Rallying: Meeke and the Mini revival

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

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.

Suggested Topics
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Life and Style
The new model would be a “pedal assist” bike in which the rider’s strength is augmented by the engine on hills and when they want to go fast
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower