British driver Kris Meeke’s future in the FIA World Rally Championship is in doubt after the official Citroën team dropped him from the remainder of the 2018 season, citing “an excessively high number of crashes”.
Team principal Pierre Budar said the stunning decision was a preventative measure for the safety of Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle, who were lucky to escape a violent crash on last weekend’s Rally Portugal.
The pair’s Citroën C3 went off the road and into trees at high speed on Saturday afternoon. He and Nagle weren’t injured, but the car was destroyed.
The most dramatic move in the WRC season so far means Meeke won’t contest Rally Italia Sardegna on 7-10 June, where Citroën will be represented by Craig Breen/Scott Martin and Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen.
The team said it would shortly announce its line-up for the remainder of the season, including Kennards Hire Rally Australia on 15-19 November. Nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb has one more appearance scheduled in his three-event comeback programme with Citroën, in Spain in October.
A team statement from its base near Paris on Thursday afternoon said: “Due to an excessively high number of crashes, some of which were particularly heavy and could have had serious consequences with regard to the crew’s safety, and given that the risks involved were unjustified by the sporting stakes at play, Citroën Racing WRT has decided to terminate the participation of Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the 2018 WRC.”
Pierre Budar added: “This wasn’t an easy decision to make because it effects (sic) a driver and a co-driver, but it is largely founded on safety issues which come under my preoccupations as Team Principal. We have consequently chosen to make this decision as a preventive measure.”
Citroën did not say if Meeke would be involved with the team after this year.
Mentored by the late world champion Colin McRae, the Ulsterman, now 38, got his chance with the WRC elite when he joined Citroën late in 2013, just in time for Rally Australia. Blazing speed netted victories in Argentina in 2015, Portugal and Finland in 2016 and Mexico and Spain in 2017; his Finnish win was the first by a British driver.
But his talent seemed too often compromised by crashes. Last year, although he won in Mexico, a disappointing mid-season run of results led to him being benched in Poland.
Meeke contested Rally Australia in 2013 (retired), 2014 (4th), 2015 (3rd) and last year (7th).
Kris Meeke ended a 13-week break from the FIA World Rally Championship with an emphatic win in Vodafone Rally de Portugal Sunday – but hopes for an Australian podium result were dashed just minutes from the end of the four-day event.
Meeke, who missed the previous two WRC rounds in Mexico and Argentina, led for all but the first of the 19 speed tests to win the championship’s fifth round in northern Portugal by 29.7sec in a Citroën DS 3. It was his second world success after triumphing in Argentina last year.
Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway outpaced teammate Sébastien Ogier on the final day to take second in a Volkswagen Polo R, relegating the French triple world champion to the last step of the podium by 4.8sec. Third place was looking certain in the WRC2 category for the Australian crew of Scott Pedder and co-driver Dale Moscatt until a spin on the final Power Stage cost almost 18 sec. and lost them the position by just 0.2 sec.
Fourth overall still equalled the 2014 Australian champions’ best result from their WRC2 debut last year, but after a stunning return to the 2016 series this weekend missing the podium so narrowly was a hard blow.
Pedder had recovered from a rollover in his Skoda Fabia R5 in the unofficial Shakedown session on Thursday morning and punctures on Friday and Saturday. He had fought back from a low position of 18th on Friday, achieved his maiden WRC stage win yesterday and held third spot by 17.6 sec. going into the final test on the spectacular Fafe stage.
With more than half a minute on Mikkelsen, Meeke, from Dungannon, Northern Ireland, had everything to lose and nothing to gain on the Power Stage and drove steadily to eighth spot.
The stage was a lock-out for Volkswagen, with Ogier taking the maximum three bonus championship points, Jari-Matti Latvala two points for second and Mikkelsen one point for third. Ogier, despite not winning the previous two rounds, continues to lead the championship comfortably, but Mikkelsen displaced Rally Argentina winner Hayden Paddon from second. The Kiwi suffered a catastrophic retirement on Saturday when his car caught fire and was completely destroyed after a relatively minor crash.
Meeke is now seventh in the championship, but not a serious contender as he conducts a part-time campaign while concentrating on the development of Citroen’s all-new 2017 World Rally Car.
“I have to say it was a really perfect weekend – textbook,” he said at the finish. "A huge thanks for my team and my engineer who did a lot of work for this rally. I couldn't have done any more really. For me as a driver it's another step. Next year we'll mount a real challenge."
The championship continues with Rally Sardegna Italia on 9-12 June. Pedder and Moscatt will skip the island classic and resume their WRC2 campaign at PZM Rally Poland on 10-3 July. They also plan to contest Neste Rally Finland, Rally China-Beijing and Kennards Hire Rally Australia later in the year.
- K. Meeke / P. Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC) 3:59.01.0
- A. Mikkelsen / A. Jaeger (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +29.7
- S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) diff to first +34.5
- D. Sordo / M. Marti (Hyundai New Generation i20 WRC) +1:37.1
- E. Camilli / B. Veillas (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +4:01.6
- J-M. Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +4:06.9
- M. Østberg / O. Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +6:53.6
- M. Prokop / J. Tomanek (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +10:24.1
- P. Tidemand / J. Andersson (Skoda WRC2) +11:45.2
- N. Fuchs / F. Mussano (Skoda WRC2) +13:14.0
- S. Pedder / D. Moscatt (Skoda WRC2) +15:05.1