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Meeke excited to start from scratch at Dakar Desert Rally and build reputation as endurance racer

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Dune buggy: the PH Sport Zephyr Kris Meeke will pilot in the Dakar Rally goes through its paces during testing

Dune buggy: the PH Sport Zephyr Kris Meeke will pilot in the Dakar Rally goes through its paces during testing

Dune buggy: the PH Sport Zephyr Kris Meeke will pilot in the Dakar Rally goes through its paces during testing

After months of planning and preparation, Kris Meeke's Dakar Rally adventure proper is set to begin today.

First up is a 387-mile drive from Jeddah to Bisha, 172 miles of which is a race against the clock.

For his rally raid debut - which spans 4,750 miles and 13 days - Meeke has taken the strategic decision to compete in the Light-Weight T3 class alongside experienced Dutchman Wouter Rosegaar.

Despite the size of the challenge that awaits, and the sheer volume of unknowns at an event that will circle Saudi Arabia in an anti-clockwise direction, the 41-year-old Ulsterman is keeping a cool head.

"I'm taking my first footsteps in rally raid," he said prior to yesterday's short prologue stage around Jeddah.

"I absolutely love it - it is fascinating. The level of anticipation is pretty high and I am really excited. It is a new challenge and a new adventure for me. It is one that I'm really looking forward to."

As for what he would like to achieve behind the wheel of his PH Sport-prepped Zephyr buggy, Meeke is keeping his expectations in check: "There's no targets other than returning to Jeddah in one piece!"

Enduro-style competitions have always appealed to Meeke and in an interview with Sunday Life Sport prior to Christmas he admitted it was now his primary focus.

But what about the World Rally Championship? He has five victories in the WRC, the highlight coming in 2016 when he became the first UK driver to tame Rally Finland's table top smooth, and grand prix circuit-fast, gravel stages. Not even Britain's two world champions - Colin McRae, who helped to mentor Meeke, and Richard Burns - managed that.

Many commentators and fans believe he never received a fair crack of the whip. A first works contract for the 2011 WRC campaign with Mini was short-lived as he was benched at the end of the season for those who could essentially bankroll appearances in the Mini John Cooper Works World Car for 2012.

When Meeke nailed down a second factory-backed seat three years later at Citroen, it came with the caveat that he would have to divide his time on the stages with test and development commitments as the C3 WRC was coming down the line for 2017. But overdriving the new supermini led to errors. A huge off in Portugal in the first half of 2018 not only destroyed his car but his status within the team.

Pierre Budar - the boss of Citroen Racing at the time - had lost patience with Meeke's "excessively high number of crashes" and the sizeable dent it was inflicting on the Versailles squad's bank balance.

A reprieve came for the 2019 season with Toyota but, like Mini, it was a fleeting affair as a reshuffle led to Sebastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanpera all agreeing terms to drive the Yaris for 2020.

In the immediate aftermath, Meeke declared his involvement with the sport's top tier was over - but now he is not so sure.

"You know, I am 41 now so to approach the World Rally Championship again like a young guy starting at the bottom and working your way up again, no - it is not for me," he said.

"I've been out of the sport for a couple of years in the past and I've come back and have been pretty competitive, so never say never. This cross-country side of things is now my priority but if the chance to do a rally or two (in the WRC) came my way I would love it.

"If a rally programme came up in 2021 in whatever Championship in a competitive car - if someone made me a proposal - I would look at it.

"I am not going to say I am not going to drive a rally car again but at the moment cross-country driving is my priority, that is my focus.

"I cannot predict the future and after the year that we have had it makes planning things harder but, like I say, I will look at any opportunity that comes up. Whether it is the right or wrong thing for me to do, I will make that decision at the time."

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