Rallying: Meeke and the Mini revival

Irish driver hopes to fuel car's remarkable return at this weekend's Wales Rally

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The Independent Online

The name is the same, and the shape, while altogether bulkier and more muscular, remains unmistakable. Otherwise, as Kris Meeke acknowledges, the resemblance between his Mini Cooper World Rally Championship car and that which won the Monte Carlo rally in 1964 and which, courtesy of the 1969 film The Italian Job, remains fixed in the national psyche as an example of a peculiarly British triumph against the odds, is minimal.

Certain parallels are, however, irresistible. The 2011 Mini may be the product of several years of research and development aimed at producing the perfect rally car, but the expenditure on the project, compared with the budgets of the big works teams of Citroë* and Ford, has been relatively small. Yet this season, Mini's first back in the WRC and intended to be very much part of that development with just six out of 13 events entered, has been remarkably successful. Steady improvement over the year culminated in Meeke finishing last month's Rally de España in fifth, one place and just one minute 40 seconds – after more than four hours' driving – behind his vastly experienced team-mate, the Spaniard Dani Sordo.

For both Mini and the 32-year-old Meeke it was a hugely encouraging result, and if the team can follow up with a similarly competitive performance in the very different conditions that will prevail in this weekend's Wales Rally GB, a meticulously planned smash-and-grab raid on next year's championship may not be an entirely fantastical proposition.

"Well, there's still a long way to go before we can think about that sort of thing," pointed out Meeke, while waiting to take his turn behind the wheel at a pre-race test in a Welsh forest last week. "It's certainly fair to say we're ahead of where we expected to be, though. We're still learning about the car, so to be fighting for podiums and even wins [Meeke won the Power Stage in Spain, while Sordo finished second overall in the Rallye de France Alsace] is exceptional.

"At the same time we're not as fast as Citroë* yet, so we have to keep things in perspective."

The learning curve for Meeke has been, if anything, steeper than that of the team in respect to the car. A Northern Irishman brought up around the sport – his father, Sydney, is regarded as the doyen of the country's rally engineers – Meeke had no thoughts about becoming a professional driver when he graduated in mechanical engineering, and was working in a motor sport design department when his mother, Carol (now sadly deceased), entered him in a "Find a rally driver" competition at Silverstone.

Receiving the trophy from compatriot Paddy Hopkirk – who drove the Mini to its 1964 triumph – was, with the benefit of hindsight, a nice coincidence, but it was the experience gained and steady progress made over the following 10 years which persuaded David Richards, whose company Prodrive is behind the Mini project, to make Meeke one of his drivers. That included receiving early support – financial and otherwise – from Colin McRae, and in 2009 winning the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge with Peugeot.

But as a driver, Meeke is first to admit this has not been the easiest of years. Richards, who between 2003-05 was team principal of the BAR team which in many respects resuscitated the Formula One career of Jenson Button, is a tough taskmaster, and at times Meeke has probably tried too hard, both to impress and to keep pace with his much more experienced team-mate.

In France, for example, he was running fifth when he rolled the car on stage 13. "I was pushing, and I pushed a touch too hard. I was angry with myself, but it came about because I was pushing the boundaries, which in a car you're developing is at least a bit excusable if you're not fighting for the championhip. But it was a lesson learnt.

"In fact, every rally, every stage, has been a lesson learnt, because I've never driven in the WRC. Dani has had six years, and was No 2 Citroë* driver to [world champion] Sébastian Loeb for five of them. That's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to this rally – there are a lot of brand new stages, so for once we'll be on something like a level playing field."

Richards understands. "Kris has made mistakes because he thinks he should be competing with the likes of Dani when he probably can't expect to, yet, but we've seen in some events this year he's been right up there. He can't expect to win events from the outset, he needs to be a bit more pragmatic. His time will come."

Richards' track record is one of a man who is very rarely wrong although, if Meeke's time may well come, it may not be this weekend.

Exceptional on asphalt, the new Mini is so far remarkably competitive on gravel, and the team would also like a bit more power from the BMW engine. In fact, they'd like more backing from their German parent company altogether, to ensure they have the budget to compete in every rally next year.

The annual budget of the top works teams is close to £50m: this year Mini has probably spent around a 10th of that sum.

From a marketing point of view, given the brand's unique image and what has been achieved this season, it seems something of a no-brainer, but times are hard. Another good result in Britain, and the publicity it would attract, might make all the difference.

Mini: Major achievements

The Mini Cooper S won the famed Monte Carlo Rally on three occasions, in 1964, 1965 and 1967.

In the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally Minis were initially placed first, second and third, but were disqualified by the French judges for illegal headlights – the Citroë* DS awarded first place also had illegal white headlamps but escaped disqualification.

In 1965 the Mini won a total of 17 international rallies and picked up no fewer than 116 major awards in international rallies and races.

In the early Minis, oil tended to leak on to the clutch plate from the main crankshaft oil seal. Rally drivers overcame this problem by throwing handfuls of sand into the clutch housing – sometimes it was the only way they could finish the race.

5.3 million Minis were sold, making it by far the most popular British car ever made.

The Mini made very little money despite the number of sales – Ford once dismantled a Mini and determined that BMC must have been losing around £30 per car.

The breathtaking escape through the Turin sewers by gold bar-filled Mini Coopers in 'The Italian Job' was filmed in Coventry.