Belfast Telegraph

Kris Meeke delight at podium success

By Sammy Hamill

Kris Meeke took a moment to compose himself, 50 years on from fellow Ulsterman Paddy Hopkirk's Monte Carlo Rally triumph.

As he pulled off his helmet and the television lights lit up the inside of the Citroen DS3, microphones were pushed in front of his face for the instant end-of-stage interviews.

He was clearly fighting hard to keep his emotions in check after finishing third.

A decade on from winning the Junior World championship category on the Monte Carlo Rally, Meeke was back and on the podium – a feat no British driver has achieved in over a decade.

The road in between has been long and brutal at times. Only self-belief kept him going when knock backs came thick and fast.

From being told he would have to get a French passport if he wanted to drive for Citroen to being dumped by Mini when they ran out of money; from being in the rally wilderness to apparently blowing his last chance when he crashed in Finland and Australia last year. He never doubted his ability.

And neither did Yves Matton, the Belgian boss of the Abu Dhabi Citroen team who has gambled his own reputation by dumping established drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo and replacing them with Meeke and Mads Ostberg, both relatively untried at the highest level.

No, they didn't win the rally for him but they survived the toughest Monte in years to finish third and fourth, only beaten by World champion Sebastien Ogier and Bryan Bouffier, two Frenchmen who live in the local region and are both past winners.

No-one else was even in sight – not Jari-Matti Latvala, not Sordo, not Hirvonen or even the much-vaunted Robert Kubica who crashed out as he tried to challenge Meeke for third.

For the 34-year-old from Dungannon just finishing on the podium must have felt like a victory.

But as the spotlight fell on him at the end of the final waterlogged Power Stage, where he was third fastest, Meeke took his time before answering the questions being thrown at him.

"What a crazy rally! I've never witnessed conditions like these before. It was incredibly difficult, but we achieved our goal," he said.

And he didn't forget to pay tribute to those who had made it possible – to Matton, to his ice/gravel/water note crew of former British champion Mark Higgins and Derek Brannigan who had kept him updated on the constantly changing conditions, and to co-driver Paul Nagle.

"I'm especially pleased for those who put their faith in me. It's really nice to be able to pay back the team for their support," he said.

Delighted that his gamble paid off, Matton said: "We asked our crews not to take any risks because the conditions were so difficult.

"We all know about Kris's speed but this weekend he showed his maturity and his ability to manage a result."

He managed it beautifully. As high as second place on the first day, Meeke refused to get drawn into a fight when passed by Ogier and Alpine specialist Bouffier, and concentrated on keeping the rest of the pack at bay.

He won that fight hands down and now moves on to Sweden effectively second in the World championship as Bouffier returns to his main role as a Hyundai test driver.

* Kieron Graffin, driving a Mitsubishi Evo 10, won the first rally of the season, the New Stages, at a waterlogged Kirkistown, finishing 14 seconds ahead of the Subaru S10 of Paddy McVeigh.

George Robinson took third in another Mitsubishi with Emma McKinstry finishing fourth in her dad Kenny's S14 Subaru.

Desi Henry (Subaru) and Ashley Dickson (Mitsubishi) rounded out the top six.

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