The news that Northern Irishman Kris Meeke will lead Citroen’s World Rally Championship attack next year is a long overdue reward for a hugely talented driver – and a potential game-changer for rallying in Britain.
Meeke has secured one of the top seats in world rallying. The 34-year-old will drive a Citroen DS3 WRC on every event in 2014, and will be run by the engineers that looked after nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb. It’s an amazing turnaround, and true reward for years of promise, potential, hard work and agonising setbacks.
Throughout his rallying career Meeke has displayed blinding speed and, being totally honest, a propensity for massive crashes. He’s also often managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: he was signed up to front Mini’s World Rally Championship back in 2010, but got sidelined when the project hit funding issues.
The problem for Meeke, and numerous other promising drivers, has been the limited number of seats in the WRC. With just a handful of works teams for the last few years, it was hard for a new driver without huge financial backing to secure a seat and gain experience. And without experience, the works teams were reluctant to gamble.
Citroen’s decision to sign Meeke and Norwegian Mads Ostberg for 2013 is a gamble. A team built around Sebastien Loeb – only the greatest rally driver in history – will now be led by a man who has started ten WRC events in a top-flight car. Meeke's team-mate Ostberg has one (inherited) WRC win, but had a tough 2013 season, in part due to an astigmatism in his eye.
Citroen clearly feels it’s a gamble worth taking. This year, the firm’s full-time line-up was a ‘safe’ combination of proven event winner Mikko Hirvonen and Tarmac specialist Dani Sordo. Spaniard Sordo won once, while Hirvonen didn’t take a single victory. Safe just didn’t work for Citroen.
Key to the deal is that Meeke is a known quantity to Citroen. He’s been a long-time rally car tester for the PSA Group, and his feedback and development skills are highly regarded. Citroen gave him a chance in a third Citroen DS3 WRC on Rally Finland this year. On tough, demanding gravel stages he set some hugely promising times, before rolling out near the end.
He had impressed enough to be given another DS3 WRC outing in Australia. This time he showed even more speed – before crashing again. Even Meeke admitted he might have blown his chances for 2014, although he did note that being given one-off outings with a possible job on the line was a tough situation. As Meeke says, the one time he was given a full season deal was with Peugeot UK in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2009. He won the title.
To Citroen’s credit, the firm has decided to focus on Meeke’s speed and potential, rather than the potential for accidents. Meeke has the pace to win WRC events, and by all accounts the mechanics love him. He can surely refine his driving and reduce the errors given the security of a full season – just like he did in 2009. There’s a certain parallel to when Subaru took a chance on a fiercely fast but crash-prone Scot called Colin McRae. That was a big gamble, and it paid off rather well…
The United Kingdom hasn’t had a WRC event winner since McRae won the Safari Rally in 2002. And without a Brit at the front, the WRC has struggled to attract a decent British television deal or any coverage in the daily papers. While the specialist press has continued to cover the sport, the wider media has lost interest. A UK driver pushing for wins could change that. If Meeke can win events next year, it could help to reinvigorate rallying at every level in this country.
But we can contemplate the wider issues later. For now, let’s just celebrate that a UK driver – and a thoroughly nice one, at that – has shown that perseverance and dedication does get rewarded.