Rallye Monte-Carlo WRC preview: why this could be Kris Meeke of the year

Kris Meeke is a patient man. Just as well, really. The occasion for which it is expected to be 16 years has finally arrived.

The Northern Irishman may be born into a rallying family – Meeke, father of Sydney, has raced cars for many Irish rallying heroes – but it took him until he was 21 before he finally got behind the wheel of a competition. His debut came on a notoriously difficult event using the same roads as the Wales Rally GB. The result? He won his class by over four minutes.

Since then, he has been waiting for this day. Of this time. Its time.

A little over 12 months Meeke woke up to find a dawn that was not false. Finally, the dream was real: a three-year agreement with Citroen. And with his feet comfortably under the table in France, Meeke has since evolved into a mature, fast, and consistent a world champion in waiting.

The changes in Meeke are edifying. More nail-biting anxiety every time the Dungannon man goes in the head of a rally, there is no need to hold your breath any more. Get out from behind your hands, Meeke is the real deal now.

There will, of course, always be moments of frustration, the fluster and flummox, but a great victory in Finland last year, has revealed a much more true representation of his and co-driver Paul Nagle. Meeke is aware of everything.

“I’ve always said that it was possible if I have a chance,” Meeke said. “If you look at my career, throughout the summer on a car or perhaps a half-chance. I knew that once I had the security of a long-term contract…”

His voice calms down and he checks himself before making too bold a prediction about the season to come.

Team principal Yves Matton has already shown a degree of conservatism in laying his plans for the coming year – a year that marks the introduction of the fastest, most powerful cars, including the Citroën C3 WRC. “We want to fight for rally wins this season, and then the goal is to be in the position to fight for the titles in 2018,” he said. “It is reasonable. This is, I believe, realistic.”

Having driven the C3 WRC thanks to a comprehensive study of the development schedule, including thousands of miles on each surface, Meeke state of mind is a little different.

“I want to fight for the title,” he said. “I think I’m ready for it. I feel on top of my game at the moment and, let’s be honest, I had pretty near the perfect preparation.”

Shortly after the announcement of Meeke Citroen’s lead driver in the WRC, the Versailles of the team announced that he was going to take a step back from the front line of the 2016 series in preparation for this year. That single step back has, according to Meeke, allowed his team to take a significant number of steps forward.

“I don’t think that any other driver is well prepared for the new cars, as I am,” he said. “These cars are so different from what we had before. In recent years, the teams have worked very hard to get to an edge and an improvement in terms of engine; if you came for the first round with four more horses, it was a real step, and as a pilot, you will notice that and really appreciate it.

“This year we will come up with an extra 80bhp. It is colossal. And we have a centre differential, more powerful brakes, more aerodynamic, all that. The time in the car this is what I needed to get up to speed with it, and of time in the car that I had.”

As well as, Meeke was given a DS3 WRC, which will be managed by the private team PH-Sport) for the seven rounds of the last year of the WRC. He has won two of them.

“These gatherings helped me to stay strong,” he said. “And that was really important. The test is one thing, but driving in the heat of the competition is quite another.”

Therefore, what is possible when it comes to this week’s Rallye Monte-Carlo? “Everything is possible”, he said. “The Monte is an absolute lottery. I think you can take it as read that nobody is going balls to the wall in this first stage on Thursday night. Everyone will have a little in reserve, while the world is going to look at what the other person has got it. We’ll have to wait a little later in the season to see where everyone is at, but I’m quietly comfortable with what we have.”

Like everyone else in the WRC, Meeke is disappointed with Volkswagen’s departure from the series last season. “I would like to have had a shot on them with this car,” he said. “There is no doubt that the new VW was good; they had been running in testing for 18 months.”

The German firm’s departure has no doubt opened the series more than ever. In the eyes of some, Meeke started this year in a stronger position than any other person, including the reigning champion, Sébastien Ogier, who moved to M-Sport to drive a Ford Fiesta WRC. “Is it me? Favorite?” Meeke questions with a smile. “It’s all bullshit.”

Twelve months ago, you would have had to agree with this honest assessment. But now, with Citroën team – the same Citroen team, which has won eight manufacturer titles in 10 years, at the peak of its power – squarely behind him, you can’t help but the challenge wonderfully.

It is 16 years since Meeke has started in 16 years, since the great Britain is the last champion of the WRC. There is a symmetry.

Andy Yetton