Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke will fulfill a childhood ambition when he starts the 2021 Dakar Rally on 3rd January. The five-time World Rally winner is set to make his cross-country debut on the famous event which covers most of Saudi Arabia throughout its 13 days of action.
Competing in the light prototype category, Meeke will drive a buggy prepared by PH Sport. The same team that helped him take victories on Rally Portugal and Rally Finland in 2016.
“Dakar has always been something that has been in the back of my mind,” Meeke told Rally Insight. “Now it is more at the forefront.
“Since I was a kid I remember every New Year going onto Eurosport and tuning into Dakar. I watched Ari Vatanen doing the Dakar when he was in the Peugeots and Citroens. All the heavily modified stuff back then, it always fascinated me.
“Sure I followed my career through my Father’s footsteps in motorsport engineering and then I started driving myself. Everything was always rally, rally.
“But the endurance side I have always been fascinated by. I’ve competed in endurance motorcycle races, it’s always something I have had an interest in.
“I always had in the back of my head that when my rally career would dry up a bit, the Dakar would be something I’d be keen to look at.
“Okay this year, 2020, has been an upside-down year for everybody. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to pull anything together to get out to Dakar.
“Luckily, I managed to get something together with PH Sport. They ran me for a few years in rallying, right back to the Junior World Championship days in 2006. I’ve known the team for a long, long time and it is great to be back with them.
“Dakar has always been on, how shall we say it, my bucket list. But I don’t want it to be a bucket list thing where I just tick a box and move on. I want to take a long-term view on it, and have a long-term crack at it to see what we can achieve.”
While Meeke is best known for his raw speed and all-out attack, which he admits is more a hindrance when it comes to Dakar, his love for endurance adventures has been an ever-present past-time.
Indeed it wasn’t long after his only rally in 2020, February’s Boucles of Bastogne Legends Rally which he won in a Ford Escort Mk2, that Meeke was sharing photos from a motorcycle trip across South America.
“For me personally you will never replicate that feeling of a rally stage. It is ultimate speed from start-line to finish-line through the most incredible roads in the world.
“It is one of these sports that you can’t come home and practice every day. Like snooker, football or tennis or golf, or any other sport in the world. You are reliant on a team and equipment which costs tens if not hundreds of thousands a day to run.
“Motorsport guys who are into rallying always have other avenues to vent their need for driven motorsport. Mine was always enduro bikes.
“I remember spending many a day in Donegal and all around Ireland riding enduro bikes with good mates of mine from back home.
“I did the Baja 1000 in 2012, which is actually a 1300-mile event in Mexico. My finish time was something like 41 hours and I did that solo, non-stop from start to finish.
“I have absolutely zero talent on a motorbike compared to a rally car but I have just always loved the challenge of it.
“Now, the chance I have to combine whatever skills I have learned behind the wheel with my love for endurance is something that intrigues me.”
Meeke’s first attempt at Dakar will be one of the toughest tests in the 41-year-old’s career to date. The circumstances of 2020 resulted in the cancellation of his preparation events. Those plans included a six-day desert race, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
He still managed to complete two tests in Dubai and one in France but there is nothing that can really prepare a driver for the Dakar than the event itself. The unique trials the notorious rally can bring up is one reason why Meeke will be competing in Dakar’s T3 class rather than the main category headed by Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb.
“I have been very fortunate in my career to get to the top level of rallying. So now to take a step back, my head is telling me it’s not the right thing to do. I’d love to be in a top T1 car.
“But if you look back over the history of it, anybody that has made the move to Dakar from World Rally has always struggled for the first few years. It’s a completely different concept.
“I did try to get a T1 car for this year but you need to start to bring budgets to that. With 2020 the way it was that was going to be impossible. The T3 class is a lightweight class, they’re very much a second category and the speeds are lower.
“Albeit in the T1 class, the Toyotas are four-wheel-drive but the suspension travel is limited and is actually less than the World Rally Cars I have experience of from the past. That is quite a strange scenario for Dakar when you’re going into really rough rugged terrain.
“Then you have the Minis which are buggies and are only rear-wheel-drive but have unlimited suspension travel. When you get into really complicated dunes with soft sand you only really have rear-wheel-drive.
“Stepping back a class into the lightweights, yes, the speeds are a lot slower and you have less than 200-horsepower but you have four-wheel-drive and you have unlimited suspension travel.
“At least you have a chance to experience the terrain in a vehicle that is capable everywhere. In my heart I know I am doing the right thing to get the experience and to learn it.
“I don’t think you will ever be prepared for your first Dakar, to be honest. Last year I travelled to the Dakar and it only increased my ambition to be there.
“Driving in the dunes is an alien environment that brings its own challenges. You learn to know where the shovel is to dig yourself out now and again.
“I have probably had six or seven days in the vehicle. When you put it into the bigger picture of a Dakar Rally, which is 7500 kilometres over 13 days, I’m only scratching the surface.
“I will be arriving at the event humble and ready to start the learning curve on the first stage.”
It will have been quite a while since Meeke has arrived at an event with so little expectation of a standout result. But the difference between rally and cross-country means that even trying to utilise some of his WRC pace on the Dakar risks any chance of a finish.
When asked what skills he can carry over from rallying, Meeke’s only answer was car control. Everything else is different. He actually described the sensation of driving through sand dunes more akin to that of snowboarding off-piste.
Even navigating will be completely different. Meeke welcomes an experienced Dakar co-driver, Wouter Rosegaar, to help guide him through the Middle Eastern wilderness.
Meeke is putting his chips firmly into the endurance basket. His aims lie way beyond what happens this January. For now he’s focused on developing a new skill-set which should be rewarded in years to come.
Audi announced at the end of November that it was switching its focus from Formula E to the Dakar Rally. The brand will make its debut in 2022. The news makes positive reading for Meeke. It reaffirms his decision to move on from the WRC which only has a handful of paid factory seats remaining.
“This year, on the lead-up to Dakar the organisers announced their big plan for the future. By 2030 they want every vehicle on the Dakar to be powered by hydrogen. They expect every car vehicle in 2026 to be powered by hydrogen
“Immediately after that announcement, Audi pulled out of Formula E to commit to Dakar because they see it as the technology of the future.
“Even that, for myself, is quite an incentive to understand this game and learn it. We see Carlos Sainz still able to win the Dakar at 58 years of age so there is potential for a long-term future in it.
“At the moment you have Toyota, Mini, and Prodrive coming with their Bahrain supported vehicle. Then you have Audi committing to it in the future.
“The technology in the motor industry is moving so fast at the minute. You have regulations coming in from different EU countries saying they are going to ban petrol and diesel by 2030.
“Is Tesla the next thing, is electric the next thing, is hydrogen? Or maybe hydrogen is too far away to be implemented next year. But I think that is what Dakar has done by giving everybody an open window. Green hydrogen is the ultimate goal for everyone and let the manufacturers work towards that.
“We have only seen manufacturers leave the World Rally Championship, unfortunately, over the last few years.
“To be honest, going hybrid now at this stage I think it’s old technology. I didn’t really see the point of them introducing that now because Toyota has had hybrid cars for the last 15 years.
“I don’t know who or how that decision was made. Obviously rallying is constrained by the way it is over three days and across a lot of different terrain. So it’s very difficult to implement new technology into rallying.”
It is refreshing to hear the Andorra-based driver talk so positively about his future in the world of cross-country rallying. The limited drives in the WRC left him with no other option than to seek out a new avenue. In the Dakar, I believe Meeke has found the perfect one.
But looking back on his time at the top of world rallying is Meeke content with what he managed to accomplish?
“I always say, I have been about rallying a long time and it has always been at the forefront. I never truly got my break until the Citroen days in 2014 when I was 35-years-old.
“A lot of people think that I have been about forever but I never actually got a proper crack at it. I did get signed by Mini back in 2011 but after six rallies they decided rallying wasn’t for them and they pulled out.
“If you take Sebastien Ogier is only 37 now and he has seven world titles under his belt. I knew entering at 35 that my time at the top level was going to be short so I obviously tried to make the most of it.
“I think over the four full seasons that I did, having 13 podiums, five victories, and winning Rally Finland, I have to be very proud of what we achieved.
“At the minute the way I see the WRC going with the Kalle Rovenperas, the guys coming through in the next generation. There is not much opportunity now without bringing money to a seat.
“That’s the way it is and at 41 years of age, I am not going to run around the world for somebody doing it for nothing anymore. At the end of the day when you get to the stage where you don’t get paid for it, you have to start to think of another direction.
“As regards a World Rally Championship title I think to come up in rallying in an era of Loeb and then to get your opportunity in the era of Ogier, there have only been three guys who have been able to call themselves world champion over the last 17 years. And 16 of those years were either Loeb or Ogier.
“The guys are just phenomenal, everyone can see they are on a different level to everyone else.
“I tried my best so you can’t look back and say you didn’t achieve anything. I have to be proud of what I have done in my time there.”
In WRC’s Volkswagen era, Meeke was one of the few drivers to break the German outfit’s dominance on the series.
He made a nation proud during his time in the WRC. Meeke left a mark on the championship that only a particular character can do.
Now, his attention is focused on the demands of Dakar and the unique challenge it offers.
As the Dakar looks to move into a new generation with new technologies and new manufacturers, there aren’t many drivers with the potential to add as much to the one-of-a-kind event than Kris Meeke.
Photos courtesy of Toyota, Red Bull and PH Sport
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