Belfast Telegraph

Kris Meeke taking a back seat ahead of Monte Carlo Rally

By Sammy Hamill

Kris Meeke has been happy to stay under the radar in the build up to this week's Monte Carlo Rally and the start of his second season in the Citroen World championship team.

Of course there have been YouTube videos of him in his new DS3 during a two-day pre-rally test, and interviews, too, but for the most part the former Intercontinental Challenge champion from Dungannon and co-driver Paul Nagle have been "quietly getting on" with their own preparations for one of the most iconic events in the WRC calendar.

The reason is the presence in the Abu Dhabi Citroen team of one Sebastien Loeb, the nine-times World champion, and, by a street, the most successful rally driver of all time. Loeb is back for what is officially a one-off appearance in his favourite event which he has already won seven times.

After a career in which he has won nearly three times the number of WRC rounds (78) as any other driver - including Rally Ireland twice - Loeb has moved on to explore new challenges in the World Touring Car Championship. But he says he had no hesitation in accepting when asked by Citroen boss Yves Matton to re-join the team for Monte Carlo.

And although he has been away for almost two years, Meeke says the Loeb legacy lives on within the team.

"On every pre-event test we did last year we used Sebastien's original set-up for the car and worked from there," he explained.

And Meeke feels the presence of the rally master for Citroen's most important rally of the season has taken some of the attention off his shoulders.

"There will be so much focus on Sebastien being back and what he's doing has taken the pressure off and let us quietly get on with what we are doing," he said.

After Monte Carlo, Loeb will return to his WTCC duties with Citroen, leaving Meeke and Mads Ostberg to carry the flag for the French company for the rest of the season. But for this week he is the focus of rally attention once more and Meeke is happy to have him.

"It is pretty special to have Seb as a team-mate and I know there is plenty I can learn from him on an event where he has been so strong," added Meeke who believes Loeb can challenge for an eighth victory.

"Seb is one of the best drivers the world has seen in any form of motorsport and his WTCC season means he's not out of driving practice.

"Okay, rallying is different, as he knows himself, but he's already had one national rally under his belt, which he won, so I'm pretty sure he'll hit the ground running.

"Remember, too, this isn't a rally where out and out speed is such a big factor as, say, Finland where you can predict the conditions. The Monte is more about feeling and mastering the icy, tricky conditions. Seb is one of the masters of this rally so I think he can definitely put up a challenge."

It was a year ago that Meeke made his official debut with the team and perhaps surprised even himself with a strong run to third place behind two previous Monte winners, World champion Sebastien Ogier and Bryan Bouffier.

Thereafter he endured a roller-coaster ride, mixing mistakes with more podium places but ending the season as the only serious challenger to the all-conquering Volkswagens of Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala.

But with a year's World championship experience behind him, he feels more at home in his role as a front-running Citroen driver. And after an extensive two-day test session in the mountains, he is keen to get the season under way.

"The difference a year makes is incredible," he said. "I felt more comfortable and confident going into this test session than 12 months ago.

"There have been modifications and upgrades to the 2015 DS3 and during the tests, which covered everything from dry tarmac to snow and ice, we ran all the possible tyre options including slicks on snow - which is always a good wake-up call after the Christmas break!

"But this is the Monte Carlo Rally and you know anything can happen. It is so unpredictable because the road conditions are constantly changing and tyre choice is critical. One wrong call and you lose minutes, not seconds.

"Seb has won seven times so he has the experience and the knowledge and maybe we can learn from him."

The rally, which is centred on Gap in the Alps, starts tomorrow evening.

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