PLUS! INSIGHT INTO KRIS MEEKE’S NEW HOME AT TOYOTA
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
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.