Meeke set to tick NZ off bucket list

Kris Meeke competed in 104 races in the World Rally Championship. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
Kris Meeke competed in 104 races in the World Rally Championship. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
The Otago Rally has always attracted an interesting range of guest drivers. In the field next weekend is flying Northern Irish star Kris Meeke, a winner of five World Rally Championship events. Hayden Meikle tracks him down.

Meikle: Where are you right now, Kris?

Meeke: I’m in Andorra, where I live. There was a dump of snow last night and it is absolutely beautiful up here in the Pyrenees. We’re heading up to catch the first lift for probably one of the last days of the ski season.

When do you head to New Zealand?

I think I arrive on Monday.

Why have you decided to come down to drive in the Otago Rally?

Rallying in New Zealand was always something on my bucket list, to be honest. Unfortunately, during my time in the World Rally Championship, New Zealand was never part of the calendar, so I’ve never had a chance to drive down there. I was there spectating over 20 years ago. I think it was 2003. But that was the North Island. I’ve always wanted to drive a rally car in New Zealand. It was a simple, short answer, you know. I’ve heard so much about the Otago Rally.

You will be driving the Ford Escort RS1800 that rallying greats like Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen have piloted around the Otago roads. Excited about getting behind the wheel?

I’ve done a few rallies in a Ford Escort. For me, it’ll be amazing. I’m really looking forward to it. These historic cars, you know, there’s something special and unique about them. All these latest cars ... everything’s trying to help you drive the car. These old ones are raw, and I’ve always enjoyed that. Any time I’ve been able to sit in an older car, whether it be a Metro 6R4 or an Audi Quattro or a Mk2 Escort, it’s raw and it gives you that feeling. Couple that with the best rallying roads in the world, and for sure you have to look forward to that.

Have you been driving much recently?

I’m doing the Portuguese championship this year with Hyundai. We’ve had two rounds, which have gone well for me. It’s just eight rallies, and it’s really easy travel for me from Andorra. That’s in an R5, a Rally2 car. I’m still doing test work with Skoda as well. So I’m keeping my hand in.

After a long career at the top level, WRC, what keeps you getting behind a wheel at the age of 44?

I stopped in the world championship in 2019. You get to that stage in your life when you want to spend more time at home with your kids. I’m privileged to be able to do that. To be honest, I keep doing it just simply because I enjoy driving a rally car. It’s probably one of the only things in life I’m half good at. It comes naturally. I’m maybe not as hungry as I was when I was younger, but maybe that helps, you know. Maybe you take a bit more pleasure out of it. When you’re in the World Rally Championship, it can be a bit of a ratrace. You’re always searching for extra tenths of a second, and you’re employed by big car companies, and it comes with a lot of pressure. Now I just take my rallying and enjoy it. And it’s as pleasurable now as it ever has been.

After Otago, what rally is left on your bucket list?

The Silver Fern Rally. That one, definitely. It’s a lot more spread out and that really would whet my appetite. I’d love to do a few rallies in America. I like going to different places and experiencing different roads.

When you look back on your career at the top, what was the highlight?

My first win in the world championship in 2015 in Argentina was pretty special. But it would have to be winning Rally Finland in 2016. I never imagined I’d drive in the world championship, let alone be competitive or win one of the most special events in the world.

Kris Meeke and co-driver James Fulton compete in their Hyundai i20 N Rally2 during Rally Serras...
Kris Meeke and co-driver James Fulton compete in their Hyundai i20 N Rally2 during Rally Serras de Fafe in Portugal in February.
Have you had much to do with our favourite rallying son, Hayden Paddon?

I’ve known Hayden a long time. We competed against each other in the world championship. I’m good mates with Hayden. Top guy. It’s unfortunate he will be missing Otago because I think I could learn a bit from him about your New Zealand roads.

Your father, Sydney, was a rally man. What sort of influence was he on your career?

My dad got into rallying and started building and preparing rally cars. I grew up around his workshop. There were Mk2 Escorts and Opel Mantas being built. So it’s sort of in the blood. It was just a natural progression for me to get into the sport.

And the late, great Colin McRae? He also played a part in your career?

I was lucky enough to get involved with Colin, right near the beginning of my career. He was looking to get behind a young driver from this part of the world. He took me under his wing and helped support my career. Probably the toughest step in anybody’s career is to make that jump from national rallying into the world scene, and Colin provided that platform for me. I was living at Colin’s family home for a couple of years. It was a fascinating time of my life. When he was taken in the helicopter accident, it was a horrific time.

Would you like to play the same supporting role to a younger driver?

Yeah, I would. All the knowledge and experience that I’ve built up over the years, and the setbacks ... you could certainly pass that on. If I saw the right kid, with a similar determination to what I had, I would certainly pass on whatever I could.

When you’re not rallying, what do you like to do?

I’m very fortunate to live in a nice country with lots of mountains, and I’m an outdoors type of guy. We live right beside the resort here so we do a lot of skiing. My kids have been on skis since they were 3. And my daughter just won the Andorra under-10s racing championship, so she has her father’s competitive instinct.