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Kris Meeke has bounced back in 2019 after being dumped by Citroen last season. While he’s yet to win with Toyota, his form has been strong. Next month’s Rally Finland is Meeke’s 100th WRC start, a fantastic achievement for the one-time Colin McRae protégé. Back in 2009 the man from Ulster burst into the sport's limelight very unexpectedly, one of the first drivers to come to the forefront of the sport through the Intercontinental Rally Challenge series. In many ways Kris is surprising, to himself as much as to others. He never dreamed of becoming a rally star, or even a rally driver at all. From his family background his interest was in the cars themselves and it was to learn more about the engineering work that he qualified and went to work in the rally industry. He tells the story of how it all went from there ... * * * * *

Kris Meeke in his homeland. Photo: Martin Holmes

"Having graduated as an engineer I aimed my career path to be the best engineer I could. It came from experience of my father's background in the sport. The only thing I had ever known in my life from my family was rallying. When I was just two or three years old I would crawl around my father's workshop while he worked on rally cars like those of Bertie Fisher's Asconas, Escorts, all sorts. My interest in engineering developed through that. I never thought I would have the ability to drive a rally car. My father pushed me really hard to get an education and I went to Queen's University in Belfast. The sport swings up and down, he knew that well enough, and I am now so happy now that he did. It was a period of my life which I look back on as really enjoying. When I qualified from Queen's I got a job at M-Sport at the start of 2000 in Computer Aided Design. For me that was my dream job, I had no qualms about my life then. I always had a thing in the back of my mind, however, about wanting to have a go at rallying, just to see what I could do. The Peugeot/Silverstone Drive Rally Challenge competition came up in Motoring News magazine later that year. I entered and won! The prize in the Peugeot/Silverstone competition was a drive on a British championship-class gravel rally, but things were not straightforward, everything seemed to happen at once.

Kris Meeke, Ford Puma.

My mother was very unwell, I had to delay taking up the new job I was due to start at M-Sport in Carlisle and my prize drive had to be delayed. My mother died on the 26 September. I got the prize drive on the Bulldog Rally a month later and started work at M-Sport around the same time. Money wasn't great at M-Sport, but I was happy to be out in the big world. Turning into a Driver The competition was open solely for people who had never held a competition licence and entailed many sorts of things, similar to what the Pirelli Star Driver activity did in the WRC, but not the rallying itself. It involved interview skills, adaptability to drive different vehicles, skidpan experience, auto tests, everything came quickly - one after the other. I did not try to do anything specific. There was something like 10 heats through the summer, the winners of each heat going through to the final. I reckoned in the heats that if I finished in the top five I would be happy, but I won the heat. In the final all I wanted was not to finish last, but I won overall. My goalposts kept on moving from then onwards. I entered the Bulldog Rally in 2000 in a 106 Cup car, supplied by Peugeot UK, and my co-driver was Andrew Bargery.

Kris Meeke with mentor Colin McRae (right). Photo: Martin Holmes

I remember the first stage, it was in a Welsh forest. It all just felt natural. I couldn't stop smiling for the thought that what we were doing was actually legal, and so enjoyable and it was a sport. From the first two corners I knew that was what I wanted to do, it was something which came naturally to me. In 2001 I did the Peugeot 106 Cup, but the season was blighted by the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK and many events were curtailed, so not many proper rallies were held. As I understand it, Bertie Fisher had agreed to supply his son Mark's car to me if I could raise the money to run it, but then he and Mark both lost their lives in a helicopter crash in January 2001. Bertie's traditional sponsor, Toughmac, came along and bought the car and helped me from then on. That type of support means so much at that time in your career. Working at M-Sport I started to meet people, especially Colin McRae who had already heard a bit about me. He was thinking at that time of getting behind a young British driver and invited three of us to a test in Scotland driving one of Chris Birkbeck's Pumas. A couple of days later Colin's father, Jimmy, phoned to say they would like to be involved with me. Having Colin's influence and his name behind me gave me so much encouragement. Meanwhile, I did one rally in Scotland in a big left-hand drive Group A Subaru and before I knew it I was at the start of the Galloway Hills Rally. It was only my fourth or fifth ever rally and we won it overall. This gave me a big buzz and showed me what was possible to achieve.

Kris Meeke with his father. Photo: Martin Holmes

This developed into doing the British championship in 2002 in the Puma. We won the Junior title and at the end of 2002 I competed on my first World Championship Rally, the Network Q Rally of Great Britain. We set some competitive times among the JWRC drivers. Rob Palmer. who was based down in Exeter, quite near the Swindon Engines company, invited me to join a team he was setting up to run an Opel Corsa in the Junior. He had a good relationship with many influential people. That was my deal for 2003 and into 2004. The first year, 2003, we went to Monte Carlo, which was only my 12th or 13th rally. I was showing my inexperience, doing all my dirty washing in public. In 2003 Opel provided quite a bit of help, but that dwindled away in 2004, things were heading in the wrong direction. A decision was made that for Catalunya (2004) I would move to the Kronos Citroen team. Colin at that time was driving for the official Citroen team and had built up a relationship with them. I started the final round in the season in a C2 S1600 which continued into the JWRC in 2005. The Corsa had been a massive step compared with the Puma, and the C2 was another great step forward again. The C2 was said to develop about 230bhp and was certainly awesome on the fast stuff, but split times showed you would lose bucket loads of time on any narrow stretch. It wasn't ideal. We had a pre-Monte Carlo test at the end of 2004, my first official manufacturer test and I did not know what to do. Sit down and try to enjoy the car or say what I felt? I decided to do the latter and say the engine was hopeless. Far too much horsepower, nothing like enough torque.

Meeke has become known as a driver who has big accidents .....

I went home absolutely sure I had burned my bridges, maybe I really should not have said that... Happily they accepted what I said, and from that day I have always said what I feel. We went into 2005 and 2006 like that. My relationship with Colin came to an end at the end of 2005. The season did not work out as planned. I thought I had got my right level but then I was having a big battle with the Spanish driver Dani Sordo. I had a few accidents on the way. There was a big crossroads in my career, and I had to decide what direction to go. Colin did not think that going back to the JWRC with Citroen was the right thing to do, and I was conscious that I was best known as Colin's protege. I hankered after standing on my own two feet. Every time my name was mentioned in the press it was joined to Colin's name. But for sure without Colin's help I would have been nowhere. As I went into 2006 I was determined to emphasise my individuality more. There was never an argument between us, never a falling-out. We parted on a mutual agreement and I stayed at Citroen. Gloomy Days In 2006 I was very frustrated, I could not get everything together. For me fastest times were what it is all about and I did not get them in the right quantities. I was trying as hard as I could but I was trying in the wrong directions. When Sordo came to the Junior WRC he had already had three years in the Spanish championship with this sort of car, and with us both driving the same car that put me in a less than favourable light. I made the mistake of driving faster than I should, rather than simply accept the fact he had so much more experience than me. The end of 2006 was a really low point for me. I was ready to give it all up. Rallying had been a fantastic journey for me. In 2005 I had done every World rally recce with the help of Citroen and seen parts of the world other people never see. I had seen the world. I was 26-27 years old, never earned a penny out of it, always kipped at my brother's house. In 2007 we were doing one-off rallies all the time. We had to, there was nothing else to do. Then Kenny McKinstry phoned me up with the idea of my doing Irish rallies in an Impreza S11. That ignited me again. We won the Rally of the Lakes and then the Ulster Rally with the Pirelli car which was a fantastic car, by two and a half minutes. The WRC Rally Ireland event was due to be held at the end of the year, we worked so hard to get the best possible car to use there. It cost £260-270,000 and three months of my life working on it all. Probably I put too much energy into it all. We started off well but then it all went wrong, the car was damaged and in the end the organisers would not let the car run again the next day. At the start of 2008 I was back to square one again, nothing on the cards. I had hoped to do test work with Prodrive on the new World Rally Car, but the Japanese people wanted a more experienced driver, and in the end the car concerned turned out to be a bit of a pig and maybe I was better not to have been involved with it. 2008 was a mixed year. Paul Roach asked me to test a couple of Super 1600 cars he had (a Clio and a 206) and I drove the Clio at Killarney. We were lying second overall when we had a puncture which cost us five minutes but still finished fifth. Renault Sport then heard about the results and the times we were able to put up and they asked if I wanted to do development work for them with their new Clio R3, and asked me to do the IRC rally in Russia. That was when I started to talk with the Kronos chief Marc van Dalen from Belgium, and he asked me to come and see him towards the end of the year. Meanwhile I did Rally Germany in a Clio S1600. which we were easily leading the two-wheel drive cars and were a minute in front of Ogier before we had an electrical problem on the final stage. That drive started to give me more momentum, and I went to Sanremo to have a chat with various teams there. Skoda were very interested but had already signed Hanninen. I then spoke with Mark van Dalen and Nic Gullino. who suggested I speak with their big boss Christian Stein who had just moved to Britain. I think Stein was a bit taken aback when I phoned him, but he invited me to come and see him. From that moment until we got to the start line in Monte Carlo in January I was flat out meeting people, getting deals together, making things happen. All this time I was still doing test work for Citroen and also made the first test of the Proton Satria - the first S2000 car I had driven, which I thought it was fantastic. Then, while I was testing the C2R2 ready for Monte Carlo on the Col de Perty, I had the call to say the green light had been given for the Peugeot UK deal for the IRC in 2009. The whole Peugeot UK deal had started from Belgium! The deal for 2009 was for nine IRC rallies, the whole programme. It was a massive deal, that sort of thing hadn't happened for years. How awesome the whole IRC thing is. When we were in the square in Vyborg the year before and people were taking pictures of all the cars, we were in the background of the picture. I was looking at all those other drivers, and it occurred to me that I now had a chance to race against all these well known drivers. And for Peugeot UK it was a special thing as well. After the old days of the 1981 World Championship with Talbot, they had been occupied doing British championship rallies and now they were back on the scene. And, of course, the sense for me coming full circle, starting off with Peugeot UK not so many years before. Monte Carlo 2009 was incredible from every angle. It was my first event back in a major international series. My first event here with a front running car, and of course the IRC let the Monte return to its legendary format. Long stage distance, long road sections, driving through the night, week long recce, it was all a bit of a buzz. We only had one day of testing with the car, the day before the recce. I was making notes for a car I had never driven before. The first real test I had with the Peugeot was after recce and just before Monte Carlo. We had ice and cold tarmac, so I had never driven the car in snow before the event. The third stage of the rally was full snow! The team put studded tyres on and I had never driven a car with studs before. How was it going to work? We made fastest time. This was great. Overnight we were in second position, everything going well, we had everything under control, and I knew I was driving differently. I had accepted my limits but then went off, 100 metres after where Hanninen had done the same. It was unbelievably treacherous. It was pure clear slush from melting snow, you could see the tarmac through it. It was lethal. I was going up the straight in fifth gear when the whole car started to get out of line. I was a passenger and I had no control. We hit sideways into a bridge parapet at 100mph, rolled five times, the biggest accident I have ever had, broke the seats, engine, gearbox, differentials, chassis was twisted, steering rack broke, the car was destroyed. How my co-driver, Paul Nagle, and I walked away from it I do not know. I was pretty sore for a day or two, I never really let on to people just how big an accident it was. It was my first event in a works team, and I did not want people to really know what had happened. But I knew I had been driving differently, even if everything seemed to be under control, I knew I was caught out by the conditions. I didn't want people to say I had thrown away my big opportunity. I just had to put it all out of my head. That is where I had to be strong, especially when we went for our next event to Brazil where we set some fastest times and went on to win the rally. It was like getting back on the horse again, we had proved a point again. Day 2 in Brazil when we were leading felt so easy, I felt I could drop a second or two, and I knew I could get it back again. That is when I think everything clicked for me. We had found the right formula for winning. I know that if we have the right tyres and the car is working right, and I am doing my job right, I don't have to look at the timesheets to see how we are getting on.

Meeke in action in the Peugeot 207 S2000 in the IRC series. Photo: Martin Holmes

I knew at the start of 2009 I had time on my side. For me there wasn't an expectation that I would win, whereas in JWRC there had been that expectation. I hoped there might be a podium in the first half of the year, a win would be nice later on, and then we would look to 2010 and see if it was all working for us. To start winning as soon as we did was a surprise. Brazil with its fast gravel roads with crests, like in Finland, suited me fine. Azores was something completely different, a very technical rally, some roads were as narrow and technical as Cyprus, and of course Day 2 turned out to be a mini hurricane and we had to face thick fog as well, something new I had to adapt to. When we got to the end of Azores I felt we could handle everything but I still had the European tarmac events coming up on my mind, Ypres, Madeira, Barum and Sanremo. Barum was a special rally. I had talked myself out of a good result, all I could do was to drive and forget about everyone else. Turned out to be good enough to win the rally. In Barum you know Jan Kopecky is going to win before the start, but if we hadn't had a puncture in the opening super special we could have given him a run for it. I succeeded by taking the pressure off myself, and things just seemed to happen. And finally, I put everything into Sanremo and it all came good. We won the championship with one event in hand."
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