MEEKE HITS NEW HIGH

BRI­TON MAKES HIS­TORY IN FIN­LAND

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY DAVID EVANS Photos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Kris Meeke pulls up at the ar­rival con­trol for Mokkipera. It’s 0724hrs, Fri­day. Three min­utes to the start of Rally Fin­land proper. One minute: push back in the seat; shuf­fle the shoul­ders. Comfy? Comfy. Thirty sec­onds. Tighten the belts. And again. Ten. Five. One.

Let’s go. First cor­ner, it’s com­pli­cated. The or­gan­is­ers have planted poles on the in­side of bends to stop the drivers from cut­ting.

That was play­ing on the North­ern Ir­ish­man’s mind. “It gets you think­ing,” he said “You have to change the note. Keep out. What’s that go­ing to do to the cam­ber?”

What’s worse, Meeke and that first cor­ner have his­tory.

He ex­plained: “The first time I ever came to Fin­land [in 2003], I cut that cor­ner in the Opel [Corsa]. The sump­guard hit the ground and we went off. Took a tree out, ab­so­lutely de­stroyed the car. That was us­ing it in the op­po­site di­rec­tion…

“This way, we’re off the line and straight up to sixth gear be­fore com­ing down to fifth or fourth for the left-han­der: the first cor­ner. When we got there, I was think­ing: “Fourth? Fifth? What should I do?”

“There’s the pole… Fifth. I turned in and it hooked up. We were away.”

In Fin­land more than any­where else in the world, the im­por­tance of that cor­ner can’t be over­stated; you lean on the car, put your trust in it. If it grips and goes, the con­fi­dence surges. That was Meeke all day Fri­day. Satur­day. Sun­day.

Ahead of the event, Volk­swa­gen team prin­ci­pal Jost Capito left the world in no doubt, Meeke would win Fin­land. Start­ing eighth on the road, the Abu Dhabi World Rally Team driver couldn’t fail to.

Start­ing to tire of such talk by lunchtime on day one, Meeke dis­re­garded his po­si­tion as leader – and leader by some mar­gin at 18.8s – and said: “Jost’s on an­other planet.”

He was wrong. It was Meeke who was on an­other planet.

By his own ad­mis­sion, there was more clean­ing than ex­pected on day one. Cham­pi­onship leader Se­bastien Ogier did all he could, but he was 23.5s down af­ter six stages. The French­man’s event went from bad to worse on the sec­ond run at Sur­kee. His Volk­swa­gen got its front-right wheel tan­gled in a first-gear hair­pin and he was off on the in­side.

“All day I’ve been do­ing 200kph and I go off at 10kph,” groaned Ogier. With only a few fans around, there wasn’t much mov­ing 1280 ki­los of Polo, so he called it a day. And called the team, who re­minded him of the need to get back on the road to clean the Satur­day stages to help team-mates An­dreas Mikkelsen and Jari-matti Lat­vala.

Back to it then. Sixteen min­utes of lift­ing later and the Volk­swa­gen emerged. Iron­i­cally, a brake prob­lem on Satur­day dropped them down the road or­der and Mikkelsen was left first on the road af­ter all.

Be­yond Lat­vala – his threat was a given, not least be­cause he was on the verge of a home hat-trick – Rally Poland hero Ott Tanak was the other driver Meeke was wary of.

The Es­to­nian’s DMACKS were work­ing a treat just as they had when he came within a whisker of win­ning in Miko­la­jki in late June. Fastest in Juko­jarvi, the Ford Fi­esta RS WRC was just seven tenths off the lead.

That was as close as it would get. A bro­ken damper pitched Tanak into a high-speed spin on the next stage. A minute would be lost in the next two.

Lat­vala’s chal­lenge had been dented along with the left-rear of his Polo when he ran wide, whacked a rock and punc­tured, drop­ping 16s in SS4.

“It’s not a dis­as­ter,” said Lat­vala. “Def­i­nitely not a dis­as­ter.”

Meeke agreed. “With­out their prob­lems those boys would be right here,” he said. “In fact, I reckon Tanak would prob­a­bly be lead­ing with those tyres – some­thing be­tween our hard and soft com­pound is what you need here and that’s what they’ve got.”

Just eight-tenths of a sec­ond split Meeke and Lat­vala over the near 40 miles of af­ter­noon com­pe­ti­tion; the Brit re­mained 18.1s ahead at the end of the day.

Not much casts an af­ter­noon of com­pe­ti­tion in Fin­land into the shade. Ex­cept Oun­in­po­hja loom­ing ever larger on the hori­zon.

Satur­day morn­ing’s 23-mile opener would play a key role in the di­rec­tion of this rally.

“I thought I did a per­fect stage there last year,” said Meeke, “and Jari took six out of me…”

It was, how­ever, all change for the world cham­pi­onship’s most fa­mous stage this year. Start­ing from close to Jamsa, it would run south-west through Oun­in­po­hja it­self. While this was alien to every driver in the mod­ern day world cham­pi­onship (1994 as the last time it was used in this con­fig­u­ra­tion), this was back to the orig­i­nal form. From 1951 when this event started, down the decades, the fin­ish had been along­side elec­tric­ity pole 163 just up from the Hame­po­hja junc­tion.

Oun­in­po­hja lies at the heart of ev­ery­thing that’s spe­cial about Rally Fin­land. If a Finn can’t win the event, they have to win this stage.

When Fin­land went to bed on Fri­day night, there was no panic. No stress. Kar­jalas were sunk safe in the knowl­edge that Lat­vala would re­store na­tional pride first thing in the morn­ing.

The Finns had been in benev­o­lent mood, grant­ing a Brit a spell at the front for the first time since Richard Burns held the lead 14 years ago. But it was for good rea­son a lo­cal had cap­tured 55 of the 65 “Jy­vasky­lan Grands Prix” run to date.

Burns’ co-driver Robert Reid re­mem­bers their clas­sic bat­tle with then Subaru team-mate Juha Kankkunen on the 1999 1000 Lakes.

“That was only the sec­ond year we had done the event,” said Reid. “I think Juha was a bit sur­prised we were so close to him. We were never more than a dozen sec­onds be­hind and we led af­ter the first day. Any­way, we fin­ished sec­ond to him, but a few weeks later we were at a test and Richard was leaf­ing through a mag­a­zine when he saw a pic­ture of Kankkunen on two wheels dur­ing the event.

“He shouted over to Juha: ‘Where’s that pic­ture taken, I don’t recog­nise it…’ Kankkunen recog­nised it straight away. ‘Leustu: you know, af­ter the hair­pin it’s left-right then 90-left at the gar­den… it’s there.’ Burn­sie thought about that for a mo­ment and said: “But isn’t there a post­box in that gar­den?”

“Juha smiled: ‘Ahh… he moves it just for me.’”

Of Bri­tain’s two world cham­pi­ons, it was Burns, rather than Colin Mcrae, who had the bet­ter record in Fin­land. Af­ter fin­ish­ing fifth on his de­but, he was sec­ond or third on four of his next five starts. The fifth was 2000, when he and Robert crossed the line in Vastila fastest to take the lead. Un­for­tu­nately, the Subaru was scrapped mo­ments later when it can­noned into the trees at high speed, un­able to make the next cor­ner.

“The Finns are fiercely pro­tec­tive of their event,” said Reid. “Re­mem­ber 2003? The tele­vi­sion ad­vert? They had this ad­vert with the non-finns hid­ing, Markko [Martin] was in the for­est, Richard was be­hind a door and the word­ing with the ad went: ‘Markko, where are yoooo? Richard where are yoooo?’ They were goad­ing the for­eign drivers. When Markko won, there was that clas­sic mo­ment when they crossed the line and ‘Beef ’ (Michael Park, co-driver) said: “Markko, where are yoooo. Now they know where you f***ing are!”

“The at­ti­tude al­ways has been and al­ways will be: no­body comes to Fin­land and beats a Finn. And that’s ab­so­lutely part of the ap­peal. If you couldn’t win a world cham­pi­onship, a Fin­land win was the next best thing. Still is. What does it take? Precision, com­mit­ment and a per­fect set of pacenotes.”

Meeke was ready with all three last Satur­day. Typ­i­cally, a 21-hour Fri­day led into a pun­ish­ingly early start to the week­end, with first ser­vice at 0630hrs.

Meeke was up at 0415hrs with his jour­ney to the rally car go­ing via the tread­mill, swim­ming pool and sauna.

“Then I watched the on­boards again,” he smiled. “We’ve got to give it a go. This one’s worth fight­ing for.”

In so many ways more than one. In the back of every­body’s mind, there was the chance to make a last­ing state­ment on Fin­land’s most fa­mous stretch of road. Af­ter this year, Oun­in­po­hja in this di­rec­tion would be known – on­board footage abound and the bench­mark mo­ment has passed. For one year only, legend could be made. The stage started on a nar­row road, be­fore turn­ing hair­pin left at Kakaristo. It gets quicker from there to the junc­tion­right at Mu­ta­nen, where it goes… well, it goes men­tal: faster, wider, higher. In the mid­dle of that sec­tion there’s the fa­mous yel­low house jump.

Ahead of the event, this was the big ques­tion. What to do? The lead in was flat out for al­most a mile, but how would the car work on what was a drop-off jump.

And then there was the left-han­der which fol­lowed.

Af­ter the event, Meeke ad­mit­ted he had his doubts about this stage on the road sec­tion out of Jy­vaskyla.

“I wasn’t com­pletely con­fi­dent, I thought Jari would re­ally come into his own in this one…”

Again, it had to be pinned from the start. It was. And it stayed pinned. Meeke drove the stage of his life.

Meeke: “I said to Paul [Na­gle, co-driver] af­ter we crossed the line: “That was ev­ery­thing. I don’t know where I could have found an­other sec­ond.”

He didn’t need to. He’d de­stroyed every­body: 13.4s out of Lat­vala. More from the rest. Dun­gan­non had rocked Fin­land to its core.

That stage, that mo­ment was where Meeke won this rally and ce­mented his place among the world’s finest drivers. In 1992, Fin­land took Mcrae to its heart when he rolled his Subaru Legacy 13 times on his way to eighth over­all.

Twenty-four years on, that same na­tion took his pro­tege as one of its own. A day later, the deal was done. Meeke eclipsed Mcrae and Burns. Kris Meeke won Rally Fin­land. Say it again. And again.

Lat­vala was sec­ond and the very def­i­ni­tion of a brave face at the fin­ish in Jy­vaskyla.

“I have to say, Kris de­serves this,” he said. “He has driven so well.”

Twelve months ago, Lat­vala pre­dicted a Meeke win in years to come. Weeks out, his boss Capito had done so for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Lis­ten­ing to his na­tional an­them boom­ing out across Jy­vaskyla on Sun­day af­ter­noon, Meeke couldn’t have cared less what peo­ple said about run­ning or­der or a lack of cham­pi­onship pres­sure.

He and Na­gle had spent three days in fast-for­ward. They’d earned this vic­tory. And judg­ing by the cheers from the crowd, the lo­cals had ac­cepted it.

The ic­ing on the cake for the Abu Dhabi squad was Craig Breen’s third place – a drive wor­thy of sim­i­lar levels of re­spect. Breen’s re­cent his­tory wasn’t the best in Fin­land. He rolled in the test just be­fore the start last week; last year he rolled at shake­down; 12 months ear­lier he broke his back on a jump and the time be­fore he suf­fered a mas­sive shunt in Oun­in­po­hja.

“I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son, a dif­fer­ent driver from then,” he said. And to prove it, he ate his break­fast every sin­gle morn­ing.

“Nor­mally, I can’t eat a thing in the morn­ing,” he said. “But this time I had break­fast every morn­ing. I’ve never been so re­laxed on an event.”

And he’s never been so quick. In fair­ness, a re­sult like this has been com­ing af­ter the speed he and Scott Martin showed in their only two pre­vi­ous out­ings in a fac­tory DS 3 WRC this sea­son. But still, noth­ing pre­pared the world for this.

Breen took pres­sure from drivers with way, way more ex­pe­ri­ence and pedi­gree and he blew them into the weeds. If the Water­ford man’s ef­forts don’t bag him a full-time job next sea­son, there sim­ply is no jus­tice in the world.

He was bril­liant. More than that, he was con­sis­tently bril­liant.

Be­hind him, there was a gag­gle of very wor­thy drivers who all turned in a supreme ef­fort to knock Breen and Scotty off their bot­tom step.

The fi­nal word has to go to Meeke. What does this mean for him?

“Fin­land is where ral­ly­ing was in­vented,” he said. “It’s the home of ral­ly­ing and Oun­in­po­hja is the Holy Grail. I would strug­gle to think of any other rally in the world where we could do any­thing as spe­cial as this. Maybe Monte, but there you have to be clever, tac­ti­cal. Here it’s just balls-to-the-wall. Rally Fin­land win­ner, eh. That might just take a wee while to sink in.”

The pair of us sat in si­lence for a mo­ment. I couldn’t help it: “Rally. Fin­land. Win­ner.” KM grinned. “Mad isn’t it…” Mad­ness it might have been. His­tory in the mak­ing it was. ■

Bid Punc­ture ru­ined Lat­vala hat-trick

Na­gle (l) and Meeke cel­e­brate ground­break­ing win in Fin­land

Capito and Meeke made up over road po­si­tion talks

Lat­vala was forced to set­tle for sec­ond

Breen was bril­liant in third place

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