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David Hobbs

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Is Kris Meeke the Man to Revive the Glory Days of British Rallying?

Posted: 13/12/2013 18:20

Whilst thousands of rally fans soak up the fact that Kris Meeke will be Britain's first full-time World Rally Championship driver for more than a decade, I am eagerly looking forward to the start of the 2014 season like an excited child on Christmas Eve. For the first time in ages, I am genuinely excited about the WRC and the opening round in Monte Carlo can't come soon enough.

I've followed rallying for years but it was the Subaru era that got me completely hooked. For someone feeding on the exploits of Britain's greatest drivers - Colin McRae, Richard Burns and then Petter Solberg (Okay, he's Norwegian but was as good as British for most Subaru fans) - the 10 years or so from the mid-1990s were a flat four fan's feast.

But, the past few years have brought tumbleweed-strewn deserts. It got so bad that after nearly 10 years, I was within a phone call of cancelling my Motorsport News subscription the other week. By some good fortune their subs team were so busy - hopefully not fielding similar calls - I had to hang up. I haven't called back.

But, what was it that led me to such depths of despair?

It wasn't the domination of the WRC by Citroen and a certain Sebastien Loeb that turned me off - the Frenchman has been one of the sport's biggest legends and has also demonstrated his genius in other motorsport disciplines. Ignore the 'he made rallying boring by winning so much' moaners, he deserves total respect although it is nice to see others winning at last.

Nor was it the apparent neglect of the sport from the highest level down. TV coverage, especially for UK fans, has withered while rallies with great tradition and stature such as the Acropolis and New Zealand have been sacrificed at various times for new poorer imitations. Considering the FIA is run by an ex-rally man, Jean Todt, this is frankly embarrassing.

Nor was it the lack of factory teams in the WRC although Ford pulling out to force Cumbria-based M-Sport (who ran the Blue Oval's team) to quickly find some cash, was a pretty low point as was MINI's short-lived efforts. Thankfully, Volkswagen's involvement (and soon Hyundai and Skoda) is helping to boost the manufacturer numbers to respectable levels again.

All these tested my devotion to a great sport but ultimately it comes down to the absence of a British hero in the WRC. Yes, we've only had two world champions in its 34 years but we've also had genuine folk heroes such as Roger Clark and Tony Pond who fired up the fans with their heroic exploits. McRae and Burns then took British rallying to new heights in one of the sport's fiercest heartlands and it's a sad indictment that McRae was the last Brit to win a WRC event, the Safari Rally in 2002 which was also the last year that the epic event ran on the championship calendar.

Rallying is one of this country's most popular sports. You may not see it unless you like trekking into the countryside or reading the motorsport press but it's out there - and what's more it generates a lot of cash.

According to the Motorsport Industry Association, there are around 4,500 companies involved in the UK motorsport and performance engineering industry, with an annual turnover of ₤6billion, £3.6billion of which is exported. Rallying plays a major part in that industry and in 2012, the Motor Sports Association, the sport's governing body in the UK, issued 7331 rally competition licences and issued permits for 882 rally events.

Britain's round of the WRC is Wales Rally GB, which has been in the doldrums in recent times because of its location and uncertainty over its financial support. This year, after considerable pressure, the rally moved to north Wales - quite possibly the spiritual heart of UK rallying - and was a resounding success with 80,000 spectators rocking up on the Welsh hillsides. That's double the figure for the previous year.

Ironically perhaps, Meeke wasn't in Wales but he did have two outings with Citroen this year, in Finland and Australia, two very fast rallies that are regarded as serious tests for drivers. He crashed out of both much to his and the team's distress but he had clearly done enough throughout both events to fire the French team's imagination and plump their 2014 hopes on him.

Meeke now has the opportunity to revive rallying's profile beyond the specialist press and back into the mainstream. The man from Dungannon's elevation to the big time may not only give WRC fans in the UK someone to focus their hopes on, it could give the sport and the industry around it a real boost.

And best of all, he's fast.

 

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