Wales Rally GB: Kris Meeke looking for victory ahead of WRC finale
"Best of the rest is not good enough. I want to be world champion."
Kris Meeke has earned himself something of a reputation on the roads of the World Rally Championship this year – and it's one he wants to quickly dispel.
The Citroen driver is widely regarded as the strongest challenger to the leading trio of Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andrea Mikkelsen, who all happen to be in Volkswagens, but although he had targeted fourth place in the championship as one of his goals for 2014, it's not something that has kept him awake at night.
With just one round left Meeke is currently eighth, having dropped two places after the penultimate rally in Spain. He could theoretically make fourth but he would have to win on the wet and muddy gravel stages of Wales Rally GB next weekend and hope others fell by the wayside.
"Fourth place is possible, sure," Meeke told AOL Cars before Rally Spain, "but 2014 has for me been about learning and gaining experience. It's important to finish as high as possible and to show what I can do but I want to be world champion, not just the first non-VW driver.
"I seem to have developed a 'best of the rest' label but I don't want that and I know I haven't reached my full potential yet. I want to be fighting for the victory on merit one day."
This year, Meeke, along with rising Welsh star Elfyn Evans, has reinvigorated British interest in the WRC after a decade in the wilderness. You have to go back to the days of the late Colin McRae and Richard Burns to find any British success and it was Meeke who became the first Briton to claim a podium spot on a WRC event for 11 years when he finished third on the opening round of the season, Rally Monte Carlo. The last Brit to achieve that feat was Meeke's mentor McRae in 2003.
The Northern Irishman has gone on to take three more third places, in Argentina, Finland and France, and came within an ace of claiming his first WRC win in Germany before crashing out of the lead with just three stages to go. There have been other DNFs but overall, the 35-year-old's first full WRC season with Citroen has been hailed a success, worthy reward after a long and sometimes difficult path to a works drive.
"Yes, it's been a long time coming but I'm with the most successful team in world rally history," Meeke says, "and with all their experience, it is an invaluable place to learn.
"I knew this first season would be difficult. There has been pressure to score points but I also put pressure on myself. There's been a fine line to tread in gaining points and performing for the team.
"There were flashes of speed early in the year but it wasn't until Poland [in June] that I first felt comfortable. I was on for a podium there before we had a puncture. Finland and Australia were also both good rallies and overall, I think it's been a fantastic first season," he adds.
Unsurprisingly, the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion is hoping to stay with Citroen for 2015 and although team boss Yves Matton has said his driver is in a good position, no decision will be made until the season is over.
"Nothing has been done at the moment," Meeke confirms, "but this is definitely where I want to be next year. Yves took a risk on me when he signed me up for 2014 but I have followed the path he expected, so hopefully he will put his faith in me again."
Nicolas Aguilera/Associated Press
If his boss needs any more convincing, Meeke has one final chance to impress in the Welsh countryside next weekend (13-16 November).
After a few years in the doldrums, Wales Rally GB is enjoying a revival following the move north, widely seen as the country's traditional rally heartland; so much so that with 160 entries confirmed, the field for the event is at its highest since the rally transferred to the province in 2000, something that has impressed Meeke.
"The decision to move the base north to Deeside has been great. Wales Rally GB is well established now, the stages up there are impressive, really traditional Rally GB stages."
However, pressing Meeke to predict a possible maiden WRC win on the event which is the closest to a home rally for the man from Dungannon, meets with a guarded response.
"Winning has to come naturally, you can't force the issue, and experience on Rally GB is needed. My first rally was in north Wales and yes, I've grown up with them but I've only done GB once in the last eight years. I have more experience of Germany and Australia than I do here.
"It's nice to have local support and I love the event; the stages, the atmosphere, I really enjoy it but that's no substitute for experience. The top guys in the WRC, those who have been to Wales many times, they're on the limit on each corner. In some ways, I don't think there is any such thing as home advantage on WRC events these days."
2014 marks the 20th anniversary since the then-Network Q RAC Rally was won by Meeke's great friend and mentor Colin McRae, who followed that success the next year by becoming world champion, an achievement which had an even bigger impact on the young Irishman who would later go on to become a part of the McRae household.
"I was only a teenager but was a massive fan of the world championship so do remember him winning in '94. And when he came back the next year to win the title that was something people won't forget, myself included. I would love for either me or Elfyn to recreate that.
"Colin was a massive support for me. I wouldn't be here without him and I'm very grateful to him and his family for all their help. Those times were so good for me, living with Colin in his family home. It really was an incredible life experience.
"I owe them a lot."