.
Fast forward to the other end of the week and Meeke’s half a minute up. Saturday lunchtime and the gap’s gone past the minute mark. Dreamland. But hang on a minute… “OK,” said Meeke, “a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in the house thinking: ‘Hmm, 13th on the road in Portugal, maybe there’s a chance…’ But then we got here for the recce and in there had been so much rain, I genuinely couldn’t see how it could happen.
“At the same time, I didn’t come here for a race. I came here to do my own thing. Missing a couple of rallies and getting stuck into the testing of the new car for next year has really focused what this year’s about. The competition’s to stay sharp and take what we’re given.”
From the start, the weather would play its part. If it turned wet again, Sebastien Ogier’s front-of-the-field Volkswagen Polo R WRC would be near-impossible to catch. If it didn’t, if the sun shone, the wind blew and the roads continued to dry, then it would play into Meeke’s hands.
That’s what happened. KM got a break in Portugal and took full advantage of it.
On eight out of nine gravel stages from Friday into Saturday, from the Spanish border in the north to the outskirts of Vila Real to the east, Meeke was quickest. And then some. He was lifting 10-second chunks out of the world champion in a way few have managed since Sebastien Loeb’s departure.
Ogier, meanwhile, was paying little attention to the leader who was, by his own grudging admission, in a different rally.
And here’s where it got good. The team asked Meeke to take two spares on Saturday afternoon. He knew what that would cost, but he readily accepted it was the most sensible option.
On the way out of service he relayed the team’s calculations – he would drop 16 seconds. He dropped 17. He’d take that. It was around this time that Ogier’s frustrations were bubbling away again.
Friday hadn’t been so bad, but Saturday was cleaning.
“I am doing everything I can,” said Ogier. “I am staying clean and driving as quickly as I can. For me, I made the perfect loop…”
He didn’t want to talk about it. Genuinely, he didn’t want to talk about it, but it was fatal attraction, he couldn’t talk about anything else.
Could Meeke see his point? Was there any sympathy for a man whose self-confessed sole desire was for life on a level playing field. Er, no. “I feel so sorry for him,” said Meeke, “He’s probably [got] 20 million in the bank; he’s got a nice wife, a kid coming, three world championships under his belt and he’s comfortably leading this year’s world championship – I can’t tell you how sorry I feel for him…
“Why is Seb worried about me? Maybe he’s not. Maybe he doesn’t even talk about me, that’s even better. This is a unique circumstance: why is anybody concerned that I do the times when I’m not doing the championship