KRIS MEEKE’S 2017 AMBITION
NORTHERN IRISH STAR SPEAKS TO MN
ike the rest of his Citroen colleagues, Kris Meeke was all smiles. All smart. And all slightly sweaty. That’s Abu Dhabi four days before Christmas for you. Quite a contrast to just one week earlier.
A week earlier Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle had been eating a plate of lasagne in a garage next to a barn on the outskirts of Saint-andre-de-rosans. Just to put you in the picture, the outskirts of Saint-andre-de-rosans are very close to the centre. It’s that kind of Hautes-alpes hamlet.
Abu Dhabi was the official launch of Citroen Racing’s return to rallying’s top flight. This was the place for the speeches, the champagne and the show.
In reality, 2017 came to life in the French Alps in the days prior to the long flight east.
You could say Citroen’s return was born that day in April when #Test1 got underway in Fontjoncouse and you’d be partly right. But at that point the Parisians had the safety net of six months’ tweaking time.
A mid-december Monte test came with no such luxury. Getting it right or wrong today would have a very direct impact on the Citroen’s round one performance.
On a different road, yesterday couldn’t have gone better.
“The road was quite smooth,” says Meeke, “and after a few runs, the team asked how we could improve the car. I told them: “Let me do a rally in it first…” We were at that level.” Today it’s different. Today it’s bumpy. “Aye, today has shown we’ve still a bit to learn yet,” smiles Meeke, ruefully.
The C3 WRC is doing a run or a couple of runs at what is a six-mile stretch before it’s back in, wheels off and different dampers on.
“This is only our third time on asphalt,” says Meeke. “So, yes, this is a Monte test, but it’s still development running as well. You can see we’re having the dampers out after every run, we’re trying everything: there’s a lot of work with the centre ’diff – we’re trying different ’diff maps on every loop – then there’s roll bars, springs and geometry changes. The learning curve’s a bit steeper than yesterday, but that’s why we’re here – we want to leave this test with a base set-up for Monte Carlo.
“The next time we’re here in this part of the world it’ll be the week before the rally and we’ll be doing our one-day pre-event test.”
Back in Abu Dhabi and team principal Yves Matton is a happy man.
And why wouldn’t he be? Behind him sits the stunning new and currently sun-kissed C3 WRC. Side on, this is probably the least dramatic of the 2017 cars, but look closer and you can see countless touches and tweaks. And yet another interpretation of the aero regulations. But the C3 WRC sits well alongside the Citroens which have gone – and dominated – before it.
Beyond his new motor and the strength of the on-going relationship between Citroen and its rally-mad Middle Eastern partner, Matton’s cheerful demeanour is fuelled by what happened just before the last test in France.
“Homologation has been completed,” says Matton. “The FIA was in on the Monday and Tuesday before the last test and everything worked very well. It’s not always like this, sometimes the text of the regulation can be misinterpreted – this happened with our touring car – and you have work to do. But this time it’s good. I’m happy for this, it’s a nice feeling to get this done. The timeframe for it all was quite tight if we needed to make changes…”
Matton is happy with just about everything right now. Fresh from guiding a Citroen C4 WRC to fifth place on the Rallye du Condroz, the rally man from Belgium is coming home after an extended stay in the World Touring Car Championship.
Matton is far too guarded to rise to such bait, but he’s candid enough to admit the pressure in WRC is a league above anything in the WTCC.
“The pressure in the first year of touring cars was quite high,” he says, “but that was before we realised what the level of competition was like. The pressure in the WRC, well this is the second discipline in world motorsport to Formula 1. Maybe people in the other disciplines do not have this feeling, but the level of the manufacturers is very high here.”
When Citroen chose a big-time return to the WRC over further time spent in circuit racing, Matton was relieved to be afforded the chance to add to his sole WRC title as a team principal. Citroen’s others were taken with Guy Frequelin and Olivier Quesnel at the helm.
“In one way it’s a great feeling to be back in the WRC,” he says. “The motorsport bug came to me through rallying and one of my dreams was always to be the head of a world championship team in rallying. When we stopped our main participation three years ago, I had won only one title. I still had the taste. I was hungry for more.”
Citroen’s certainly coming back at the right time, with interest in the WRC and its new regulations reaching fever pitch.
“It’s a great time to be back,” he says. “I wanted to be back when I saw this new regulation. But coming back brings a lot of pressure. Citroen Racing now, we need to achieve something. There is a real level of expectation now.”
Matton’s right. But the expectation is much wider than the Citroen board’s anticipation of Meeke and team-mates Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre.
Expectation for the season is huge.
“I can’t remember there ever being a spread of drivers capable of winning rallies this wide,” says Meeke. “All of the teams are there: Ogier’s capable of winning and the Fiesta looks good; [Thierry] Neuville, [Hayden] Paddon, [Dani] Sordo, on their day, can all win; at Toyota, Jari-matti’s [Latvala] won events. OK, it remains to be seen if Toyota arrives in the championship match fit, but still, that’s a lot of drivers who can win.” Breen’s keen to get in on the action. The Irishman got ahead of himself last year when he landed a DS 3 WRC on the podium in Finland.
“Podiums were the target for this season,” he says. “The way the speed came so naturally and so easily last year moved the goalposts a little bit.
“I would really, really love to fight for a rally win at some point this season. Last year I didn’t have to think about manufacturer points; we were just competing on an even-by-event basis with, essentially, a private team. But now I’ve got a big brand behind me, a manufacturer to answer to and I’ve got to deliver the goods.
“On the rallies where I’m familiar and I’ve got that bit more experience, I want to fight for the win. That’s the carrot that’s dangling in front of me for this year.”
Typically, Breen has a mechanism for dealing with the pressure and weight of expectation coming his way.
“I’ve just got to remember that this is everything I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child,” he says. “It’s important not to lose focus and the reasons why I’ve put myself here. I had so many childhood dreams to realise and they’re coming: winning the Circuit of Ireland was one of them and that feels like a long time ago now. Now the ultimate dream has to be to try to win the world championship; now that I’m in this position, I’ve got to be looking at that as the long-term goal. All of these dreams I’m realising are becoming stepping stones toward that main ambition.”
Our conversation is interrupted by the glorious noise of a C3 WRC at full bore. The Meeke-guided missile steams into view through a longish right-hander. There’s a dash up the hill before a short, third-gear left leads the car onto a short straight. It’s that short straight that stops conversation dead.
The lift and acceleration out of that third-gear bend is nothing short of astonishing to watch.
“Mad,” grins Breen, “it’s mad, isn’t it? I can’t wait, I tell you I just can’t wait. That’s such a special car and this is such a special team.”
The hills have gone quiet again as Meeke pulls back into service for another change of set-up.
The winter sun is starting to dip now, painting the surrounding farm buildings a deeper, even more gorgeous shade of caramel. And the fires have been lit.
“Smells like Monte,” smiles Meeke, pausing for a moment to take it all in.
The Dungannon man’s past the point where he still has to pinch himself. He knows he’s here, he knows he’s earned his place. What he has to do now is deliver on the potential. And doing that means a change of approach.
Gung-ho KM has to be tamed. Incorporating British rally heroes into the analogy, he’s got to be more Richard than Colin.
“That’s exactly right,” he says. “I’ve got to be patient, not force it and take the time and the points where I can. It’s about accumulating the points.”
Like Breen, Meeke’s Finland win has
altered his target for this year. He wants the championship title.
“This is a real opportunity to get the world title,” he says. “More rally wins would be nice, but do they really matter when you compare them to a title? I’ve got a Finland win, a win at GB and the Monte would be special – those are the other two special ones – but ticking boxes with rally wins doesn’t do it for me in the same way a title would.
“And we have to go to Monte with that approach. It’s the first event back for the team and we’re all taking a big step into the unknown. I just can’t see anybody throwing it all in on that first stage on the Monte, it’s going to be much more of a case of suck it see.”
Meeke’s changed so much over the last 12 months. Job security has transformed him from one of the world’s fastest rally drivers who might – from time-to-time – manage 250 competitive miles between accidents, to a serious threat for this year’s title.
Of course there will still be the odd hiccup along the way, but Meeke looks to have found that golden formula that allows him to live his working life on a knife-edge and bring the car home without a scratch. Now it is time for another run. I walk in the other direction this time, searching for something higher up the gearbox. Over the top of a hill I find what I’m looking for. After a moment on the limiter, the Citroen’s tapped down a cog and fired at a left-hander. There’s a brief squeak of complaint as the right-front Michelin stares down the apex, but then it’s straight back on the gas. The car’s stability is awe-inspiring. Aerodynamics have definitely returned to world rallying. I relay that corner to Meeke later. He says: “That’s the thing with these cars, the faster you go the more grip you have from the downforce, it’s amazing. These cars are absolutely incredible. If you think back a few years, back to when I was in the Mini and the guys would have been searching for four bhp or something. And when they found it, that would have been a real step.
“This year we’ve got an extra 60bhp in one go. That’s not a step forward, that’s a game-changer. You talk about that corner, the feeling inside the car is just mad – there’s so much downforce the thing just doesn’t shift, it doesn’t move in the corner at all. It’s just so stable, so fast.”
Driving into the stage, the road is bone dry and a creamy-grey in colour. But one thing hits you immediately; after a morning of running up and down this stretch of France, there are two black lines running pretty much the whole length of the test. Not just on the braking points or at the exit of corners, for the whole way through.
Granted, the Citroen spent the morning running on Michelin’s softest of soft boots and laying lines in those things is never going to be too tricky, but it’s still alarming to see how the car is clearly breaking traction and fighting for grip so far up the gearbox and also so far down the straights.
“You just can’t let your guard down with this thing,” says Meeke. “It had been a wee while since Paul and I had been in the car, with our planned Sweden test being moved into the New Year, and that first run in the morning was a real eye-opener again.
“The eyes are out on stalks and they stay out there for the whole stage. There’s just something happening all the time.”
Something happening all the time… it’s going to be that kind of a season. ■
When: March 18/19 Where: Goodwood, Sussex Web: goodwood.co.uk The former RAF Westhampnett airfield can be pretty chilly in mid-march, but the annual Goodwood Members’ Meeting is a fantastic way to blow off the winter blues.
This is an event not of the scale of the Revival Meeting in September and many say that it is all the better for that. The venue is less crowded, the atmosphere is more relaxed and the racing covers some cars not served by the strict 1966 cut-off for the Revival.
Headliners for the 75th edition include the fabulous Gerry Marshall Trophy for Group 1 Touring Cars and the two-part race allows some of the current BTCC racers to limber up before the season’s serious work begins.
A busy race schedule, taking in absolute gems like the 1-litre F3 cars and the Edwardian monsters in the SF Edge Trophy, is neatly supplemented by high-speed demo sessions.
The 2017 offering includes GT1 racers of the 1990s and stunning 3-litre prototypes of the 1970s.
Tickets are strictly limited but if you can get some, it is another top class weekend from the Goodwood operation. Even the spring daffodils are seemingly programmed to blossom with perfect timing.
When: July 1/2 Where: Foxhall Heath, Ipswich Web: spedeworth.co.uk The whole season’s racing comes down to this one race.
The National Hot Rod racers have been on the campaign trail for 15 rounds leading up to this 75-lap thrash, and the winner is crowned the National Hot Rod World champion.
The top 18 points scorers over the English rounds earn their place in the showdown, and they are bolstered by the top drivers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. A handful of overseas racers are thrown in too.
The cars use timed qualifying for the only time in the season, and they line up within groups depending upon how they qualified for the World Final itself.
The Foxhall Heath Stadium at Ipswich is the most modern short oval in the country and the facilities really are second to none. Viewing is always excellent. Thousands of fans turn out for the big race, which takes place at lunchtime on Sunday. With no prizes for second position, the battle at the front is intense and there is success and heartbreak in equal measure.
Meeke says the grip and power of new C3 is unbelievable Team is learning fast to find a base set-up for Monte Carlo
cars C3 has more power and significantly more aero than older WRC
Asphalt testing has shown the new car is “special”
The variety on show at Members’ Meeting is a joy
World Final is hardcore winner-takes-all racing