Belfast Telegraph

Meeke weighing up Dakar Rally mission

New challenge: Kris Meeke is keen on potentially taking part in the Dakar Rally, which ex-F1 star Fernando Alonso is competing in this year
New challenge: Kris Meeke is keen on potentially taking part in the Dakar Rally, which ex-F1 star Fernando Alonso is competing in this year

By Sammy Hamill

Kris Meeke says he would "love to explore" the possibility of getting involved in marathon desert events like the Dakar Rally.

In Saudi Arabia for the start of this year's Dakar, where he talked publicly for the first time about his World Championship career being finished, the Dungannon driver said he was looking at all options for the future but admitted he was impressed by what he had seen in Jeddah as the crews prepared to tackle one of the most daunting challenges in rallying.

"I've always followed the Dakar on TV. I remember Ari Vatanen doing it years ago, Colin McRae and everybody else from the rallying side," he said.

"I've always had a passion for it. I've also done some endurance events with my motorbike. I said that when WRC is finished for me, maybe I'll have a look, so now I had the opportunity to come to look and see."

Meeke explained he had been invited to Saudi Arabia by five-time Dakar bikes champion Cyril Despres, who is spearheading Red Bull's new off-road project.

He said he had been asked to be on standby in case Despres' co-driver, the South African explorer Mike Horn, couldn't make it in time.

Former Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso is also currently competing.

"In Andorra, I live 100m from (endurance riders) Sam Sunderland and Adrien van Beveren. I'm out on the trials bikes with those guys all the time and I'm best mates with Cyril, who is involved now in this Red Bull Junior Team," explained Meeke.

"I had the opportunity to come to Jeddah and get a feeling of what the Dakar is. It's huge.

"You only get a true feeling of this when you come to see it. It's something I would love to explore in the future."

He's no stranger to endurance events having completed the treacherous Baja 1000 across the California desert on a motorbike in 2012, and would be interested in trying events like the Dakar on a bike but would prefer a car, even as a co-driver.

"I started very young as a co-driver in navigation rallies at my home in Ireland, I did many, many navigation rallies and I won a Championship when I was really young. All this tulip diagrams and reading roadbooks, I have a feeling for that," he said.

"But Dakar is special, it's different, with way points and all the systems. If I ever want to do Dakar, that would be a perfect opportunity to understand the navigation from the other side."

Meeke also conceded he was unlikely to return to the World Championship after his contract with Toyota was not renewed and he was replaced by six-time champion Sebastien Ogier.

The confirmation that former Circuit of Ireland winner Esapekka Lappi was replacing another new Toyota recruit, Elfyn Evans, at M-Sport Ford following the withdrawal of the Citroen team meant all the manufacturer seats for 2020 had been filled, leaving Meeke, Craig Breen and half a dozen other established drivers on the sidelines.

"When the driver market is like this, it's not possible," he said. "At this stage of my career, I have to be realistic. I don't drive for nothing. I don't spend 200 days a year away from my family for nothing. I think Lappi will take the salary he is owed from Citroen so he doesn't need any money (from M-Sport). When it's like that... for me, full-time in the WRC, I think it's finished.

"I'm 40-years-old now, so at one moment you think… I would love to continue, but this is the situation we have arrived at.

"I'm still talking with Toyota to be involved in some testing. I keep my options open. Certainly I'm looking at other things that make me passionate."

He bows out of the WRC as Britain's third most successful driver with five victories, the highlight being his record-breaking 2016 Rally Finland win.

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