x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Meeke is ready to make good first impression with Team Citroen Abu Dhabi

Meeke, who had also driven for Mini in 2011 and won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2009, is realistic on his prospects of making an impact in WRC, writes Graham Caygill.

Kris Meeke steers his Citroen DS3 during the shakedown of the Monte Carlo Rally in Chateauvieux, southeastern France on Wednesday. Jean-Pierre Clatot / AFP
Kris Meeke steers his Citroen DS3 during the shakedown of the Monte Carlo Rally in Chateauvieux, southeastern France on Wednesday. Jean-Pierre Clatot / AFP

When the new World Rally Championship (WRC) season begins Thursday in Monte Carlo, Kris Meeke will afford himself a smile as he sits in his Citroen Abu Dhabi DS3 WRC car.

The British driver said he believes for the first time he has the machinery around him to show what he is capable of in the top echelon of rallying and intends to take advantage of it during the coming campaign.

“The thing about motorsport, to do really well, is that you need to have the tools to do the job,” he said. “It is not like football where your own personal skill level can get you to the top. You need to have a good car and a good team. To get this car and to be able to work with the guys here is fantastic and gives me a great opportunity.”

Meeke, 34, joins the French manufacturer as half of the driver line-up along with Norwegian Mads Ostberg after Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo both departed at the end of last season.

They will be joined at five rounds by Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, with the Emirati’s first WRC appearance coming next month at Rally Sweden.

Meeke’s involvement with Citroen began last year when he took part in two rounds in Finland and Australia.

While he did not finish either event – he crashed out on the penultimate stage in Finland while running second – his speed did enough to impress Citroen bosses and he was named on the team alongside Ostberg last month.

Of getting the drive, Meeke, who is from Dungannon in Northern Ireland, said: “We had been in discussions since after the rallies in Finland and Australia, and it really started from there.

“We had more serious talks after Rally Spain, and we felt that by the time Rally Great Britain came and went in November that it was happening.

“There were still things for the team to sign off on, so it was a massive relief when I got the call to confirm I was definitely going to be driving.”

Three days have been spent behind the DS3 in preparation for season opener in Monte Carlo, and Meeke is happy.

“The car feels good. We got a lot of work done and were able to test in different conditions, and I think we are as well set up as we can be for Monte Carlo,” he said.

Meeke, who had also driven for Mini in 2011 and won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2009, is realistic on his prospects of making an impact and immediately challenging for victories with his new employers.

“I am looking to enjoy the experience, but of course I want to do well,” he said.

“Most of the events in the first half of the season are new to me, so I am going to have to be patient and learn as I go along, at least to start with.

“I should be stronger in the second half. Obviously I have done Finland and Australia, and I have done the recce [the warm-up session, which gives drivers a final chance to work on their set-up before the start of a rally] on the other events, so I am confident that I will only get stronger as the year goes on.”

As far as picking an event in which to make your bow with a new team, Rally Monte Carlo is one of the hardest on the calendar.

That is largely because of the notoriously mixed conditions it offers, with one stage snow-covered, the next one wet as the snow thaws, only to find ice on the next section.

It ensures the drivers must have their wits about them throughout the three days of action.

“It is my first time there in a WRC car and I am looking forward to it,” Meeke said. “It is a strange event as you spend most of the time reacting to the weather and the conditions it is creating.

“You have to prepare yourself beforehand for the fact that realistically you are likely to spend up to 70 per cent of the event on the wrong tyre, simply because the weather changes so quickly there.

“It is not a place where you are really driving against anyone else or looking for a certain time. It is about trying not to overstep the mark and making a mistake while going as fast as you can.

“I am fortunate that I am with a team that has lots of experience in the event, and winning experience at that, so I am confident we should be able to put in a good performance.”

Meeke began rallying in 2000 then moved up through the levels, competing in junior formulas of the WRC before making his breakthrough, first with Mini and now with Citroen.

What appealed to him about the sport was the unpredictability of the competition, with rallies taking place on snow, ice, gravel and tarmac throughout the year.

“It is not like Formula One, in that respect,” he said. “It is not circuit racing. Every rally is different and that is what makes it so much fun.

“I think it is popular with the public as when they see us taking on mountain passes, or struggling with black ice, they can relate to what they are watching and it is conditions they themselves can experience.”

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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