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Paddy Hopkirk’s 1964 Monte Carlo Rally feat won’t be bettered, says friend Kris Meeke after death of Belfast hero

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Paddy Hopkirk and Kris Meeke are two of Northern Ireland’s greatest rally drivers

Paddy Hopkirk and Kris Meeke are two of Northern Ireland’s greatest rally drivers

Paddy Hopkirk and Kris Meeke are two of Northern Ireland’s greatest rally drivers

The 1964 Monte Carlo Rally was the motorsport equivalent of David taking on Goliath. Many said it could not be done but, in a tiny red and white Mini Cooper S, Paddy Hopkirk — who passed away on Thursday aged 89 — proved bigger is not always better.

The underdog-turned-giant-slayer story was one that not only helped to create a British motoring icon, it also ensured that the Hopkirk name would enter the annals of motorsport for generations to come.

It caught the public’s imagination — particularly those back in the UK. Following his success alongside Henry Liddon, he received a congratulatory telegram from the prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home.

Chart-toppers the Beatles also posted a photo marked with the words, ‘You are one of us now, Paddy’.

Other accolades included the father-of-three being awarded the freedom of his city of birth — Belfast — and a guest appearance on the Sixties’ hit TV show Sunday Night at the Palladium, alongside 33 EJB.

Success did not change him, though. Whatever the occasion — and whatever the demands — he was always smiling, he was always approachable and he always found time to chat about cars.

As someone who put Northern Ireland on the map, Hopkirk revelled in this in later years. One individual to directly benefit from his help was countryman Kris Meeke.

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At the turn of the new millennium, their paths crossed at a Peugeot-backed rally competition that was held at Silverstone in England.

Hopkirk was one of the judges and it was agreed that Meeke should be given the chance to compete in the Peugeot Super 106 Cup the following year.

This eventually led to contracts with Peugeot Sport in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which he won in 2009 before going on to represent the Mini, Citroen and Toyota marques on the World Rally Championship stage.

“2000 was the first time I met Paddy but, as my career developed, we became good friends,” Meeke recalled.

“The advice he gave me when I was setting out always stuck with me — I never ever forgot it.

“When the Mini World Rally Team was launched, Paddy was an ambassador and we got to spend quite a bit of time together.

“He was great craic and he always had a funny story to tell. When you were out at events and he was there, you could be sure he would tug on your shirt and say a wisecrack in your ear.”

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Paddy Hopkirk rose to fame with an epic win in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in a Min

Paddy Hopkirk rose to fame with an epic win in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in a Min

Paddy Hopkirk rose to fame with an epic win in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in a Min

In terms of what Hopkirk did for the sport of rallying by guiding a small front-wheel-drive car over frozen French country roads and snow-covered mountain passes, around tight corners and up steep gradients, Meeke said it is unlikely to be equalled — or bettered.

“Back then, Paddy was making the front page of newspapers around the world. Now it’s fair to say you would struggle to get a mention on the inside of a paper. The size of his achievement was massive,” said the Andorra-based Dungannon man.

Hopkirk was no one-hit wonder on the international stages, however. He triumphed at the Alpine Rally in 1966 and again in 1967 when he also mastered the notoriously difficult Acropolis Rally.

In 1977 he made the podium on the London-Sydney, won the RAC Golden 50 in 1982 and in 1990 led the way at the Pirelli Classic Marathon. Closer to home, he won the Circuit of Ireland five times.

Not surprisingly, he was one of the first four people to be inducted into the Rally Hall of Fame in 2010 and became British Racing Drivers’ Club president from 2017-2019.

His car craft was not confined to rallying, however, as Hopkirk excelled on the track as well. He chalked up three finishes at the Le Mans 24 Hours in France and tasted success at the Spa 24 Hours in Belgium.

Paying tribute to Hopkirk — who died at Stoke Mandeville Hospital — a spokesperson for Mini said: “Paddy was profoundly connected to the fabric and DNA of our company, following his iconic win at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964.

“His triumph in the classic Mini Cooper S made this small car world-famous. His passion for Mini was unwavering and he remained a close friend and ambassador for the brand throughout his life.

“We will all miss him dearly and our thoughts are with the Hopkirk family.”


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