Belfast Telegraph

Meeke lives the dream

By Sammy Hamill

The Finns have a word for it. They call it 'sisu' which, in polite terms, means having guts.They say you must have 'sisu' just to compete in, never mind win, the Rally of Finland, the fastest gravel rally in the world over switchback forest stages.

Kris Meeke definitely has 'sisu'.

He is an adrenalin junkie who just loves the thrill of difficult challenges, from riding the notorious Baja 1000 in California to climbing the Alpine stages of the Tour de France just so he can come roaring down again on his bike; from racing motorbikes and karts to snowboarding and mountain biking, to blasting a £200,000 Bentley Continental through the forests of the RAC Rally for the amusement of Top Gear viewers.

It is all great fun to Meeke.

But the former Intercontinental Challenge champion from Dungannon gets all serious when he climbs on board a rally car, and never more so as he prepares for the biggest challenge of his career to date – driving for the Abu Dhabi Citroen team, eight-time World championship winners, in Finland.

It is the dream Meeke has harboured for the best part of a decade.

"When I was driving for the Citroen junior team back in 2005/2006 the dream was to step up to the full World championship team one day. A lot of things have happened since then and over the past few years I began to think the dream would never come true," he reflected.

"But sometimes your dreams can become reality and luckily for me it happened when Citroen Racing boss Yves Matton called me aside in Belgium where I was demonstrating the new Peugeot T16 at the Ypres Rally and told me that I would be driving the third factory car in Finland.

"You can't even begin to imagine how I felt. The frustrations of the past 18 months since the collapse of the BMW Mini team just melted away and I knew my decision to turn down all approaches to drive for, let's say, second division teams, had been justified."

For the moment it is a one-off appearance, with Meeke, who is the lead test driver for both Citroen and Peugeot, and his fellow Ulster co-driver Chris Patterson standing in for Khalid Al Qassimi alongside team regulars Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo.

But with Citroen legend Sebastien Loeb now retired and Hirvonen and Sordo performing disappointingly this season – and coming to the end of their contracts – Matton has made it clear that "all doors are open for next year".

But it all heaps huge pressure on Meeke's shoulders.

He has this one chance to show he merits a place in the World championship; that he can take his Intercontinental Challenge successes for Peugeot and the promise he showed with the ill-fated Mini project to the next level.

"It is a fantastic opportunity for me but I am under no illusions about the challenge it represents," he said.

"It's not called the Finnish Grand Prix for nothing. It's absolutely flat-out and it's so difficult to compete against drivers, especially the Scandinavians, who go there year after year and know the stages so well.

"On roads so fast and with so many big jumps experience is everything so I won't be troubling the guys at the front like Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala or my Citroen team-mates.

"The primary aim will be to get the car to the finish and show progression in my pace over the three days of the rally. If I can do that I will be satisfied and hopefully put a marker down for the future."

It will mean keeping his 'sisu' in check but Meeke knows there are bigger thrills to come if he can rise to this challenge.

It begins today from Jyvaskyla with the qualifying stage to determine starting positions and the action will get under way in earnest tomorrow morning.

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