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Meeke is the King of Catalunya

Seven years ago Victor Lyness and I stood at the famous roundabout on the Riudecanyes stage of Rally Spain and watched the World’s best in action in front of a huge crowd of excited spectators. Fast forward to 2017 and we were back to witness the current stars circle the same roundabout. The crowds were as big as before, to get a good spot we were there two hours before the first car.

This was the final day of the rally and Dungannon’s finest, Kris Meeke was dominating the mixed surface event in his Citroen C3. As he and Paul Nagle shot into view at around 07.45 the sun was just rising in the distance. The Citroen stalled momentarily as Kris tried to handbrake the C3. He found reverse and completed the 360 degree manoeuvre and then the car soon disappeared down the smooth asphalt much to the relief of everyone! We needed have worried, Meeke was fastest over the 10.16 miles of Riudecanyes not just once but also on the second pass three hours later! Here was a driver in complete control of his machine and of Rally Spain. In the end he won by 28 seconds from World Champion in waiting, Sebastian Ogier.

For us the trip to Salou began some five days earlier. Victor, Brenda Gordon and I set out from Belfast on the Wednesday via EasyJet to Barcelona. After the two and a half hour flight we collected a hire car and Brenda drove us to our apartment in Salou, some 90 minutes away. The rest of the day was spent settling in and strolling around the resort and finding a good restaurant.The weather was great, reaching 30 degrees and never falling below 24 in daytime and with no rain.

Thursday morning was spent at the nearby shakedown stage and touring the service park at Port Aventura theme park. Here we met Paul Nagle and he remembered sharing the same hotel in Sligo ten years ago with Victor and I during Rally Ireland. Wishing Paul and Kris good luck for the rally we headed out to recce the Friday stages and find a good viewing spot. Unfortunately we got a puncture but this was sorted and we picked a hairpin on the Terra Alta stage as our destination the next day. We had been here in 2010 but then it was the start of the test. The place hadn't changed much and the local cafe we used before was still going strong. Lunch here on Friday was the plan.

Back to Salou for dinner then an early night as it would be up at stupid o’clock Friday morning and out to Terra Alta for the first run of the gravel test at 10.56. Today we would be joined by Gerry O’Doherty from the Maiden City MC who was staying in a nearby hotel. The hairpin we selected was a good spot and there were lots of spectators. Among them were a contingent from North Armagh Motor Club plus other friends including Denis Biggerstaff and Damien McCann. We were not the only people from Northern Ireland here to cheer Kris Meeke on! After stage three we had lunch in the afore mentioned cafe and then it was on to SS4 Caseres. This time we picked a hairpin bend just prior to the finish of the 7.77 mile dusty stage. The one person to make a hash of the bend was none other than Meeke, he stalled briefly and had to reverse. Apparently the C3 doesn’t do hairpins well, the handbrake is suspect! Andreas Mikkelsen, first time out in a Hyundai i20, led overnight. The Norwegian was just 1.4 seconds ahead of Ogier’s Fiesta. Kris Meeke’s mistake cost him 5 seconds, he was third, 3 seconds behind Mikkelsen. The competitors then had a 1 hour 15 minute service to change from a gravel setting to an asphalt one ready for the final two days. Friday night was a late one. After dinner in a recommended restaurant called The Guinness Tavern, we joined up with Barry Taggart and the North Armagh boys for a few drinks before bedtime. They went clubbing and still managed to make the first early Saturday stage. This was the only stage to experience rain on the Rally! We had a more leisurely day. A visit to midday service was followed by the spectator friendly Salou street stage in the evening. After this the final test of the day Kris was leading Seb by 13 seconds. Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo both retired their i20’s on the same corner hitting the same rock.

Another early start on Sunday saw us of to that famous roundabout in darkness. The crowds were already big at 6.30 in the morning. We were joined again by Gerry and the North Armagh boys turned up. Following the two stage runs we returned to Salou for the finish podium. At the end of the final stage Kris Meeke was congratulated by his wife and two little daughters. Funnily enough it reminded me of the time years ago when Alex Higgins won the World Snooker Championship and hugged his little daughter as he was presented with the trophy. Another proud Northern Ireland family man!

For our part we stayed on in Salou until the Wednesday. A visit to the new Ferrari Land theme park was a highlight as was a trip to nearby Terragona and its Roman ruins. With all the trouble kicking off over Catalunya’s proposed bid for independence from Spain we were slightly concerned about our return flight from Barcelona.

We needn’t have worried, the EasyJet to Belfast left on time and we were back in Northern Ireland at 10am. Thanks to Brenda and Victor for their company and the icing on the cake was that win for Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle.

On Sunday 8th October 2017 Kris Meeke from Dungannon in Northern Ireland became the “King of Catalunya”, well for one day anyway! It was just what he needed following the troubled times he has encountered this year with the wayward Citroen C3.

It is somewhat ironic that as Northern Ireland heads for direct rule from Westminster, Catalunya could be going the same way as Madrid is poised to take control of the wayward region of Spain. What all that will mean for the future of RallyRACC Catalunya is anyone’s guess! Glad we went over this year!

Looking Back

TEN YEARS AGO———November 2007

Yes, believe it or not it’s been ten years since the first Rally Ireland. The penultimate round of the WRC was based in Sligo with a spectator stage in the grounds of the Northern Ireland parliament buildings at Stormont kicking of the 20-stage event. No surprise that the winners would be Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena in their Citroen C4. Team mate Dani Sordo was second and Ford won the manufacturers title. I was Chief Timekeeper on the rally which was awarded second best in the 07 Championship. To prepare for Rally Ireland the organisers sent me to Rally Spain to learn how to set up the Timing equipment. These guys had been doing it for 15 years. Rally Ireland was a fantastic experience for all of us and it came back as round one of the 2009 WRC. Then the money ran out and since that time we in Ireland have been denied seeing the Worlds greatest rally drivers in action on what many regard as the best asphalt stages anywhere in the World!

Rally Diary

Sat. 4th Nov.
Sunset Stages Rally

Organised by Magherafelt and District Motor Club this is the new name for the final round of the 2017 Northern Ireland Rally Championship. Sponsored by McGeehan Motorsport the 5 repeated stages totalling 30 miles are to be run on sealed surfaces at Nutts Corner Race Circuit and the nearby Superdrive Rally School premises. Two stages will be in darkness just to add a bit of spice to the Championship showdown between Derek McGarrity and Jonny Greer. Current champ McGarrity has entered a powerful 2-litre Subaru Impreza S14 WRC while challenger Greer will be in his usual underpowered but nimble Citroen DS3 R5. With points plus a half up for grabs it could be an interesting end to the series. We will be on timing and radio duties plus covering rescue and on-stage marshalling.