The 2017 World Rally Championship has been one of turbulence for Dungannon driver Kris Meeke, however on Rally Spain at the weekend, Meeke stamped his authority by taking a convincing win.
“It’s not about how many times you get knocked down – it’s more about how many times you get back up – I’ve had to do that a few times in my career, let me tell you” Meeke exclaimed at the finish line.
Coming into the 2017 season, Kris, alongside Killarney navigator Paul Nagle, were bookies favourites to take outright honours having spent most of the previous year developing the all-new Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, C3 WRC and as such seemed to be coming to the start line running.
However on Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo, the opening round of the championship in January, things didn’t get off the to start we all expected and on SS4 suspension damage was sustained followed by a severe lack of confidence in the cars mannerisms over the mixed surface of tarmac, snow, mud and ice.
An accident on the road section after SS13 led to retirement (DNF) and it was all eyes to round two, Rally Sweden. Sweden proved difficult and on SS5 the C3 WRC found itself stuck in a snow bank whilst during SS8 the studded snow tyres were as good as scrap.
Confidence was nowhere to be seen and during SS14 the car snapped away suddenly and went off the road, however, thanks to spectators the crew got going again to finish 12th overall after a difficult weekend.
Rally Guanajuato Mexico hosted round three which saw some luck on-board the Citroën when a clean road on SS4 saw the Irish crew secure the rally lead – a lead which they controlled perfectly to the end of the rally.
The top of the rostrum didn’t come without drama though as on SS19 – the final stage of the rally – Meeke left the road on a fast right hander near the finish, landing in a spectator car park, luckily sustaining little damage and managing to rejoin the stage and hold onto the victory.
Confidence was high coming into round four – the Che Guevara Energy Drink Tour de Corse in France and Meeke, knowing how predictable the C3 WRC is on asphalt, led the event from SS1 and controlled the drive until SS7 when a very disappointing engine failure led to a DNF.
With a good mindset heading into round five, the YPF Rally Argentina, things got off to a rocky start after a big moment on SS2 when the C3 WRC hit a big bump and snapped away unpredictably. With confidence dented, SS4 was to remove what little was left, when yet again the car snapped away after a bad bump in the road.
This time, damage sustained forced the crew to an early service where the Citroën mechanics got the car ready to restart the following day but on SS10, the start of day 2 the feeling wasn’t good and in SS14 Meeke suffered the most spectacular accident of his rallying career.
Having hit a bump at speed, the C3 snapped away once more, this time barrel rolling several times, the crew thankfully unhurt, same could not be said for the car as it lay in a sorry state with major questions from all Citroën drivers over the cars mannerisms on loose surface rallies.
Round six saw the team head to Vodafone Rally de Portugal where after SS5, Meeke took the lead of the event until a puncture on the next stage lost the crew a lot of time, before broken suspension in SS7 knocked the C3 down the timesheet.
The final two days of the rally were difficult with a lack of trust in the C3 WRC and a weak event was finished off with a spin on SS17 however the crew managed to finished 18th overall.
Mentally, Meeke and Nagle could not have been at their prime coming into Rally Italia Sardegna, round seven of the World Rally Championship, but things got off to a good start by taking the rally lead on SS2.
This loose surface event provided very rough stages with lots of hanging dust and on SS6 the C3 WRC rolled heavily and due to roll-cage damage, another DNF. Round eight, ORLEN Rally Poland was the biggest blow for the Co. Tyrone man however as he and Paul got sidelined by the Citroën team.
Team principal Yves Matton was clearly not happy with the lack of points and spiralling car damage by Meeke, the team’s number one driver and as such took the decision to ‘rest’ the crew for Poland, in theory allowing the lads to recharge the batteries and refocus.
Theory is much different to reality though, and entering round nine, Neste Rally Finland the crew had zero confidence in the car, and due to being dropped the round before, likely in their ability also – lingering around 8th at the start, bent steering on SS11 really affected the crew.
The steering issues continued throughout day two despite the car being fixed in service and a puncture lost the C3 WRC more time and with a lack of belief during day three, they managed to finish the event 8th overall.
ADAC Rallye Deutschland saw teams in Germany for round ten and with big pressure on the Irish crew things did not go to plan as on SS1, a street super special, Meeke hit the car and broke the wheel/steering.
Admittedly, a silly mistake, and probably the first clear-cut driver error of this season, Meeke climbed from 61st to 22nd overall during the event despite little confidence, things came to a sudden halt due to engine cooling issues which forced yet another DNF.
Round eleven and I guess, geographically Meeke’s home event as he resides just a couple of hours’ drive away in Andorra – RallyRACC Catalunya got underway at the weekend and unlike any other event on the world rally calendar, incorporates two surfaces.
Day one saw crews head onto the loose, a surface which has been cruel to the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi C3 WRC this season – confidence was higher than normal however, due to changes made during pre-event testing alongside nine-time world champion and former team mate Sébastien Loeb.
Knowing the strength of the Citroën C3 on the sealed surface which was to be used for days two and three of the event, Meeke and Nagle needed to finish the first day of gravel stages in a strong position to enable any hope of a good result.
Struggling with roads that didn’t clean as expected and tyres that seemed to just fall apart, the lads had a decent feeling inside the car and despite a spin, managed to climb up to third overall by the end of the day, poised to pounce the following morning.
Ahead of day two, the ‘Red Army’ of Citroën mechanics converted the car from gravel to tarmac spec during the night and it was then onto the favoured surface for the C3 WRC and on the first stage of the day, Meeke took hold of the lead with his third stage win of the event.
Throughout the day Meeke held onto the lead and despite not many fastest times, done enough to be sure ending day two ahead of the chasing pack in preparation for a good steady charge on the last day.
The final day of Rally Spain saw six stages in total and in a bold statement, similar to that of saluting the doubters with a single digit, Kris and Paul in their C3 WRC took stage wins on five of the six stages, whilst securing second and a few extra points on the final power stage.
Winning eight of nineteen stages on this event, Meeke was greeted at the finish line by his wife and two daughters, the first time they have travelled to an event to see Daddy in action, it really was a special moment for all – a moment that has been well-earned and long-overdue.
For seasons now, I have commented on how lady luck has ill-treated our local hero – well perhaps lady luck has finally arrived in the form of the young Meeke’s and maybe Kris should bring his family to more rounds in the hope of more success.
At the end of the event Meeke said “It’s been a roller coaster of a year – what can I say; it’s nice to put one back on the board again after some difficult moments, it’s a timely boost for everyone within the team – but the key day for us was Friday on the gravel”.
Kris smilingly continued “We made a few steps in testing for here – we knew the potential of the car on tarmac so the important day was on the gravel to stay within the mix and we were able to do that – this car on dry asphalt is phenomenal to drive I must say – it gives me so much pleasure and to have the pace we had and to be able to manage it was so nice inside the car”.
Meeke and Nagle’s 2017 season may well be one that has come with drama, but the C3 WRC crews credentials bring to light the natural talent within the car (when its working) as the crew have amalgamated twenty stage wins this season, having led five events from ten starts with two overall victories – these stats are not to be sniffed at!