Off the bench for the third time, a Dakar-bound Kris Meeke is just grateful he wasn’t on a ski lift and he’s not being asked to co-drive next month.
Five days before Christmas, Meeke was offered the chance to stand in for Dutch driver Kees Koolen on the two-week Saudi Arabian 5,000-mile marathon. The answer was yes. An immediate yes.
“I’ve got to say a big thanks to Kees for this opportunity,” Meeke told DirtFish. “Fair play to him, he was forced to pull out of the event, but the entry was paid and the buggy was already on the boat [to Saudi].
“His co-driver Wouter Rosegaar suggested me and Kees agreed. I’m delighted to be going back. Honestly, it’s been a real itch for me to get another shot from the first time I did Dakar.”
Co-driven by Rosegaar in a T3 buggy back in 2021, Meeke made an immediate impression on Dakar and led after the prologue stage. The buggy caught fire on the very next stage and ruled them out of the running.
“We did finish that event,” said Meeke, “but we did around 30% of it on the end of a tow rope. When you go for the first time, no matter how much you prepare, the level is just unimaginable. You simply can’t comprehend what it’s like. I’m going for the second time and I feel a bit more prepared, but we’re up against people who have done it 20 times. At least I have some idea of the magnitude of the thing and where things can go wrong – but don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got the ‘L’ plates on.”
While he might have only competed on one, Meeke feels intimately acquainted with Saudi Dakars, having been to three of the four.
“I competed in 2021,” he said. “But the year before that, the first time it was in Saudi, I got a call from Cyril Despres at the last minute. His co-driver Mike Horn was stuck on the ice in the Arctic and Cyril wanted to know if I’d stand in and co-drive.
“I spent a week going over the roadbook and getting ready, then Mike got off the ice and I wasn’t needed.
“In 2022, I was sat on a ski lift on Christmas Eve when Glyn Hall called me to ask if I could make it to Saudi the next day – Giniel de Villiers had tested positive for Covid and they needed somebody to drive their T1.
“I left home at five o’clock Christmas morning and made it to Saudi, only for Giniel to test negative and take a private jet from South Africa to Jeddah. I had to abort that time as well.”
The lack of preparation time is less of a concern for Meeke given the new-style of Dakar navigation.
“These days you’re given the roadbook five minutes before the start on a tablet and away you go,” he said. “It’s less about the preparation for the navigation and that’s one of the really good things about the event.
“Obviously you can prepare for the fitness side, but I’m in decent shape – maybe a kilo or so over the old race weight, but it’s OK. I haven’t tested the buggy, but Guillaume de Mevius and the team have been running one for a while now and they have it fairly well sorted.
“I’ll get to drive it for the first time just before the start, there’s a five or six kilometre loop you can test on. It’s not ideal for Dakar, but it is what it is – I’ll adapt.”
Run by the G Rally team, Meeke’s Super B Batteries-backed buggy will run in the Challenger class, formerly known as T3. Is a class win possible?
“I’m taking it day-by-day,” said Meeke. “That’s the only way. I think we know that pace has never really been a problem for me in motorsport, but this event’s not about that aspect of rallying – in fact, it’s the opposite.
“If you can get through every day without stopping that’s around 80% of the job. Do that and I think a podium’s a strong possibility – but doing that is a big, big ask, especially in a buggy. This year’s event is a true marathon, the organisers are really bringing it to the limit on this one.
“And it’s not just the competitive aspect of the route. Guillaume was telling me last year he had a 360km road section to do before the start of a stage – it was p****** it down and five degrees. He’d no big jacket and these buggies have no windscreen. He was freezing when he started the stage and nearly rolled in the first three kilometres…
“It’s an adventure, but it’s extreme. Honestly, it’s just mega to be doing it. I can’t wait.”