Belfast Telegraph

Kris Meeke craves Paddy power

By Sammy Hamill

The symmetry would be perfect but the possibility of emulating Paddy Hopkirk wasn't on Kris Meeke's mind as he began the Monte Carlo Rally this morning.

It was exactly 50 years ago that Hopkirk stunned the rally world by winning the Monte in a tiny little Mini Cooper, a feat which will be celebrated with a gala dinner in Belfast's Titanic Quarter next month.

It was Hopkirk, too, who helped to launch fellow Ulsterman Meeke on his rally career by picking him out in a "find a driver" competition more than a decade ago.

Now it has come full circle with the 34-year-old former Intercontinental Challenge champion from Dungannon becoming the first driver from Northern Ireland since Hopkirk to tackle the most iconic of all rallies in a car with winning potential. It has been a torturous climb since the day at Silverstone in 2000 when Hopkirk identified the potential in the young rally rookie, fresh out of Queen's University with a first class engineering degree.

There have been huge pitfalls and knockbacks along the way but Meeke's steely determination and belief have finally paid off with a contract to lead the Citroen team into the 2014 World championship.

Just think, a year ago Citroen were on the brink of winning the Monte for a ninth time with the most successful driver of all time, Sebastien Loeb, at the wheel of their factory-prepared DS3.

Twelve months on and Meeke, who is partnered by Kerryman Paul Nagle, has the daunting task of taking his place.

"Citroen Racing has rewritten the WRC record books with Sebastien over the past 10 years and to be a part of that now is fantastic; I know I can count on their vast experience," he said.

"They understand where I am – I've only ever done 10 WRC rounds in a World Rally Car – but they understand my potential too, otherwise I wouldn't have been given this chance.

"There is pressure, but it's different than what you'd find on a one-off appearance. It is a challenge but it feels right."

He adds: "I know I have to temper my enthusiasm. There have been a few occasions in the past when it has got the better of me. But there have always been cases when everything's been riding on a single event; now I know I have a full season ahead of me and I can build throughout that year.

"There's a huge weight of expectation when you drive for a team like Citroen. But I'm comfortable with it."

He has driven on the Monte five times before, winning the Junior World championship category in 2005, but never with the ultimate power of a WRC car beneath his right foot.

"It is the most unpredictable rally of the year," he said. "Snow, ice, rain, slush, sunshine ... you get everything on the Monte and understanding the road, being able to read the surface conditions and reacting accordingly, is the only way to do well here.

"It is pointless aiming for a particular result or thinking about what Paddy did all those years ago. The goal is to be consistent and not make mistakes."

Against a 100-strong field packed with rallying's elite including Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala in their World championship-winning Volkswagens, Mikko Hirvonen, Meeke's fellow Brit Elfyn Evans and Robert Kubica representing M-Sport Ford, newcomers Hyundai with Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo as well as Citroen No.2 Mads Ostberg, those rewards will be hard to come by.

But Meeke made an encouraging beginning yesterday when he was second fastest, exactly equal with his team-mate Ostberg, on the 'shakedown' stage ahead of this morning's start.

Meeke and Norwegian Ostberg were both beaten by Ogier who was 1.2 seconds quicker after three runs over the three-and-a-half kilometre practice stage near Châteauvieux in the French Alps.

But they split Ogier from his team-mate Latvala and were more than one-and-a-half seconds faster than the leading Ford of former F1 driver Kubica.

Neuville was sixth fastest Hirvonen, now back with Ford after being replaced at Citroen by Meeke, seventh and Sordo in the second Hyundai eighth.

The rally began in earnest early this morning with the first leg consisting of six stages around the service park in the town of Gap.

It will continue in the same region tomorrow before returning to Monte Carlo for the final leg on Saturday which includes two night runs over the Col de Turini.

Belfast Telegraph

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