Blessed are the Meeke
- 1st October 2009, 10:12am
BY ROB SINFIELD
Admitting to being a Formula 1 fan these days is how I imagine that first meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous might go, where you stand up and say, "My name is Rob Sinfield and I am into Formula 1." With all of the lurid scandals, cheating and general bad news surrounding the sport, it is, as Red Bull's Mark Webber recently said, pretty tiresome having to defend it all of the time.
So, when Peugeot UK suggested that I should try and cheer myself up by joining them at the Sanremo round of the Intercontinental Rally Championship (IRC) to see some 'proper no nonsense motorsport' I was, despite never having been anywhere near a rally before, keen on the idea. Rallye Sanremo clashed with the Singapore Grand Prix weekend but to be honest, I have seen and heard more than enough of that particular event to last me a lifetime - so Italy and the IRC it was, where I could, so my rally journalist colleagues told me, go and see drivers who didn't have to fake their crashes, they did them all the time and with much more style.
Of course, it has to be said, that if you are going to go to a rally, then there are far worse places to go than Sanremo. I did have the option of going to the final round in Scotland instead but as my perception of rallying was of a sport that involved lots of tramping around through murky woods, before hanging around in a wet ditch for a few hours, just to see a few cars go past, I had to be assured of some decent weather and let's face it, you aren't going to get that north of the border in November, or even August for that matter.
Dropping down the hill from the Nice to Genoa autoroute, Sanremo is at first sight a hotch-potch collection of tatty red tiled houses, apartment blocks and more industrial greenhouses than is possible to count. My amiable driver, Bernard, tells me, somewhat proudly (odd considering he is Belgian) that this is Italy's version of St Tropez.
However, when you finally get into the town it is clear, that while the place has probably not seen a lick of paint since its heyday as a luxury holiday resort in the 1960's, it has an undeniable charm and ignoring my lack of knowledge in such matters, it must have the best location for a service park (I called it a paddock, provoking a stern glare from Bernard) anywhere, nestled as it is between the fabulous Royal Hotel (my base for the weekend - thanks be to God and Peugeot) and the Mediterranean Sea.
An F1 paddock is about as easy to get into as North Korea and unless you hold the right pass, just about as enjoyable, but an IRC service park is a different thing altogether. No passes, turnstiles and stroppy security men here, access is completely free to all. True, the IRC is a million miles away from being as popular as F1 so there has to be an element of control there, but here drivers, teams and cars are all accessible to the fans, which means that visitors are not as frantic about getting access to the drivers. I have seen, sane, grown up and normally sensible people, lose all rationale should they happen to spot Kimi Raikkonen dashing between garage and motorhome (doing his damndest to avoid actually meeting one of his fans) as they pursue him for an autograph - crazy but sadly true.
The service park is a stress free zone and down at Peugeot's base, there is no glamorous million-dollar motorhome, just an awning secured to the side of their Kronos Team truck while four Peugeot 207 S2000s are worked on out in the open with no more than five mechanics per car. Inside the tent, Peugeots leading driver in the IRC, Kris Meeke is chatting with co-driver Paul Nagle while Freddy Loix (a huge star in his Belgian homeland, bigger than Poirot apparently) lounges in a chair, looking impressively cool despite the temperature in the canvas lean-to becoming unbearable under the midday sun.
I'm a bit taken aback, when, after seeing me wander in, plainly a bit lost, Freddy gets up and gives me a friendly, sincere handshake, pointing me towards the fridge in the corner and asks if I'd like a drink. I like this man. A lot. No F1 driver has ever offered me a lukewarm Heineken before, although Juan Pablo Montoya did once lob a bottle of mineral water at me.
Kris and Paul seem remarkably relaxed too, maybe because they aren't expected to win this event, that honour seems set to go to their sole championship rival, Skoda's Jan Kopecky, and the plan seems to be that as long as they can finish close to him this weekend, then the business will have to be done at the final round in Scotland.
Both of the guys are of a lean and wiry build though Kris has the obvious neck and shoulders of a racing driver. Paul ambles over and shakes my hand, the man has the grip of the Boston Strangler, probably from years of hanging on for his life in various rally cars, and I'm keen to know just how he is going to handle keeping track of where they are going over tonightâ€™s monstrous, 44km, Cuori stage.
"It should be ok, I've got good notes - 80 pages covering 1600 corners." I then ask a question that as soon as I have asked it realised is probably not one he wanted to hear, but I had to know what happens if he loses his place in the notes. "He'd better not!" Kris quickly chips in, while Paul laughs "Touch wood I won't," he says, pointlessly tapping a plastic table. Warming to my theme, I ask Paul if he ever gets car sick, after all my kids do when they read in the car so why not him? Cue more superstitious touching of the plastic table as he says that while some co-drivers he knows do get car sick it's not something that troubles him.
Kris decides to rescue poor Paul from the clueless F1 hack and they jump into the relative safety of their 207 to head off for stage one, a quick 13km blast from Picche to Perinaldo. Bernard the Belgian says I have to stop messing around now with the silly questions and go to if we are to catch the action.
Following a drive high up into the mountains that would not suit anybody suffering from even the mildest form of vertigo, we park up amongst the many hundreds of other cars already there and walk a short distance to a section where Bernard reckons we'll get the best view.
Now finally, my rally experience begins and yes, I am actually standing in a ditch next to a dozen or so mental Kopecky fans, who have plainly been sampling the local wine for many hours and are, it has to be said, rather excitable.
A couple of IRC course cars, which are driven in the style of an 18 year old trying to impress his girlfriend, tear past and are then followed, at two minute intervals, by some local Italian talent who are there to try and win this one round. Great for them but they risk taking vital points off Meeke. They barrel past, and boy do these S2000 cars look and sound the part, before Bernard gives me a nod and says "Meeke is next." Our Czech fans also know this and as Kris screams up the road, they hold their flags in his way, presumably to put him off, but to no effect as he is in sight and gone all in the space of about 3 seconds. Kopecky soon follows, driving like he has just been told his house is on fire and the Czechs not only do their flag bit but they all light bright green flares which must help their man no end as he goes into the corner at full tilt.
After watching another half dozen cars, we negotiate our way back down the mountain for a welcome beer and meal at the famous (among rally people at least) Trattoria Dall' Ava, which is adorned inside with photographs and m emorabilia covering the 50 year history of the rally. This is of course, their busiest night of the year by far but the owner does not seem to have remembered this and he is struggling with his wife to cope with serving a five course meal for fifty while pouring drinks for what looks like the population of Prague. Intermittent power cuts don't help his humour much, it's a bit like watching an episode of Fawlty Towers on fast forward.
The wonders of technology, ie; text messages from Peugeot HQ, keep us up to date with how Kris and Paul are going, which is fine so far, as they finish Stage 1 in 3rd place but the bad news is that Kopecky is off to a flyer in first . We too have to get a move on, to get further down the hill for Stage 2. By now it's pitch black and as the cars come belting past, headlights ablaze, only the world's biggest rally anorak could tell who is who. Thankfully there are plenty of these on hand and I get a running commentary (and those text messages) of who is who. Kris and Paul soon come past but then there is a noticeable gap before several cars pass with front end damage to lights and bodywork with one car running on three wheels - illegal even in Italy I would have thought. Something big and solid in the road is obviously causing havoc .
Kopecky should be along next but the minutes tick by and the cars continue to come, yet there is no sign of Meeke's championship contender. There are nervous smiles in our group as it is becoming clear that he is out of the rally. The Czech fans stub out their flares and proceed to trudge back up to the restaurant to drown their woes and add to what is going to already be, an impressive morning hangover.
Back at the service park after the Cuori , the boys hop out of the car, Kris is in immediate discussion with his engineer Jean-Francois, (for some reason he is called Geoff by everybody on the team) while Paul's eyes are the size of dinner plates. He looks absolutely shattered. "I didn't lose my place but that was tough, really tough, I need some headache tablets right now."
With their sole rival now out of contention, all Kris, Paul and the Peugeot team have to do is win the rally though being in 4th place at the end of day one and with Italy's tarmac specialists, Luca Rossetti and Paolo Andreucci ahead of them, it still looked like a very tall order.
But, win the rally and the title is just what they went and did. Kris, according to Paul "drove like a man let off the leash" throughout Saturday, while his trusty 207 and band of mechanics performed without a hitch.
Kris won the first fight of the day, the stunning Tris stage, cheered on by yours truly, perched in the sunshine on what was almost a vertical slope. Then by winning Stage 6, Meeke moved into a lead he was never going to give up, although with the local specialists hot on his heels it was flat out until the finish.
The news that Kris and Paul had done just enough to deny Rossetti a home win, came to us via the trusty Peugeot text message service, just as we were on our way back into the service park, where all hell broke loose when the number six 207, with its Union Jack livery, rolled in. I swear the car was panting. Kris certainly was not and even though I'd only met him for the first time just a day earlier he slapped me hard (very hard) on the back like he was greeting an old friend, "I can't believe it, I just can't believe it, we've done it."
All I could come up with in the moment was to joke that this was my first rally and maybe me being there was lucky, "Well you'd better come again!" he laughed before heading off to the podium.
Just try stopping me Kris, just try.
Rob Sinfield also writes for www.GrandPrixDiary.com
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