His wrc ca­reer ap­peared over af­ter hisc­itroenCitroen sac king but kris meeke’ s al­ready en­joy­ing life at toy­ota. by David evans Re­set and ready to go, Monte Carlo can’t come soon enough. And with it will come a shot at gen­uine re­demp­tion. Meeke’s irked b

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You couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Es­apekka Lappi at Rally of Spain last month. Imag­ine a po­si­tion where you’re wheel­ing your new part­ner out to meet the folks when the cur­rent one walks in from their day at work.

That was pretty much Toy­ota Ga­zoo Rac­ing in Salou on the Fri­day night. Awk­ward.

The re­al­ity of the mat­ter is, of course, dif­fer­ent: Lappi wants away and is off to Citroen and he and Kris Meeke have ab­so­lutely no is­sue with each other. As well as Toy­ota’s new re­cruit, there were a few ele­phants around in the room.

As one on­looker sagely put it: “Could you imag­ine lock­ing those two in a room for five min­utes and ask­ing them to talk about their cur­rent or pre­vi­ous em­ployer… all bets would be off !”

Un­der­stand­ably, Meeke would find it hard to put his fin­ger on the pos­i­tives on of­fer at Citroen, while Lappi, if ru­mour is to be be­lieved, doesn’t have much good to say about life in Pu­up­pola.

Be­yond the per­func­tory, there wasn’t much for ei­ther to say. Kris had popped down from his place in the hills in An­dorra to meet his new team and put faces to emails. And the wel­come couldn’t have been warmer.

“It’s great to see Kris here,” says team prin­ci­pal Tommi Maki­nen. “Of course, we saw him in the fac­tory last week, but it’s nice for him to say hello. We are ex­cited for next year.”

There’s no doubt Meeke’s re­turn to the ser­vice park added a cer­tain some­thing. Con­ve­niently, PSA Group CEO Car­los Tavares was also on the Costa Dau­rada, so the Dun­gan­non driver’s ar­rival of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to try to find out more about the de­ci­sion process which led to his de­par­ture from Citroen.

Tavares says: “We are prag­matic peo­ple. If we have asked Mr Meeke to stop dur­ing the sea­son, it’s be­cause we wanted to avoid the drama. And it was ob­vi­ous, ac­ci­dent af­ter ac­ci­dent, at one point in time some­thing se­ri­ous could hap­pen and it is our eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity to make any de­ci­sion that could avoid that from hap­pen­ing. And I’m happy we could make that de­ci­sion be­fore a drama hap­pened.

“That’s why we made that de­ci­sion and I think it was the right de­ci­sion from a pure re­spon­si­bil­ity stand point. By the way, I con­sider that Kris Meeke is a huge, huge cham­pion and I hope he will find his bal­ance and I hope that ev­ery­thing that will hap­pen to him is good things. I hope him well. We like him very much.”

Yeah… I’m not sure that feel­ing is en­tirely mu­tual. But this story’s one to look for­wards, not back­wards. Cer­tainly, Meeke had zero in­ter­est in rak­ing over the coals of his past ca­reer. But there was plenty to be read between the lines.

When he was an­nounced as a Toy­ota driver last month, one line stood out from him.

“If I can just en­joy my driv­ing and the con­nec­tion with road, then the speed will take care of it­self.”

The con­nec­tion ref­er­ence could be in­ter­preted phys­i­cally and metaphor­i­cally. Phys­i­cally, we’ve seen the way ge­om­e­try and sus­pen­sion changes have im­proved the per­for­mance of the C3 WRC – Citroen took it from nowhere in Fin­land 12 months ago to Mads Ost­berg al­most de­liv­er­ing a win this time around.

But metaphor­i­cally, the con­nec­tion with the road en­com­passes ev­ery­thing a driver needs to do his job; he needs the con­fi­dence in – and from – the team be­hind him and he needs to­tal faith that ev­ery­thing has been max­imised and no cor­ner cut as he aims his car at an apex. When he has that, the con­nec­tion is com­plete be­cause there’s noth­ing else for him to think – he stops wor­ry­ing about what’s around him and thinks only about what’s be­neath him.

That’s what Meeke wants from Toy­ota. He’s done with sec­ondguess­ing which di­rec­tion the cor­po­rate wind will blow or how best to jug­gle test­ing bud­gets.

While I was talk­ing to Meeke, one of the team was try­ing to fi­nalise de­tails of his next test. Snow and ice had ar­rived in Jy­vaskyla, com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters from a tyre per­spec­tive. But what came across loud and clear, though, was the de­sire from Toy­ota to do what was right for Meeke. The car was there, if he wanted to drive it.

This sce­nario drew an ob­vi­ous and stark con­trast to Meeke’s last Rally GB test, con­ducted in south-west France to save money.

Fight­ing against that sort of de­ci­sion had starved Meeke of the two things he craved most: suc­cess and job sat­is­fac­tion.

“When I de­parted the cham­pi­onship in May it started to re­ally hit home how much I wasn’t en­joy­ing my job,” says Meeke, “and to do one of the best jobs in the world and to re­alise you weren’t ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing it for many, many rea­sons which we can’t speak about… My only goal is to en­joy my driv­ing.”

Meeke’s en­forced ab­sence from the cham­pi­onship has given him time to go home and think – the one thing he hasn’t spent a lot of time on is watch­ing the World Rally Cham­pi­onship.

He con­tin­ues: “I haven’t watched any cov­er­age, any footage for three years – that was prob­a­bly a sig­nal I wasn’t en­joy­ing it. But when I was com­ing down here [to Salou], I was up, tex­ting my Miche­lin en­gi­neer to find out who was on what tyres and fol­low­ing the splits. The hunger’s back. The sport’s still my life, but when you get a sit­u­a­tion like the one that hap­pened in May, you need to go and dis­ap­pear for a while; you need to go and re­set.”

cham­pi­onship starts. That’s 101 more than Meeke.

J-ML has con­tested a full cam­paign for the last 12 years, Meeke’s only done three com­plete sea­sons in his en­tire time in the sport. Three years. Meeke’s ca­reer has been ridicu­lously stop-start. Any­body who’s started 93 rounds of the world cham­pi­onship would ap­pear to have had a good shot at the thing, but that’s not the case here. For what­ever rea­son, ev­ery time he’s built some mo­men­tum, the thing has fallen down and his ca­reer stalled.

Now, he has ev­ery­thing he needs. He’s got ar­guably the best and fastest World Rally Car ever cre­ated, a well-funded and very en­thu­si­as­tic man­u­fac­turer team be­hind him and the ear of a man who knows what it takes to turn po­ten­tial into points and prizes.

“We know what Kris can do as a driver,” says Maki­nen, “we know how fast he is. Next year is go­ing to be an ex­cit­ing one, I think we can have a strong team.”

Back to Fri­day night in Salou and not long af­ter turn­ing his car into the end of day ser­vice, Lat­vala has an arm around Meeke and the pair are en­gaged in a dis­cus­sion which would have started with em­pa­thy and ended with them trad­ing ramp an­gles.

“I wanted to know his feel­ing about the car,” says Lat­vala, “and it was a good feel­ing. I can see he is ex­cited. It will be good next year. He’s a good guy to have in the team and it’s a nice op­por­tu­nity for Kris af­ter what hap­pened with Citroen. He can get the feel­ing and come back to the sport, this is nice.”

Nice or not, Meeke and Lat­vala both know only one thing will mat­ter when it comes to ex­tend­ing their con­tract with Maki­nen in 12 months’ time: re­sults.

Toy­ota has a line-up with the po­ten­tial for world dom­i­na­tion; ev­ery one of its three driv­ers can win any one of next year’s 14 ral­lies. But, as strong char­ac­ters with their own in­flu­ence in­side a team which hasn’t been with­out in­ter­nal strife of its own this sea­son, they will take some man­ag­ing.

And Meeke knows, if he wants to suc­ceed then he’s go­ing to have to get on the wave Ott Tanak’s rid­ing pretty quickly next year. The Es­to­nian can do no wrong right now.

“He’s hit a sweet spot,” says Meeke of his new team-mate. “He turns up at any rally and he can win it. And Jari has proven the pace of the car again. Let’s see… I can’t pre-empt any­thing; I’ve only driven the Yaris WRC in Fin­land and it was born and bred on those roads. It’s won the last two Rally Fin­lands, so I knew it was go­ing to be quick there, but I haven’t tested it for the Span­ish gravel or in a Sar­dinia or Por­tu­gal set-up, so I can’t make any com­ment.

“What I can say is that the at­mos­phere is great com­ing into the team – I can feel it from just walk­ing in here. It’s so re­fresh­ing from what I’ve had in the past, it feels good.”

For the umpteenth time, our dis­cus­sion is halted by an­other well­wish­ing Toy­ota Ga­zoo Rac­ing team mem­ber. The ap­pre­ci­a­tion from both the Fin­nish and Ja­panese side of the team is huge.

But what about the man of the mo­ment, what does Tanak think? He’s in­ter­ested, pos­si­bly ex­cited, but def­i­nitely prag­matic.

“I know what he can do,” says Tanak, “I know what he can bring to the team and def­i­nitely he can help take us for­ward – it’s al­ways good to have some­thing new from some dif­fer­ent teams. Citroen is do­ing things in a pro­fes­sional way, so hope­fully there’s some­thing use­ful from there.”

Meeke’s time at Citroen has taught him plenty. When Yves Mat­ton of­fered him a seat in a DS 3 WRC in Fin­land five years ago, teams weren’t ex­actly queu­ing around the block for his sig­na­ture. Things have changed now. Meeke’s a man in de­mand and he couldn’t be hap­pier with the way things have played out.

His­tory has shown the North­ern Ir­ish­man has lit­tle time for the pol­i­tics or the ex­ec­u­tive level cor­po­rate com­ings and go­ings of a man­u­fac­turer team. His real in­ter­est and his real abil­ity is in bring­ing those on the fac­tory floor around him and with him. Meeke’s a man of his peo­ple who starts ev­ery stage with his heart on his sleeve and the me­chan­ics and tech­ni­cians in ev­ery team he’s worked with are more than happy to buy into that.

Some around the ser­vice park reckon Meeke has jumped out of the fry­ing pan and into the fire in terms of in­ter­nal team deal­ings. We’ll see. The big­gest and most ob­vi­ous gripe at Citroen was born out of Tavares’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to turn the sport’s sec­ond most suc­cess­ful make ever into bud­get world cham­pi­ons. His con­stant sight­ing of M-sport’s abil­ity to win on a shoe­string was warped and twisted to his own ends.

Shoestrings aren’t much in vogue at Meeke’s new place of work – Toy­ota’s all about bon­homie and good con­nec­tions. ■

Cham­pi­onships were up for grabs for heavy­weight trucks, nim­ble Le­gends and joust­ing Pick­ups at one of Brands Hatch’s most pop­u­lar meet­ings – not only be­cause of the rac­ing ac­tion but for Mo­tor­sport Vi­sion’s fire­work dis­play and en­ter­tain­ment pro­gramme.

On the track, Ryan Smith wasted no time con­firm­ing his third BTRA truck cham­pi­onship by dom­i­nat­ing Satur­day’s Di­vi­sion 1 race. The only driver who could have chal­lenged for the ti­tle, David Jenk­ins, fin­ished sec­ond and paid trib­ute to Smith. He was echoed by mul­ti­ple cham­pion Stu­art Oliver, who joined them on the podium and said Smith had raised the com­pet­i­tive bar and it was up to the rest to catch up.

Smith chased from last on a re­versed grid to fin­ish sec­ond on Sun­day morn­ing, a length be­hind Jamie An­der­son – but Smith was later handed a 10-sec­ond penalty for be­ing out of po­si­tion at the start. Jenk­ins and Martin Gib­son were even closer in third and fourth, but all eyes were on Richard Col­lett and Oliver, who com­pleted the fi­nal lap with their trucks locked to­gether.

Smith’s luck ran out when his MAN had sus­pected clutch fail­ure in race three, help­ing Oliver to only his sec­ond win in 2018. An­der­son was next, with Jenk­ins third af­ter be­ing el­bowed off the road early on.

The truck let Smith down again in the fi­nal, and other in­ci­dents helped for­mer Di­vi­sion 2 cham­pion John Newell to record his first Di­vi­sion 1 win un­der pres­sure from Si­mon Reid.

Luke Gar­rett ar­rived as favourite for the Di­vi­sion 2 crown, but didn’t do quite enough on day one to be sure. Brad Smith kept the con­test alive by win­ning their first race with Gar­rett eighth, but a me­te­oric get­away gave Luke race two.

Gar­rett needed a sin­gle point on Sun­day and duly clinched a cham­pi­onship earned in the past by his late fa­ther, though it hap­pened by de­fault when both he and Smith were ex­cluded for yel­low flag of­fences mean­ing Smith couldn’t score. The race was won by for­mer Fin­nish cham­pion Erik Forsstrom. Gar­rett won race four.

John Mickel’s record-break­ing fifth Le­gends na­tional ti­tle was con­firmed with a day to spare with fourth, fifth and sixth place fin­ishes on Satur­day. Miles Rud­man won the first heat and the fi­nal. A mishap in the sec­ond heat, won by Mar­cus Pett, gave Rud­man a favourable start­ing po­si­tion for the fi­nal.

Rud­man and Pett were again heat win­ners on Sun­day, but the fi­nal went to Will Gib­son in the tight­est of fin­ishes with Sean Smith and cross-chan­nel vis­i­tor Se­bastien Kluyskens. Rud­man was fourth.

An­other cham­pi­onship to be set­tled brought 23 Pick­ups to Brands, and Lea Wood kept the pres­sure on Scott Bourne in the first of three races. Wood bat­tled with David O’re­gan be­fore win­ning, while Michael Smith, George Turic­cki and Bourne con­tested third.

Smith en­joyed his first win of the year in race two, while Bourne se­cured back- to-back ti­tles by fin­ish­ing third, right be­hind Wood. All the pres­sure gone, Bourne drove to an im­pres­sive race three vic­tory over O’re­gan and Smith. Wood was in­volved in a first cor­ner in­ci­dent and re­cov­ered to eighth.

Steven Chan­dler achieved his first Ju­nior Sa­loons win in front of what must have been the big­gest au­di­ence of the year on Satur­day in the Win­ter Cup con­test, but crashed be­fore the first cor­ner in race two. This came down to a tense con­test which fell to this year’s cham­pion, Lewis Saun­ders, af­ter sev­eral changes of lead on the fi­nal lap.

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