Despite having admitted that he was targeting the season-ending Rally of Scotland as his best chance of overall success, Kris Meeke claimed the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge title in fine style with victory on this weekend's Rallye Sanremo.
The Peugeot UK driver had expected tarmac expert Jan Kopecky to better him in Italy but, when the Czech crash out on day one, Meeke found destiny in his own hands, with the gravel-based UK event still to run.
He still had to work hard for his reward, however, battling back from fourth place overnight to take the lead on the final morning as the rally moved into the mountains of the Italian Riviera. Despite the pounding given to his brakes on the twisting asphalt stages, Meeke prevailed for his fourth event win of the season, before becoming the first British driver to win the IRC crown.
“We never could have expected this to happen,” a slightly disbelieving Meeke admitted as he crossed the line, “There's so many people I have to thank for the opportunity. I'm only one link in the chain and there's a long list of people who helped make it happen - without any one of the them the chain would have been broken.”
The rally began with Meeke just one point ahead of Kopecky and the works Skoda Fabia S2000, and the Czech got off to a flying start by winning the first stage. However, when he then crashed in the middle of the second stage, suffering irreparable suspension damage, the ball was thrown firmly into Meeke's court
Kopecky's accident also left the way clear for a major battle for honours between two Italian drivers – the works Abarth Grande Punto S2000 of Luca Rossetti and the Peugeot 207 S2000 of Paolo Andreucci – while Meeke suffered from overheating brakes in fourth place. At the overnight halt, Andreucci held a slender advantage, while Rossetti was unable to get his car handling how he wanted it to, but, at the start of the final day, the Abarth man was far happier, while Andreucci's Pirelli tyres – unique among the frontrunners – struggled for grip and left him fighting a defensive battle for the rest of the rally.
Meeke, meanwhile, had started the second day in champion's style, winning the first stage by ten seconds and the second stage by a further 8.3. However, on the final stage of the morning, he lost ten seconds after more brake trouble, producing a nervous time at the service halt.
“The opening night's stages were interesting to say the least, then it all just clicked and I got a rhythm,” the Briton said, “The pacenotes were inch-perfect and I honestly couldn't believe the times!
“I had a few troubles with the brakes on the second stage this morning - I was able to drain it while driving to the next stage, but I couldn't put all the fluid back because of a defective pipe, so we had next to no brakes at all. Fortunately, the stage was short and uphill!”