MEEKE MAKES HIS MARK IN POR­TU­GAL

Bri­tish Citroen driver took WRC win num­ber two in em­phatic style MAKES IT LOOK EASY

Motor Sport News - - Headline News - BY DAVID EVANS

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

Mikkelsen had fine run to sec­ond

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