Kris Meeke could barely believe it himself. “A little bit crazy to be honest,” he conceded as he jumped down from the roof of his Rally Finland-winning Citroen DS3 at the end of the final stage.
The Ulsterman had done what no other British driver has ever been able to do in the 75-year history of a rally regarded as the ultimate test. Not Roger Clark, not Richard Burns, not even the late Colin McRae, Meeke’s great hero and his early mentor.
Indeed, only four drivers from non-north European countries have ever been successful, among them legends like Sebastien Ogier and Carlos Sainz.
Now 37-year-old Meeke from Dungannon has joined them.
Yes, he and co-driver Paul Nagle have won in Argentina and Portugal but this is different – a whole new league in fact. Originally called the Rally of the 1000 Lakes, Finland presents a unique challenge, testing every ounce of skill and commitment. To fly the countless blind crests in the tree-lined forests at over 100mph takes nerve and courage.
And Meeke won in convincing fashion, leading from stage two on Friday morning and pulling away to beat Finland’s best driver of the moment, Jari-Matti Latvala, of the dominant Volkswagen team by a comfortable half a minute, denying him a hat-trick of victories.
Adding to an astonishing weekend for Irish rallying, an emotional Craig Breen joined Meeke on the podium, the Circuit of Ireland winner finishing third in his third appearance for the Abu Dhabi Citroen team.
Officially, Meeke is not contesting the World championship this year, concentrating instead on developing Citroen’s new C3 car for 2017. But in four appearances he has led every time and now he has won twice.
But he will tell you nothing compares with winning Rally Finland, containing the 20 miles of Ouninpohja, a rollercoaster stage where the cars are in the air as often as they are on the gravel. Leading Latvala by 18 seconds at the end of the Friday leg, Meeke knew Saturday morning would be critical which is why he and Nagle were up before dawn re-running the video of their pacenote passes through the stage earlier in the week.
And how Meeke’s homework paid off as he snuffed out the Latvala threat by beating him by 13 seconds. When he went even faster on the second run through the signature stage in the afternoon, the Finn had been crushed, allowing Meeke to drop into “management mode” and see out the biggest win of his career.
“Finland is the home of rally and Ouninpohja is the Holy Grail of stages. To win it how we did is incredible,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a kid playing on my bike. It felt like that again – playing and having fun. But it has been a great team effort inside and outside the car. Special credit to Paul – he did an incredible job.
“For a WRC driver, winning Rally Finland is the ultimate goal before becoming World champion. It’s an amazing feeling to win on the greatest roads in the world.” Breen was in tears as he crossed the line. Three months after his second Circuit win he was on a World championship podium for the first time, saying it was the “best day of my life”.
“It’s been such a road to get here and I’m missing my main man,” said Breen, referring to his late co-driver Gareth Roberts who was killed when they crashed in Italy four years ago. “I know he’s looking down on me.”
Breen had to hold off Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville who finished fourth but Ott Tanak who had been only seconds behind crashed out yesterday morning. Hayden Paddon (Hyundai) was fifth and Mads Ostberg (Ford) sixth but World champion Sebastien Ogier was 24th.
Meeke’s average speed was 126.6km/h, 1.2 km/h faster than the previous WRC record.