Belfast Telegraph

Rally Argentina champion Kris Meeke's long road to world stardom

After thinking his career was over, Kris is now keen to build on life-changing win in Argentina

By Sammy Hamill

Those of us who have joined Kris Meeke on the Big Dipper ride that has been his rally career could barely watch as his Citroen descended El Condor mountain, the final stage of Rally Argentina. The victory he - and we - had dreamed of for so many years was within his grasp.

Surely, he wouldn't blow it. Not this time.

He didn't. He and co-driver Paul Nagle brought the Abu Dhabi-decaled Citroen over the finish line for Meeke to become the first British driver in over a decade to win a World championship round.

The struggle to his maiden, life-changing World championship win had, the 35-year-old Ulsterman admitted, been "exceptionally long" and it was no surprise he was overcome with emotion.

It had, indeed, been a long road from Dungannon to a victory which sees him join an elite list of just three other British winners - Roger Clark, Colin McRae and Richard Burns.

The crucial question now is whether or not Argentina 2015 will be the launch pad for more wins.

Rallying is such a fickle, heart-breaking sport that no one can predict but Meeke genuinely believes this is the breakthrough he has sought ever since his mother Carol and brother Barry first entered him in a 'find a driver' competition at Silverstone soon after he graduated with an engineering degree from Queen's University in 2000.

Although he had grown up surrounded by rally cars at his father Sydney's famous Bush motorsport workshops, he was, nevertheless, a late starter by today's standards but the novice Meeke was picked out that day by another Ulster rally legend, Paddy Hopkirk, who was first to recognise his potential.

Sadly his mum died before he began this roller-coaster ride which saw him become British junior champion and set more fastest times than any other driver in the Junior World championship two years in a row but fail to win the title.

Disheartened and seeing no prospect of progress, he came home, telling me in one of those pithy quotes which roll off his tongue: "I'm packing the fiddle and coming back to the real world to earn a living."

In fact, he started to earn a living coaching less talented drivers, helping to set up their cars and cycling from Dungannon to Scotshouse in Monaghan to work at Rally School Ireland. It was former Irish champion Kenny McKinstry who offered him a way back, persuading Meeke to drive his Subaru on the 2007 Circuit of Ireland which he led before retiring with engine failure.

McKinstry put him back in the car a month later for the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney and he won.

But, in reality, Meeke was in a rally wilderness. The most talented driver Ireland has produced since Hopkirk, he had no money and no offers on the table, famously saying after one interview with a top team: "They ask to see what's in your pocketbook before they look at you CV."

But some people remembered the talented young Ulsterman, people like Yves Matton of Citroen/Peugeot and Marc van Dalen, boss of the highly respected Belgian Kronos Racing team. And when Van Dalen was asked by Peugeot UK to form a team for the 2009 Intercontinental Challenge series, he called Meeke.

With victories in Brazil, the Azores, Belgium and Italy, he swept to the title at his first attempt which led to the chance to step up to the World championship as lead driver for an ambitious new project being launched by Mini and specialist engineering company Prodrive.

In an initial development year, Meeke drove in six rounds, scoring his first WRC points and finishing fourth on Rally GB. But he was devastated when Mini suddenly pulled the plug, leaving him jobless as the 2012 season was about to begin.

Enter Matton, his old boss from the JWRC days. He took him on as test driver. And when he moved to shake-up the World championship team for 2014 following the retirement of nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb, Matton decided Meeke should get his chance.

It hasn't been easy for either of them, Meeke showing he has the speed to challenge at the front by finishing on the podium in Monte Carlo, Argentina, Finland and France but too often making costly mistakes.

It was the same story at the start of this season, Meeke demonstrating that he is one of the few drivers who can challenge World champion Sebastien Ogier and his Volkswagen team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala. But more errors saw him fall to 11th in the WRC standings and he openly admitted ahead of Argentina his job was on the line. Little wonder he was emotional at the end of El Condor.

When he had regained his composure, Meeke spoke about it being payback time, remembering to dedicate the win to former World champion McRae, his friend and mentor who died in a helicopter crash in 2007.

Later, he explained why he owed so much to Matton and McRae. "It was an unbelievable weekend, a dream come true, and I have to thank Yves for believing in me when nobody else would," said Meeke.

"Yves took me on when I hadn't done a rally in over two years. I thought it was the end but he gave me an opportunity. Okay, it's been a long road, and he has had to have a lot of patience with me, but this is one little step to start to repay him and Citroen.

"I was possibly working too much and putting in too much effort. The long break after Mexico allowed me to come home, spend time with my wife Danielle and baby daughter Isabella and reset.

"Now I want to build from here. I always believed I could win World rallies but it has taken a long time to prove it. Here's to the next one…"

And dedicating the win to McRae? "He helped me at the beginning. He supported me financially, took me to live in Scotland, mentored me. Without his support none of this would have happened," he added.

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