Online Sport Editor Jamie Klein analyses the potential implications of last weekend’s Monte Carlo Rally for UK rally fans, and examines the chances of British hopefuls Kris Meeke and Elfyn Evans.
After years in the wilderness, it may be that last weekend’s Monte Carlo rally marks the beginning of a long-awaited resurgence for the sport of rallying the UK.
A third place finish for Ulsterman Kris Meeke behind the wheel of a Citroen marks the first time in 11 long, painful years that a Briton has finished on the podium of a World Rally Championship event. The last Brit to do so? The late Richard Burns, at Rally Australia in 2003.
2014 is the year that Meeke, who is now 34 years of age, has finally been handed the break he’s deserved for much of his career. A protégé of Britain’s other rallying mega-star of yesteryear, Colin McRae, Meeke missed out on the chance to drive for Citroen back in 2006, teammate Dani Sordo beating him to the preceding year’s junior title.
After several years in the wilderness, Meeke re-emerged on the rally scene in earnest in 2009 with Peugeot, sealing the Intercontinental Rally Challenge title the following season. That put Meeke back in the WRC fray, throwing in his lot with the new BMW-backed Prodrive effort in 2011, but funding shortages saw him ditched after just a handful of rallies.
Just when it appeared Meeke’s hopes of a full-time WRC drive looked to be over, the very team that had cast him aside all those years ago offered him a lifeline. Two rallies with Citroen last year were enough for Meeke to show that he deserved one of two permanent seats this year – despite not finishing either of them!
In a rally marked by atrocious conditions, Meeke defied his reputation by keeping his car on the road where several of his rivals were unable to, finishing a fine third place, just under two minutes in arrears of reigning champion Sebastien Ogier and a similar margin ahead of new teammate Mads Ostberg, who claimed fourth place.
But, podium finishes alone are not going to be enough to re-ignite British interest in rallying. If the public are going to sit up and pay attention to the degree they did in the McRae-Burns era, a Brit needs to start winning rallies – and lots of them.
Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that Meeke is the right man for that particular job. As luck would have it though, there is another young hopeful waiting in the wings who may just have what it takes to really spark a full-blown renaissance for British rallying – Elfyn Evans.
The son of former rally driver Gwyndaf, it’s been a swift rise to the highest level for Evans. After finishing runner-up in the British Rally Championship in 2011, the Welshman dominated the entry-level WRC Academy series in 2012 before impressing during a part-time campaign in the second tier WRC-2 series last year.
Promoting Evans to a full-time M-Sport seat alongside ex-F1 star Robert Kubica and veteran Mikko Hirvonen with so little experience thus represents something of a gamble, but the 25-year-old was in fact the only one of the trio to make the finish in Monte Carlo, holding his own to clinch a highly respectable sixth place finish.
It will take time for Evans to develop into a driver capable of winning rallies at the highest level, but the promise he has shown so far is undeniable. After all, recently departed nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb didn’t win his first rally until the age of 28, and it’s far from inconceivable that Evans will have stood on the top step of the podium in three year’s time.
A generational shift looks to be taking place in the rallying world. The old guard, Loeb’s generation, have all departed the scene, and time is clearly running out for such experienced drivers as Hirvonen and Sordo, neither of whom have the sheer pace and consistency to challenge for the title and look set to be relegated to supporting roles at their respective teams.
The immediate future belongs to Volkswagen’s Ogier, who is now clearly WRC’s benchmark driver, as well as Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and M-Sport’s Kubica, the only two drivers who, for now, look to have the pace to truly threaten the Frenchman.
For Meeke, it’s probably a bit too late to join that exclusive club even if he’s sure to rack up more podium finishes this season – and maybe, if circumstances permit, a first win for a British rally driver since his late mentor McRae won the Safari Rally in 2002.
But, it’s Evans who British rallying fans should be looking towards to well and truly make the British public sit up and take notice of the sport once again.