MEEKE HITS NEW HIGH
BRITON MAKES HISTORY IN FINLAND
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