KRIS MEEKE’S 2017 AM­BI­TION

NORTH­ERN IR­ISH STAR SPEAKS TO MN

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - Paul Lawrence Matt James

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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

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