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Kris Meeke conquers endless troubles to finish Dakar

Despite clinging on to a rope for dear life, Ulsterman refuses offer to quit

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Sand surfing: Kris Meeke’s Zephyr glides across the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia during the Dakar Rally

Sand surfing: Kris Meeke’s Zephyr glides across the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia during the Dakar Rally

And relax: Kris Meeke chills out after completing the Dakar Rally

And relax: Kris Meeke chills out after completing the Dakar Rally

We made it: Kris Meeke and navigator Wouter Rosegaar

We made it: Kris Meeke and navigator Wouter Rosegaar

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Sand surfing: Kris Meeke’s Zephyr glides across the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia during the Dakar Rally

The Dakar Rally stretched Kris Meeke to the limit of his patience, remarking at one point it was "trying to crush my soul".

But despite the setbacks and the frustrations he refused to give up, one exchange of text messages between him and the PH Sport team summing up his determination to keep going.

It was on the liaison section leading to the start of the Sakaka to Neom leg and came after his Zephyr buggy had broken two driveshafts the previous day during the marathon two-part stage. With no service crews allowed at the Neom bivouac he and Dutch navigator Wouter Rosegaar had to make repairs as best they could.

The buggy was still in two-wheel-drive, with patched up spare tyres, as they restarted the next morning and despite working on it for a further 90 minutes on the road section they couldn't resolve the problems.

Meeke got a text message from the team:

"Bernard [Piallat, the PH boss] ask if you want continu?"

Meeke: "Of course"

Team: "OK"

Meeke: "I go until it is completely not possible and then I go again"

They were giving him the option to quit in the face of mounting odds but Meeke was never going to give in. He would carry on until the car died.

And that's what he did, day after day through the Saudi Arabian desert, getting stranded three times after mechanical failures, enjoying tea with wandering tribesmen, meeting their new-born lambs and baby camels, being towed by trucks at frightening speeds in the dust and dark, but intent on making it back to Jeddah.

On Friday evening he did, more than 80 hours behind the winner Stefane Peterhansel but finishing with a flourish with outright fastest time in the lightweight category and his fourth stage win in the T3 prototype class.

It was an indication of what might have been but for what appears to have been errors in the preparation of the all-new Zephyr which, like Meeke, was on its first Dakar.

A spare wheel was mounted close to the hot exhaust, causing the tyre to rub against it as the buggy bounced over the rocky tracks on the first full stage. The tyre caught fire, pushing flames into the engine and burning out the electrics.

Stuck in the desert for hours before one of the competing trucks towed the buggy on to the bivouac, the dust-covered Meeke and Rosegaar were like zombies as they hung on for dear life on the end of a five-metre rope.

The PH mechanics did their best to repair the Zephyr but the legacy of the fire plagued it for days, causing it to stop numerous times and meaning Meeke spending more time kicking sand in frustration.

But he was gaining valuable experience of a rally environment alien to him and, as the team gradually got the buggy fit again - with input from Meeke, a Queen's University engineering graduate - he showed his potential with fastest T3 stage times.

Of course, with over 60 hours of penalties it made little difference to his overall position but he was learning how to cope with the demands of desert driving, listening to the advice of the knowledgeable Rosegaar, who he credits with getting him through, and measuring his pace against the need to preserve the car.

He will tell you it is all about experience as is shown by the top three drivers in the overall standings. Peterhansel, a record 14-times winner, is 55, Nasser Al-Attiyah is 50 and Carlos Sainz 59. They have competed on Dakar more than 50 times.

Even in Meeke's T3 class, where teenage American Seth Quintero led for several days, the winner was a 63-year-old Czech, Josef Machacek, another Dakar veteran.

It was a debut and an adventure he will never forget and while admitting afterwards he isn't one to concern himself with trophies, he says he will cherish the medal he was presented with to signify he has been a Dakar finisher.

That in itself is a major achievement on an endurance test which saw another biker killed and took a World Championship rally winner like Meeke to the point where he felt it was breaking his competitive spirit.

It didn't and he can't wait to try again.

FOOTNOTE: as if getting stuck in the desert multiple times wasn't bad enough, there was more frustration for Meeke when heavy snow saw him stranded for hours in Paris on his way home.

Belfast Telegraph


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