Kris Meeke believes Citroen's World Rally preparations will pay off
As Northern Ireland driver Kris Meeke prepares to lead Citroën's World Rally Championship title charge, he feels that the team's decision to only run in half of last year's events to focus on 2017 will pay off.
Despite his limited campaign last season, the Dungannon man took victories in Portugal and Finland and is ready to build on those impressive triumphs.
"It is what I have always been after, to get a full factory drive in the World Rally Championship in a front running team.
"I was put in a very fortunate position last year when I managed to secure a long term contract with Citroën and develop the new car for 2017.
"It allowed us some free time to concentrate on the testing. I believe it was the right strategy and it will pay dividends in the long run. You need time to develop and tests on so many different surfaces around the world.
"We proved last year on the few events that we did do that we had front running pace and we were able to win.
"The important thing is feeling confident. With the amount of experience that I have now and the confidence I have built up, you just have to carry that through and stay as relaxed as possible."
New regulations, coupled with Volkswagen's shock withdrawal at the end of last year, means that the formbook in the World Rally Championship can go out the window.
With the new season getting underway on Thursday evening in Monte-Carlo, there is a sense of anticipation as to who will be leading the way in a new era of rallying.
Sebastian Ogier, the leader of Volkswagen's four-year dominance in the sport, will be the centre of attention as he switches to a M-Sport run Ford Fiesta along side fast Estonian driver Ott Tanak.
Hyundai will also be contenders with the talented and experienced trio of with Thierry Neuville, Hayden Padden and Dani Sordo.
Citroën have Meeke, Stéphane Lefebvre and Waterford driver Craig Breen at the wheel of their new C3 and will be out to secure the French marquee's first world title since 2012.
Jari-Matti Latvala, another refugee from VW's programme, will pair up with fellow Finn Juho Hänninen to drive for Toyota, who return to the WRC after a 17-year absence.
New regulations means that the pecking order is yet to be established, with Meeke believing the changes will make the WRC more impressive.
"The basic concept of the cars are the same," says the 37-year-old, "They are still four wheel drive cars with 1.6 litre turbo-charged similar to what you find in a lot of road going cars.
The biggest step in the car is the pure power that you have. They have made the turbo charger a lot bigger for this year which has given us an increase of about 60-70 horsepower which is a massive step.
"You have a lot more aerodynamic freedom so the cars will look a lot more aggressive with bigger wings. It has taken a big step forward.
An added Central Differential in the cars has added another challenge. "It adds another element to the driving. The engineers can control and input programs to the centre diff to help the car go around the corner. I've had to adapt to that and I have been learning that all throughout last year as we developed the car.
"In rallying we do all of our testing behind closed doors which means when we arrive at Monte Carlo with no idea where we will be in terms of pace. I have good confidence in the team but there is still that level of anticipation of not knowing where you are."
Patience Pays Off
Meeke says he hopes a new mindset and approach on his behalf will pay off ahead of the new season.
"Last year I proved to myself when I relax and let it come naturally and do my own thing it works. For so many years I chased it because the opportunities weren't there and I had to prove myself all the time and now I have a long-term deal in place I feel that has helped me a lot.
"It allowed me to arrive at events without the pressure of having to compete for points which allowed me to enjoy it more. I think I have learnt a lot from that. Ok, you are fighting for a world championship but at the end of the day if you relax and enjoy it then good things can happen.
"If you try and force the issue and are searching for points or hunting something down more times than not it will not work out. I hope we can keep that approach that led me to those victories last year and take the confidence from them but the main thing is to relax, enjoy it and then the points will look after themselves.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs along the way. There have been plenty of times when I thought that was it and it was game over. I thought I would have to step back into the real world and get a normal job but I've stuck at it and persevered and now we are here with the opportunity that we always wanted.
"It will probably be about minus six or seven with plenty of black ice and you are sitting with 400 horse power under you it will all start to get a bit nervous but I'm hopeful that we can keep it all together. It will be a long weekend and certainly a long season.
"On paper, everyone is putting us out there as a championship contender but I just want to get out there and get started and do my job. I don't like to set the targets because more often than not you miss. I just want to enjoy it and we'll take a closer look at it in the mid-point of the season."