The Dakar Rally demands an acquired taste. Two weeks in the wilderness, 12,400 kilometres of driving, and the constant threat of being stranded by a mechanical failure. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But for Kris Meeke, Dakar is now his adventure of choice.
While a brew prepared by Saudi Arabian locals provided Meeke with some solace following one of his all too frequent breakdowns, Dakar was much more than a culture trip for the 41-year-old.
Meeke is serious about his cross-country future. In fact, his debut Dakar Rally was no sooner over until he was thinking about doing it all over again.
“Yeah, I certainly have got the bug,” said Meeke. “The day after it finished I was eager to get going again.
“It’s a bit of a comedown after living that adventure life for three weeks. It was a really really good experience.
“I don’t think anything can prepare you for a Dakar. You can imagine what it’s going to be like but it way exceeded my expectations. The terrain, the vastness of it, the challenge of it.
“Everything exceeded what I imagined it to be and it is one of the toughest challenges I have ever experienced.
“It’s not the cut-throat outright speed of a WRC event, which is the ultimate challenge with regard to speed. But Dakar is all about the terrain you go over, the expansiveness of it. The kilometres you’re doing every day is surreal.”
Dakar a test of perseverance
Despite taking the “safer” option to drive a lightweight buggy, rather than a more powerful and advanced T1 vehicle, Meeke’s first-ever Dakar Rally turned into a tribulation of technical troubles.
The Northern Irishman’s fastest-time on Dakar’s prologue stage proved to be a false dawn. The next day, his buggy ground to a halt on the endurance event’s very first stage.
“The competitive side of me for sure wanted to get an idea of where I was relative to the other guys. But the bubble burst very early on.
“The spare wheel caught fire 100 kilometres or so into the first stage. The mount was sitting too close to the exhaust.
“Straightaway that put paid to any type of result. It was a long first day on the back of a tow rope and we got many hours of penalties.
“Dakar is the type of event that will expose every little weakness on your vehicle. Anything little you can think of will turn into a myriad of problems.”
As feared, the problems lingered for the next two days. Meeke explained how he completed the 457 kilometres of Stage 2 on two cylinders. The previous day’s fire had burnt a boost pipe and allowed dirt to get into the engine.
That night PH Sport found and replaced a broken valve ahead of the third day’s 403 kilometre stage. Unfortunately a blown head gasket meant day three ended, once again, on a tow rope.
“The first three days were compromised by the fire. It was a complete snowball effect from day one.
“Then we led [T3 win on Stage 4] and had the driveshaft issues and different things, but you know, they’re all simple things that will be sorted.
“I still have huge respect for PH Sport and what they did. But like I said, Dakar will expose any weakness at all and unfortunately, we succumbed to quite a few of those.”
A new experience for Meeke
Dakar might be described as a rally but it is completely foreign to Meeke’s previous World Rally Championship knowledge. Even the role of his co-driver, Wouter Rosegaar, was unlike that of a special-stage navigator.
This year crews only received their roadbook 15 minutes before starting each stage. Yet another element of the mammoth endurance event.
“The navigation, like I said in some of my posts, after day four, day five, I really started to find a rhythm.
“It’s learning the speeds to drive at in certain sections.
“Dakar is not just about sand dunes. You’re going into these rocky washed-out river beds which are a mile and a half wide.
“They are maybe 40 miles long and you’re having to tread down them because you’re going over sharp stones the size of footballs trying your best not to get a puncture.
“So to learn all the different styles of driving and the rhythm over a 500 kilometre stage, that was something new to me.
“But I felt that I adapted to that and any day you had a good result, then you were seeded back up in the group again with guys at a similar speed. Dust was then less of an issue and we were able to lead the stage.
“I don’t mean lead the stage on the timesheets, but actually be the first SSV on the stage.
“All the T1 cars are on ahead so you have a bit of a gap.
“So to be able to take on the navigation ourselves and be able to run at the front of the guys, navigating and pacing ourselves – it was satisfying.
“Unfortunately on the days that we had problems, the next day we were starting right at the back with much slower cars and drivers.
“Then you’re into a lot of dust issues. You can’t see the end of your bonnet and you’re still maybe 500 metres away from the vehicle.
“So it makes it really difficult but that’s the challenge of it.”
There is no doubt that mechanical issues clouded the performance of Meeke, Rosegaar, and indeed PH Sport’s Zephyr buggy. Meeke’s persistence to complete the rally is commendable and you can tell he appreciates the effort his team made to get his buggy to the finish-line.
“In the class I was in, it’s not necessarily about the speed. It was about who could get through with the least amount of problems.
“We showed that the PH Sport car is certainly capable. The few simple issues will be ironed out I am sure.
“The guys can go on and that vehicle is capable of winning that class in the Dakar but you definitely need to leave no stone unturned before the event.
“Every day we were running with the guys before any issues, we were leading the stage on the timesheets or at least in the top three. I was happy with that.
“We managed to win two stages outright in the lightweight class and I think four victories in T4.
“But yeah, I was happy. I learned so much and I’ve still a lot to learn about it.”
Meeke’s rally return
Now in Qatar, Meeke is set to make his rallying return on the opening round of the Middle East Rally Championship. Driving a Skoda Fabia R5 alongside Sebastian Marshall, the Qatar International Rally will be Meeke’s first rally in the region.
It will also be the pair’s first international event together since Rally Spain, their final WRC appearance with Toyota 15 months ago.
“I haven’t made pacenotes since then,” commented Meeke. “So I’m a bit apprehensive, to be honest.
“I did a few tests last year with Skoda and I enjoyed the car when I drove it.
“At the moment it is just a one-off. We’ll see, I just want the experience of something different.
“We’re so used to rallying as we know it back on properly defined roads albeit on all different surfaces.
“But here, it’s a bit more vague, you’re in a desert-style of racing.
“Probably one of the reasons [I am doing the rally] is because I do want to see what opportunities lie ahead in the cross-country world.
“Just doing an odd event here, even in a rally car, can open your eyes to the different type of terrain because I do foresee the Dakar here in the future.
“It has been in Saudi Arabia up to now but I think in the future it is going to venture into more countries in the UAE and surrounding countries.
“So yeah, just to experience a bit more of this part of the world that was probably another reason why I was intrigued to come here.
“Nasser Al-Attiyah has won the event, 14 times I think, so I don’t think there’s any chance of going to actually race him, but we’ll see.
“I’ll certainly enjoy it and that’s number one.”
This weekend’s Qatar International Rally starts with a super special stage close to Doha on Friday night before 10 stages on Saturday and Sunday.
Photos courtesy of A.S.O.
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