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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map