Battle for World glory is wide open, insists Meeke
Kris Meeke admits he is looking forward to the Monte Carlo Rally and the start of the 2017 World Championship with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and trepidation.
"I know I'm going to be asked over and over again next week in the build-up to the rally what is going to happen, who is going to win, who's going to be World champion," said the Dungannon driver who leads the Abu Dhabi Citroen team.
"The honest answer is no one knows. So much has changed since the end of last season - Volkswagen quitting, Sebastien Ogier moving to Ford, Toyota coming in, but, most of all, a batch of completely new cars.
"Everyone has been working away for months developing these cars which have taken a big step up from what we have been using for the past three or four years. They are more powerful, more aggressive looking, more aerodynamic.
"But all the testing has been done independently and no one has been able to accurately compare how one measures up against the other.
"Really we won't know who is up to speed and who has ground to make up until we get into Monte Carlo. Even then it won't be definitive because this is a unique rally which is governed by the conditions. Dry, wet, snow, ice - it can change stage by stage."
The departure of the Volkswagen team has also changed the picture and thrust Meeke into the spotlight. A winner in Portugal and Finland last season, he is being talked up as a potential World champion.
While not entirely dismissing the notion, he skirts round the idea.
"Becoming World champion has been a dream ever since I started rallying and the Championship has never been as open as it is this year. It is a completely new era and with VW gone it is all to play for," he said during a flying visit home between test sessions in Sweden and the Alps.
But he warned: "When you drive the 2017 cars in anger, you realise they are a different beast; you really have to be on your game, every metre, to keep on top of them."
It was a lesson four-time champion Ogier learned when he crashed his M-Sport Fiesta during a test earlier this week.
And Meeke added: "I think there will be a few butterflies whirling around in the stomachs of everyone when you're sitting on the start line of the first stage next Thursday night with all that extra power under your right foot and the road ahead covered in black ice."