Kris Meeke delighted with chance to step up World Rally Championship quest
Kris Meeke is a different person these days. He has barely stopped smiling since he put the nightmare of the previous 18 months behind him and signed to drive for Tommi Makinen's Toyota Gazoo team late last year.
Many believed Meeke's World Rally Championship career was over when he was sacked by Citroen but Makinen threw him a surprise lifeline, recruiting the Andorra-based Ulsterman to drive alongside Jari-Matti Latvala and Ott Tanak in this year's series.
That road to redemption began in Monte Carlo last month where Meeke revelled in the performance of WRC manufacturer championship winning Yaris - and the family team atmosphere - to finish sixth, denied a possible podium place by two punctures.
Still, after a stunning finale with fastest time and maximum bonus points on the concluding Power Stage, he sits fourth in the World Championship standings heading into Rally Sweden, which begins this evening.
But he says he is starting from scratch again on a rally that is far different from the tarmac roads of the Alps and sets out tonight without high expectations.
"Monte Carlo was a positive beginning for me but it doesn't change my immediate focus, which is on learning the car and enjoying my driving again," he said.
"I had a great three days of testing in Finland last week and it was really nice to experience the car for the first time with a snow set up. I came away with a really good feeling, but I'm keeping in mind that the conditions on the rally could be very different, depending on the temperatures."
He has never enjoyed much success in Sweden, once remarking that "unlike the Scandinavian drivers we didn't get a lot of snow around Dungannon when I was growing up".
Yet he loves the challenge of driving flat out on snow/ice, the studded tyres giving astonishing grip, but is wary of the snowbanks which line the forest tracks. "Are they hard or soft? You can use them to straighten the car but if you hit a soft one it will suck you in and end your rally," he said.
The plan this weekend is to gather experience in the Yaris and support his team-mates - one Finnish, one Estonian - at home in the snow. It was in Sweden two years ago that Latvala recorded the then-new Toyota team's first win, and in the intervening period Tanak has proved to be a serial winner.
It was a puncture which also cost him a potential Monte Carlo win, victory eventually going to Meeke's Citroen replacement Sebastien Ogier in his home territory in the south of France. Now it is Tanak who is on familiar ground and Meeke will be happy with a ringside seat if the Estonian or Latvala can bring Toyota their first win of the season.
Thierry Neuville won there last year for Hyundai, going on to finish runner-up in the WRC series.
The rally starts this evening with a superspecial stage around a trotting track in Karstadt before switching for the main action in the snow-bound forests along the Sweden-Norway border.