Rally Driving in Gran Canaria with Kris Meeke

This piece was originally in Esquire.

So this is where I’m going to die.

It’s 9pm, somewhere off the GC 2 coastal road on Gran Canaria. This deathly quiet mountain pass, with a sheer drop of hundreds (and hundreds) of feet on one side, is the sort of road that can turn a coach-load of pensioners into a crumpled tin of corned beef with just one careless slip of the accelerator pedal.

And tomorrow, I’m going to be travelling around it at over 100mph.

The reason for this act of masochism is to profile rally driver Kris Meeke, the Ulsterman whose daredevil expertise in his Peugeout 207 S2000 has made him the current champion of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. This week, the IRC is in Gran Canaria – and while we’re still days away from the rally itself, Kris and his Irish co-driver Paul Nagle will be testing the car to its absolute limits around this lonely stretch of road all day tomorrow. As a special treat – and remember I’m terrified of both speed heights – I’ll be accompanying the 30-year-old Ulsterman on one circuit.

“This would be a great place to shoot,” says Tom, Esquire’s photographer, clambering up the rocks and gazing into the void.

I peer over the edge. “Yeah, great,” I say, visualizing a shot of a souped-up Peugeot captured forever as it defies gravity for a second or two before plunging into the misty depths below. “Spectacular.”

There’s no alarm clock better than fear. At 5.30am, I’m awake, the warm, damp air of my ’70s-era hotel room adding to my discomfort.

I put away a huge breakfast/last meal of eggs, bacon, sausages and salty-potato-meat things, have a quick walk around the Gran Canaria’s Beirut-a-like capital Las Palmas, before being taken to the test track. In the makeshift ‘pits’, I’m introduced to Marc van Dalen, the head of Kronos Racing, who runs the team on behalf of Peugeot, then Kris’ co-driver Paul Nagle, all friendly handshakes, laughs and southern Irish charm. Finally, I meet Kris, who’s quieter and a little more serious than Paul, but just as friendly. The relationship between these two Irishmen is key to their success.

A few days before the stage, Paul and Kris drive around the course three times, making ‘pace notes’ on the speed and angle of every corner. In the race itself, it’s Paul who’ll be reading them out – and any mistake can lead to disaster. I ask Kris if this danger bothers him.

“No. I only think about the road. Nothing else matters.”

This morning, the duo have been around the test stage 10 times, so Kris knows the course well enough to go round it without his co-driver. In Paul’s place is someone with a brain that never gets out of first gear: me.

I’m given a slightly sweaty racing suit, before Paul’s helmet is placed on my head, complete with intercom. I get in the car, the bare interior of which is criss-crossed by a cage of protective tubing, and get strapped into the bucket seat.

“You OK?” says Kris.
“Fine,” I say. “Fine.”

Kris turns the motor on, a deep, growling roar emitting from underneath us and we creep onto a public road, which we’ll stay on until we reach the turning for the test stage. At 20mph, the effect is similar to keeping control of a rabid pitbull with a tissue paper leash.

We’re soon at the turn and drive past a particularly officious member of the local plod, obviously annoyed that he’s having to sit here all day when he could be handing out parking tickets in Las Palmas.

The moment we’re on the closed-off road and on our way to the start line, Kris increases the speed and throws the car from one side of the road to the other, warming the tyres up so they’re firmly “planted” onto the tarmac. Round a few corners – the Void of Death an ever-present on my right side – and we’re at the start. A marshal signals at Kris to stop the car, listens into his radio and then, after a minute nods at us. It’s time to go.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” intones Kris. We’re off.

The speed is immediate, every gear change hitting me like a punch in the stomach, but there’s no time to be scared. Kris, now silent, takes us through the first corner like it’s not there, while I grab glances at the cliffs to my left, the sea in the distance and the hundreds of fans who, bare-chested, are waving their T-shirts at us. “¡Vamos!” they yell. “¡Vamos!

Before we set off, Kris had mentioned how the spectators can drive him to push his car ever faster. As I see them, I start waving back, shaking my fist, utterly alive with the sheer madness of it all. The screaming noise of the engine, the inches between spectator and speeding car, make this a sport that’s every bit as intense to watch as it is to take part in. As Kris had said before we got in the car, “For me, 50 per cent of the guy standing by the side’s experience watching is the sound.” And what a sound it is.

Every few seconds, the car snarls in anger and fear rises from my stomach, but I suppress it with both pure exhilaration and a concept that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever meditated – that of just living in the moment. Corners, which last night, had me thinking of a trip back to Britain in coffin class, are now effortlessly conquered. There’s nothing I can do but live this second, this turn, this straight. This now.

We scream through mountain passes tunnelled into the rock, sound bouncing off the cliffs and back into the car as Kris takes us way past 100mph. Before each corner, he reduces his speed, then accelerates out again as we power into the straights. The experience is halfway between rollercoaster and video game, but there’s always that punch in the stomach when the car accelerates again. Wommm!

Soon, all too soon, two laps are completed. It’s taken all of five minutes. Past the finish, we lose the speed and trundle back into the pits. I can’t see myself, but I know there’s a mile-wide grin splitting my face in two. As I get out, there’s handshakes, hugs, photos, “how-was-its?” and pats on back. Kris, meanwhile, is in discussion with the mechanics, already focused on the next outing.

I go up to him and shake his hand.

“I get it, now” I say, “I get what drives you.”
“To be honest,” he tells me, “I love the pure satisfaction that comes from making everything perfect and being quicker than anyone else. And when you do that you get a pure adrenaline buzz – and nothing, nothing, comes close.”

I know exactly what he means.

The Peugeot 207 Super 2000

The engine
The naturally aspirated 2.0 litre engine boasts an output of 280 brake horsepower at 8,500 rpm

The Super 20000 has a sequential six-speed gearbox, with the gearstick located by the steering wheel. The clutch is only used to get out of first gear

Steering wheel
Hydraulically assisted steering wheel, used in conjunction with the four-wheel drive

Roll cage
The roll bars not only provide protection against crashes, but also strengthen the car against the strain that rallying puts it under. The S2000 has 47m of tubing

The front and rear suspension consists of McPherson struts with coil springs controlled by adjustable Peugeot damper units

The car weighs 1200kg


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