Kris Meeke smiles. The phone’s ringing. Again. It’s Weavy. Again. Then it’s Barry. Again. Nobody minds. Everybody wants to talk about this one.
Everybody wants to talk about the Roger Albert Clark Rally.
When Britain’s longest rally of the season gets under way, it does so with Meeke seeded second behind three-time winner Marty McCormack, in a very special Ford Escort RS1800. Actually, lovely as the Wales Motorsport-run Mk2 is, it’s the livery that really makes the job for Meeke.
Look closely. It’s Castrol, old spec, it’s Fisher Engineering and Bush Performance Centre. The car’s an absolute peach, but the legend is in the livery.
“This was the livery from Bertie Fisher’s Escort in 1979,” Meeke explained to DirtFish. “It means a lot to me. The livery is taken from the first brand new car my dad built.”
Back in the day, Bertie Fisher and Sydney Meeke were inseparable. Meeke made them, Fisher played them and they ruled Ireland.
Meeke Jr added: “When I got the chance to do this event in an Escort, there was only going to be one livery. For me, I remember the pictures of this colour scheme, dad built the car the year I was born. It’s iconic.
“I spoke to Castrol and they were keen to run the car in their colours and, of course, it was nice to have a nod to the Fisher family – they helped me out when I was starting out.”
Let’s rewind. How did the name Kris Meeke land on this week’s entry list?
I haven’t been this excited about an event in yearsKris Meeke
“It’s a bucket-list event,” said the five-time world rally winner. “I was talking to Meirion [Evans, Wales Motorsport] and we said we’d keep in touch about it. Everything went quiet, then in September we started to put a plan together.
“The car’s really nice. It’s a left-hand-drive car, which I prefer and it hasn’t really done anything since COVID. It’s a proper one: a proper, proper one.”
The energy about Meeke is palpable. He can’t wait for Thursday morning and the opening stage in Crychan.
“I haven’t been this excited about an event in years,” he laughed. “Honestly, it’s true. Weavy (Stephen Whitford) and my brother Barry are the same, we’re on the phone like 10 times a day talking about the whole thing – we were never on the phone that much when we were in the world championship!
“There’s something really special about this event. I’ve never done a five-day rally before, but just the thought of that is something special. It’s taking us back to a special time in the sport.
“I have great memories from these longer events – I drove the chase car for Bertie on the 1997 Circuit of Ireland (Fisher won it in a Subaru Impreza 555 with Rory Kennedy co-driving). That was just fantastic. I’d not long passed my driving test and there I was driving around Ireland chasing for Bertie Fisher!
“It’s that whole kind of atmosphere around the event that really gets me. It’s the night stages, the fact we have chase cars on the rally again. You know, just driving the chase, you get the real buzz for the event. You have to be at the end of the stage and then you sit and wait for the car to come out… then she’s out and you’re flat out working on it.
“I think we’re missing some of that now. I grew up watching cars get their gearboxes changed at the side of the road – you just don’t forget those moments. These days, standing on the outside of the WRC and looking in, you just don’t get that element.”
His enthusiasm is sensational. In his prime, Kris Meeke was one of the fastest and most committed rally drivers on planet earth.
To this day, nobody has topped his average of 78.68mph for winning the 2016 Rally Finland – that remains the highest average speed in 50 years of the World Rally Championship.
Such stats are nice to look back on, but this week is what excites Meeke. He’s lived his life in the sport of rallying and to have the opportunity to wind back the years to those chase car days is special.
That’s all very misty-eyed and romantic, but there’s still a rally to win. Will it be Meeke’s?
“It funny,” he said. “I had no real idea about who was doing the event when we put our entry in and then almost straight away I saw the news about Oliver. I called Meirion and said: “F****** hell, we’d better sharpen the tools!”
“This is a marathon event, I don’t think you can predict anything. We know the guys like Osian Pryce, Marty [McCormack] and Jason [Pritchard] will be quick, but Oliver’s going to be on another level. He’s a s***-load of talent and he’s come from the world championship with the mindset that goes with it.”
Meeke and Solberg are team-mates of sorts. Both running Group 4 Escorts and both coming in as part of a Castrol story which tells the firm’s long and storied history in rallying. Meeke’s Escort, with its fabulous Fisher livery covers the history, while Solberg’s slightly more radical Monster Energy and night time noticeable livery frames Castrol’s future.
The immediate future for both is five days on the road.
And that’s five days down some of the world’s finest roads.
“Look at the route,” said Meeke. “They’re the best stages through Wales, Scotland and Kielder and 40% of that in the dark… this is a proper rally.
“Probably one of the bigger challenges will be running on organisers notes. After 20 years of making my own pacenotes, it’s tricky to use [notes] you haven’t made yourself. You have to drive with that degree of caution, you can’t commit to the corners in the same way you would if you’d done your own recce.
“But, like I said, it’s a marathon event. You can’t predict what’s coming, but, b***** hell, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
And the fun has already started with Thursday morning’s opening stages.