Successor to Sébastien Loeb: Anthony Peacock meets a man who isn’t daunted by the toughest job description in rallying
If Kris Meeke didn’t have a future as a professional rally driver with Citroën in front of him, he could make a decent living as a clairvoyant. The 34-year-old has had his fair share of disappointments over the years (incredibly, this will be his first full-time drive at World Rally Championship level) but always held an unshakeable belief in his own destiny.
“The thing is with this game,” he said a couple of years back, when he was just a test driver, “is that you can be absolutely nowhere and suddenly get one phone call that changes your life.”
It isn’t just any team that has called, either: it’s Citroën – the most successful outfit of the current era. Effectively, Meeke has been signed as Sébastien Loeb’s replacement.
“I don’t see it as pressure: it’s just exciting,” Meeke says. “It’s the opportunity I’ve been waiting for all my life: why wouldn’t you be excited?”
Yet he so nearly blew it. Last year, with an eye to 2014, Citroën tried out a few drivers in a factory DS3 WRC. Meeke was handed the keys for Finland and Australia.
In Finland, the fastest and most complex event of the year, he was told to show his speed. And he delivered. On his DS3 WRC debut he set top-three times and was heading for fifth place until he rolled on the penultimate stage.
Never mind. For Australia, Meeke was asked to show consistency. Whatever happened, Citroën wanted him to get to the finish. On the qualifying stage, he beat Sébastien Ogier to go fastest. Then, on the second day, he crashed out of fourth place.
For many years, Meeke was Colin McRae’s protégé, even living in McRae’s castle in Lanark. It was easy to see how the two got on in terms of both personality and driving style, which was win or bust.
Now, after a 2013 season in which Citroën was humiliated by new arrival Volkswagen, it was exactly this approach that Meeke believes earned him the drive.
“I think it was the raw speed,” he said. “Yes, you can be completely safe all the time, but if you want to win rallies and championships you have to put it out there. I think that was what Citroën wanted: someone who could do that.”
Loeb won two rallies and took one runner-up place from his four events last year, so the DS3 is clearly still competitive. But it’s only Meeke who has really been able to push its limits in the same way.
The Northern Irishman has his own theory. “I’ve spoken about that with Loeb,” he says, “and I think it’s because we both come from a front-wheel-drive background. While I wouldn’t say our driving styles are similar, there are some things in common. That’s because we both drive in the way we learned from smaller, front-drive cars.”
Meeke’s career began in 2000 when he entered a competition organised by Peugeot and Motoring News to find a rally driver. He won it, and you can guess the rest: a background remarkably similar to that of Loeb.
A period in the Junior World Rally Championship followed, but his breakthrough year was 2009, when he was signed by Peugeot UK and won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge at his first attempt. That should have led to a WRC campaign with Mini in 2011-12, but funding ran dry.
Here’s the really astonishing thing about his time with Mini. “During my first six events I was closer to the front than any other driver who has entered the championship in the last 10 years,” Meeke says. “On average we were 0.6 seconds per kilometre off the fastest time on every stage we did. The only other person to do that in his first six events was Sébastien Loeb.”
That’s why Citroën chose him.