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Meeke relishing return to the deserts with Qatar Rally challenge



Kris Meeke is returning to the Middle East

Kris Meeke is returning to the Middle East

Kris Meeke is returning to the Middle East

Kris Meeke has barely shaken off the dust of the Dakar Rally but he has already lined up a return to the deserts of the Middle East.

The Andorra-based Ulsterman is to take part in the Qatar International Rally at the end of the month when he will swap his Dakar buggy for a more conventional R5 Skoda Fabia, which he will share with his old World Championship co-driver Seb Marshall.

Meeke, a five-time WRC rally winner, has clearly fallen in love with desert driving despite the catalogue of troubles which beset him on the daunting Dakar marathon, and is intent on returning next year.

Qatar, which is the opening round of the Middle East Championship, is another opportunity to gain experience of the challenges the deserts offer.

It is a two-day event starting on January 30 and will see Meeke go up against one of the Dakar stars, Nasser al-Attiyah, who finished second and has won his home Qatar rally 14 times.

"After my first experience of the Dakar, I'm now looking forward to taking part in a traditional special stage rally in the desert," said Meeke.

"I've wanted to take part in one of these rallies for a long time and to compete against Nasser and the Middle East drivers will be a new challenge for me."

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In any given year over the past decade Meeke would today be preparing to start the Monte Carlo Rally, but, in his absence, British hopes rest with former Ulster Rally winner Elfyn Evans. And the question is, did he blow his chances of becoming world champion last year?

Unless you are Sebastien Loeb or Sebastien Ogier, not many drivers get multiple chances to win the title.

The Welshman had one hand on the crown, leading by 14 points going into the final round last month, but crashed on a wet and snowy Monza Rally, effectively handing a seventh title to Toyota team-mate Ogier.

Signed by the Toyota team along with Ogier in a shake-up which saw 2019 world champion Ott Tanak leave for Hyundai and Meeke and Jari-Matti Latvala ousted, the pieces had unexpectedly fallen into place for Evans.

He was a surprise winner in Sweden before the series was suspended but then put himself in pole position by surviving the rough and tumble of Turkey where Ogier retired. But that crucial Monza Rally, a makeshift event cobbled together to make a viable seven-round Championship, proved Evans' undoing.

With Ogier's feet now firmly under the Toyota table and Tanak more settled at Hyundai, there are concerns that Evans may have missed his golden chance to emulate Colin McRae and Richard Burns.

But Monte Carlo, with its unpredictability and unique challenges, is a difficult place to start, and the snowy Alpine roads are, of course, home ground for Ogier, a seven-time winner.

Without Meeke, Ulster involvement is confined to two co-drivers: Aaron Johnston, who is alongside new Hyundai recruit Oliver Solberg, and Allan Harryman, partnering Greek driver Nikolas Pavlidis.

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