Meeke: “You touch the brake pedal and nothing happens”

Kris MeekeThe WRC got off to a slippery start this weekend, as the weather battered the twisty cols above Monte Carlo. Last year’s champ Sebastien Ogier picked up where he left off with a confident win, followed by local specialist and excellently-named Bryan Bouffier. Hearty congratulations to both.

But if we’re honest we weren’t paying much attention to the Frenchmen. Because this year’s Monte was also the first WRC outing for TG’s favourite rallyist and thoroughly nice bloke, Kris Meeke. Not only was it Meeke sitting in a seat recently vacated by Seb Loeb, it was also his first tarmac rally in more than two years. In the snow. At night. On narrow roads lined by spiky cliffs and deadly drops.

Of course, as a graduate of the James May Driving School, our man Meeke was thoroughly prepared. And, as he crossed the final timing beam last night, he became the first Brit on the WRC podium since Richard Burns won Down Under in 2003 – taking a solid third place, just 35 seconds behind Bouffier and just under two minutes behind Ogier. Not bad for his first week in the new job, eh?

Next up it’s more snow – with added elk – when Rally Sweden gets going in a few weeks’ time. Meeke will be there. But not before a quick call from TopGear.com…

TG: Good work, Kris. How are you feeling?

KM: That was one hell of an event. I’m trying to recharge the batteries already, before it all starts again in Sweden. It’s a bit surreal actually. Last night I was driving back down the motorway from the airport thinking about where I was 24 hours before…

How was it?

We had snow, ice, black ice, slush, shiny black top – which is absolutely lethal in the wet conditions – plus lots of mud because of all the rain, and we were aquaplaning. In the night-time. On slick tyres. On the Col de Turini – the second-to-last stage – we had half a metre of fresh snow and had to plough our way through it. The temperature alarms were going off in the car, but we survived…

It looked a bit… slippy.

You can’t describe to people what it’s like to drive on racing slicks in minus three [degrees] on a road covered with snow, down the side of a mountain with a 500ft drop on the outside. There are times where you touch the brake pedal and nothing happens, or you turn the wheel and nothing happens. You’re simply a passenger, trying to thread the eye of the needle all the time. It’s daunting, but that’s the Monte Carlo Rally.

A nervy first day at work, then?

This was my first time doing the Monte in a WRC car. And my first tarmac rally in two-and-a-half years. The plan was to take no risks, only push where we felt comfortable, and to make the right calls on the tyres. The thing in rallying is, it’s always a compromise on tyres. Stages could be 100km apart. The weather could be different on one side of the mountain to the other. So you’re having to make calculations and educated guesses to select tyres for the full loop of stages.

Which rubber did you go for?

We’re not allowed to change tyres between stages. But you’re allowed to put four tyres on the car, plus two spares. If there’s a chance of snow, well, you haven’t got four spares, so the best way to do it is to carry two and put them on diagonally. Mix the tyre types. We did that on the first loop of stages, which gained us a big advantage.

Sounds tricky…

Everyone got caught out on the slick tyres. The organisers said they hadn’t seen conditions that changeable before – nobody expected it to snow, and 20 minutes before the stage started the temperature dropped and the snow started. To drive on racing slicks, on snow, coming down a mountain pass is an eye-opener…

That’s one way to describe it.

It’s very tricky to drive a car that doesn’t have four equal tyres. But at least it gives you some grip. Monte is all about compromises – 70 to 80 per cent of the time you’ll find yourself on the wrong tyre for the conditions. It’s all about finding the best combination.

What’s it like up there?

I said it before the event, and now it’s been hammered home: the Monte Carlo Rally is one of the biggest challenges in motorsport. It is just phenomenal. The dangers and the drops and the cliffs, it’s one of those love-hate events. It’s so difficult to enjoy it, but so satisfying when you it right.

Did you have any sweary moments?

I had a slide or two – it’s impossible not to in those conditions – but never once did I think ‘this is over’. Ogier had three or four big moments, he was really pushing. I had to take a different approach and make it through without getting near the limits.

It must feel good to be the first Brit on the WRC podium for a decade…

It’s epic. And it’s also 50 years since my fellow Ulsterman Paddy Hopkirk won the Monte. I spoke to Paddy a week before the event and carried his little logo on my helmet… and although I didn’t win it, it’s fantastic to get a podium in my first event. It was a special weekend and a fantastic way for me to start the season…

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