May’s International Rally of Whangarei has received a significant boost with news that former WRC star, Kris Meeke, will tackle the event in a Force Motorsport Mazda 2 AP4.
The news sets up a mouth-watering battle between the Northern Irishman and New Zealand’s own Hayden Paddon.
Meeke is a polarising figure in world rallying. His fans are loyal to a fault, but his detractors are often vocal, pointing to his regular crashes as reasons why he is no longer in the WRC.
Similarly, his blunt and to the point end-of-stage interview responses have often divided rally fans.
Yet for all that, Meeke’s personality has been great for rallying.
In recent years, he was famously sacked from the factory Citroen team after several crashes, before spending a year at Toyota Gazoo Racing. The 40-year old’s contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the 2019 season, as young gun Kalle Rovanpera took his seat.
Now, he’s New Zealand bound, and he can’t wait!
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed about, driving a rally car in New Zealand and through all my exploits in the WRC over the years, I was never involved in the series when Rally New Zealand was in the championship for one reason or another,” Meeke said.
“I grew up with the images of these famous stages in New Zealand with Juha Kankkunen, Colin McRae and Richard Burns and I always wanted to do it.
“So when I had some contact with Andrew Hawkeswood and he made a proposal for me to get an opportunity to drive on these roads, for me it was certainly a box I wanted to tick.”
Meeke says that he has no expectations to beat Paddon, but he’s a rally driver with a competitive streak, and coming second won’t be on his radar.
“Obviously we all know of Hayden Paddon and his exploits, certainly he’s been a top line WRC driver for a period of time.
“I want to go and have fun, that’s number one priority, I want to enjoy myself and experience the roads, I have no expectation to try and beat Hayden, but certainly if anyone knows me by now, I go and give any challenge 100% and see where we end up.”
As well as being a significant challenge for Paddon, it gives local competitors another yardstick to compare themselves against.
The International Rally of Whangarei is the second round of both the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship.
Both championships get underway on the first weekend in April with the running of the Otago Rally in Dunedin.